Posted by: dougery | May 16, 2012

My Year of Westerns, Part Eight: Pale Rider (1985)

So we’re all agreed that Pale Rider is a ghost story, right? Perhaps a kind of mutant western, or one suffering from a Gothic virus? Well at the very least you’ll grant me that this film has a powerful spiritual inclination. All of this is right there in the title. Our hero, Clint Eastwood (Yeah! My first Clint Eastwood!) is both the ‘pale rider,’ an ‘out and out ghost,’ or if you’re into Revelations (and who isn’t?), Death himself. He is referred to in the movie as ‘The Preacher’ so while we’re at it, let’s just call him the holy ghost. Even the town ole Clint rides into is called LaHood, which calls to mind both monks as well as the Grim Reaper. Clint is mystically summoned into existence by 14 year-old Megan Wheeler (Sydney Penny) whose character is a fairly transparent avatar for a lot of things, among them innocence and love, you know, the usual suspects. When the poor girl’s dog is shot by greedy thugs eager to drive Megan’s pan-sifting family and neighbors off a potentially lucrative plot, she asks God for a miracle. Her miracle wears a long coat the color of dried blood.

So right, there’s gold in them thar hills and if I know my westerns (and I’m starting to by this point), that means there’s death and violence in them thar hills as well. Gold almost always symbolizes death, and here we harken back even farther into the past and round up Pluto, the Greek God of wealth and the underworld. What I’m saying here is that the connection isn’t exactly new. Whats interesting is that in Pale Rider the argument is made that one can make a living off the land, but you have to do it the right way. The LaHood gang uses powerful jets of water to strip the earth down, then gobbles up the run-off and (presumably) moves on when the land is exhausted and ruined. The prospectors like Megan’s mother and Hull (our everyman hero, an everyman that is so boring and passive that his love interest is severely tempted to marry a phantom than settle down with him) do things ‘the right way’ and by that I mean largely subsist on nothing at all, rack up huge debts, get brutalized by wealthy outsiders, and might surely perish if not for divine intervention.

Despite the fact that there are copious shots of gorgeous mountains (filmed from all over the far American west) the movie feels small. But small in a good way. Small, quiet and cold, this is one of those westerns with snow in it, as if you needed yet another reminder of the purity of the land and of Megan. There is a famous scene where Megan all but throws herself at the Preacher, and the final action of the film, after our title character’s job is through and he’s ridden off, feature Megan crying thank you and professing a love which is never consummated. It appears God has taken care to protect everything, and there will be no wraiths bedding lusty 14 year-old young women here. Then again maybe this isn’t just teen hormones. Maybe she just really really likes God.

Speaking of wraiths, I couldn’t help but think of Tolkien’s Ringwraiths when Stockburn showed up with his seven deputies or whatever they were called, with their long washed out coats, and their indie-rock beards. Even Stockburn takes care to mention that ‘The Preacher’ can’t possibly be real as the man he knew that looked like this is dead. Usually when the vengeful dead start showing up I’d take care to turn and ride away, but Stockburn and his deputies get God’s justiced down to Hades. Aside from the dog, its the only real killing involved. There’s a fair amount of violence in Pale Rider, but death is pretty important, and doled out judiciously.

Grade: Jack high flush (spades, of course)

Next up: Duck, You Sucker! (1971)



  1. I like this movie. Mainly because John Wayne is not in it. That is all.

    • there are a great many reasons to like this movie, Esquire. Also, did you see the Tribe rally twice today? down 3 into the 8th and then down 1 in the 11th…

  2. You saw this before Fistful of Dollars? For shame Dougery, for shame.

    • I guess I lied. I have seen Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo. *whistles theme*

      • couldn’t just say the Good, the Bad and the Ugly could you? Had to be all Bourgeoisie.

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