Monday, January 30, 2012

Pale Rider (1985)

An Ignored Classic From Clint Eastwood

- Iconic names like John Ford, John Wayne and Sergio Leone are all synonymous with the western genre but no name is more synonymous with the genre from my perspective than Clint Eastwood. In 1985, Eastwood delivered his fifth directed western: Pale Rider. Although it was a financial success, was allowed to compete for the "Palme d'Or" at Cannes Film Festival and sees frequent play time on American television to this day, many critics and film buffs consider Pale Rider a step down the western ladder for Clint Eastwood.

I contend that Pale Rider is, in this regard, an ignored classic. While not completely written off as a bad movie, Pale Rider does seem often affectionately brushed aside as being a worthwhile western but nothing that is particularly special. Few genre films have had their positives ignored and have been more heavily disregarded for encapsulating all that we love about the genre than Pale Rider! Yes, Pale Rider is more fun and straight-forward than other Eastwood westerns, not quite matching intellectual or emotional strides with the likes of Unforgiven (1992) or The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), and borrows certain elements from Shane (1953) and Eastwood's own High Plains Drifter (1973) but that does not diminish its own excellence.

A small California mining community in the 1880s is praying for a miracle and it has come in the form of a mysterious, gun-toting "Preacher" (Clint Eastwood). Mining mogul Coy Lahood (Richard Dysart) has exhausted his lands and now looks to that which is lawfully owned by Hull Barrett (Michael Moriarty) and a small group of mining families to expand his business. Since no one is giving up their claim, Lahood and his gang have resorted to violence and intimidation in an attempt to drive the families out. The young Megan Wheeler (Sydney Penny) prays to God for help and He seems to have heard her cry: a mysterious man, apparently a preacher, rides in on a white horse to help this mining community. But where this rider helps the community by banding them together and fending off thugs he also brings danger as the Lahood gang strikes back and hires out some help of their own.

A lush, passionate film about heroism and love, Pale Rider is Eastwood's 1980s highpoint that is often overlooked as one of the best westerns ever despite its wonderful look, great characters and unforgettable moments (including one of the western genre's best final shootouts).  While Pale Rider is arguably not as interesting as other Eastwood westerns (again, invoking the legacies of Unforgiven and The Outlaw Josey Wales), it is easily the most laid-back enjoyable of Eastwood's directed westerns. A sizeable amount of violence creeps into the film that keeps the story action-packed yet grounded in the serious but Eastwood also does a great job balancing in humor and thoughtful themes regarding courage and love. Overall, Pale Rider is a highly enjoyable and uniquely exciting film thanks to Eastwood's incredible storytelling talent.

Pale Rider also is the film that marks a parting of ways between Eastwood and longtime cinematographer-collaborator Bruce Surtees (from Play Misty For Me (1971) to this film). This collaboration would end with a bang as Pale Rider looks fantastic, containing some of the finest shots in Eastwood's filmography. The colors are deep and the shadowing is very striking, while the majesty of the Sawtooth and Boulder Mountain ranges (doubling for the Sierra Nevada) is captured to amazing effect. One of the main things I particularly enjoy about western films and Clint Eastwood's films in general is the way they look - and Pale Rider certainly does not disappoint.

But in spite of these high-quality elements, Pale Rider has accumulated its share of critics. One critic in particular turned his nose up at Pale Rider, claiming that it "does nothing to disprove the wisdom that this genre is best left to the revival houses. A double feature of Shane and Eastwood's High Plains Drifter will do just fine, thanks." Pale Rider does indeed reuse some key elements from Shane and High Plains Drifter but don't worry, it is all for good. Pale Rider takes the same elements from both Shane and High Plains Drifter, improving upon what I disliked the most about both films it riffs: the characters.

One of the shared aspects of High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider is Eastwood's nameless, violent stranger who rides into town. A highly praised aspect of High Plains Drifter is the supposed ambiguity of Eastwood's lead character. I never bought into that because I thought High Plains Drifter made it quite obvious who Eastwood's "Stranger" character was. Pale Rider on the other hand paints a truly ambiguous backstory for Eastwood's character. Rather than give the audience direct insights into who the stranger character specifically is (as High Plains Drifter does with various flashback sequences), Eastwood makes several subtle inferences with spiritual and worldly overtones in regards to the true identity of the character. Unlike High Plains Drifter, which gives away the identity of the lead character in certain scenes, the identity of Eastwood's stranger in Pale Rider can only be deciphered in the minds of each individual viewer.

Shane shares a similar aspect with Pale Rider as well, specifically the central structure of the story that sees an unannounced arrival of a helpful stranger to a community in need of defense and guidance against a corrupt gang that wants their land. Some criticize the supporting cast in Pale Rider as giving bad to mediocre performances; certainly worse than that cast of Shane. I disagree. Although the cast of Pale Rider (save Eastwood) do not have the same kind of name recognition as the players in Shane (such classic talents as Van Heflin, Jean Arthur, Elisha Cook Jr. and Jack Palance), I do find them to be quite impressive: Michael Moriarty gives a great, quiet performance as Hull; John Russell is a memorable antagonist; and Sydney Penny performs her youthful role far better than her the irritating Shane counterpart Brandon De Wilde. But beyond the individual performances, I found the characters they perform to be far more interesting and multi-faceted. The supporting characters in Pale Rider seem to struggle with much more than the characters of Shane were and are much more complex.

An even more recognizable difference in the two casts is Clint Eastwood's performance as the Preacher in Pale Rider, which far surpasses that of Alan Ladd's title role performance in Shane. Despite enjoying Shane as an overall film, I found Ladd's performance incredibly dull. Ladd's Shane never made much of an impression on me as a character; he did not feel genuine or compelling. Eastwood on the other hand greatly improves upon the similar character in Pale Rider with an intense and natural presence that, in conjunction with who he is and does, makes the character likable and intriguing.

Although largely a critical and financial success upon its release, I do not feel that Pale Rider currently enjoys the reputation that it is due. Instead of being held up as a western standard, Pale Rider has seemed to settle for a "good but not great" status that I do not think is deserving at all. Few westerns emerged out of Hollywood in the 1980s and none of those that did even came close to matching the atmosphere, character and excitement of this film. Eastwood delivered a classic 1980s western for the ages in Pale Rider and I hope more film fans, critics and buffs will soon acknowledge this.

CBC Rating: 9/10

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