Pale Rider Reviews
This was, I think, Eastwood's last foray into the realms of western badassery as a no name loner dealing lots of badass justice. He was already slowly moving into a more varied selection of film roles and this seemed to be his final goodbye to this particular genre. And with that we get a very typical Clint Eastwood cowboy flick; all the tropes and cliches you've come to expect which is both good and bad truth be told.
The plot: A small bunch of prospectors in California are trying their luck at panning for gold. Thing is they are doing so on land that a greedy big-time miner wants so he can mine it up. Naturally the big-time miner known as Lahood (Richard Dysart) and his cronies are all baddies so they try to run the prospectors off the land with violence. But low and behold, who should come trotting into the picture to save the day? Yep you've guessed it, its Clint as yet another no name hero (actually this character is a clerical man but he's simply referred to as the Preacher).
OK so firstly I have to mention the scenery in this movie, it is stunning. Filmed within the Boulder mountains and Sawtooth national park of Idaho, along with Tuolumne County in California, its all breathtaking. I saw this movie on bluray which made this countryside look even more impressive. The clear blue skies, open grassy ranges, jagged mountains capped with snow, dense forests, and the highly authentic looking small town of Lahood. It all looked terrific and really popped on the screen.
I guess the problems start with the baddies, those dastardly miners. Basically they weren't a very intimidating bunch truth be told, hardly had me on the edge of my seat. Then you had their leader, a very young Chris Penn. Penn's character was the son of Lahood, basically he's the spoilt kid who's in a position of power but really shouldn't be. Its a good idea but nothing is really done with it. You kinda expect more of a loose cannon, an annoying hotheaded youth shooting his mouth and guns off, but no. The only real evil he gets up to is attempted rape. K that's admittedly pretty bad but he does nothing much else. Lahood himself is your stereotypical aged, short, tubby, balding man in a suit with a fat tash.
The elite team of deputies led by Marshal Stockburn (John Russell) who are hired by Lahood to kill the Preacher, are again an element in the film that weren't used to their full capacity in my opinion. For starters Russell was clearly too old for the role as he doesn't move much. Whilst I like the fact that there's an air of mystery surrounding these men and the history between Stockburn and the Preacher, maybe just a hint of backstory wouldn't have gone a miss. But bottom line these guys just weren't utilised enough which was a shame because they were cool. In the end they all get killed off pretty easily one by one by the Preacher in a sequence that we've seen repeated so many times. Shout out to early Billy Drago role here.
Speaking of backstory, I guess I should point out that Eastwood deliberately made the Preacher like a ghost. He rides in outta nowhere, as though he was summoned by a greater force to protect the innocent prospectors (a prospectors daughter prays for help as he rides in). At the end he also rides off again to an unknown destination, maybe to save more innocent people? The character obviously does this type of thing often because we see his past gunshot injuries and we see that he keeps his gun and holster locked up in a bank, obviously for these situations. So its totally open-ended which is fine, I guess.
Anyway things get a little bit too silly in places, take über baddie 'Club' (Richard Kiel). He is comically taken down by the Preacher early on and later the character actually does the same U-turn as Kiel's other famous character 'Jaws' (he turns into a goodie and helps the Preacher). Then there is also the initial fight between the Preacher and Lahood's men which involves hickory axe staves. Oh and there's that whole underage sex angle with the 14 year old girl protagonist. One of the prospectors daughters falls in love with the Preacher (obviously a silly teen crush) and isn't shy about saying so. Of course the Preacher turns her advances down but holy moly that whole subplot was awkward (and it carries through to the end!).
This is a mixed bag for an Eastwood western it really is. On the one hand the movie is serious about its story, this isn't a film for kids or anything. There are some very violent moments in the movie with people getting shot multiple times and shot in the forehead (no cuts). There are beatings, the attempted rape, pillage, and a calf and dog get shot dead (all with blood). Not forgetting the underage girl trying to get into bed with the Preacher.
Then on the other hand there are the typical little moments of dark humour you'd expect from Clint, moments of goofiness. As mentioned Richard Kiel's rather stupid and pointless character. And then really really stupid western cliches such as the baddie gang of miners bursting into a store to gun the Preacher down (where he was sitting moments before). Only for the room to be (clearly) empty when they burst in, yet they carry on shooting, shooting at nothing. Then of course the Preacher casually appears and guns them all down. The ending has a heavy dose of deus ex machina about it too. The Preacher has killed all the bad guys except Lahood who is sneaking up right behind him. But then out of the blue one of the prospectors appears and shoots Lahood. But I guess it showed that the Preacher wasn't that invincible, he could have died there.
I like that Clint is an aged grizzled gunfighter in this movie, I liked his look and the fact he was a preacher. Yet even though this movie does deliver everything you would want and expect from a Clint Eastwood cowboy flick, you can't escape the feeling that you've seen it all before (which you have). Apart from the odd plot tweak its essentially no different from many of his other western movies. That's not a completely negative thing as Eastwood is/was a master of the western genre, but bare it in mind.
The film follows a familiar pattern of Eastwood Westerns in that he plays a man with no name sort of character. A gunfighter sho mysteriously rides into town and saves the good decent folk and kills the nasty guys!
Perhaps that is an exaggeration he is called 'Preacher's because in an interesting twist he has a man of the cloth collar as well as been his usual hard as nails, sarcastic stranger.
I allude to the Spaghetti Western trilogy he starred in the 1960s and High Plains Drifter from the 1970s.
Pale Rider perhaps has religios symbolism. As well as being a preacher he appears to answer the prayers of a young lady in appearing to help a group of local gold diggers who search the streams for the gold that might make them a fortune.
In another scene the Preacher's wounds are shown
The bad guys are the mining company that want to grab the locals land using quite violent means to do so.
The casting is excellent from the bad guys to the locals.
The Preacher gently let's down the fourteen year old girl that has a romantic crush on him!
The direction by Eastwood himself includes some great scenery meant to be North California/Idaho.
I don't rate Pale Rider as Eastwood's best Western (I prefer Unforgiven or The Outlaw Josey Wales and even the 18 rated in the UK, High Plains Drifter). However it is certainly a good watch and an excellent 1980s Western.
Of the many interesting things about a lot of Eastwood's westerns is that he often plays a wandering mysterious figure who happens to come upon conflict. Pale Rider is no different. This time, Eastwood is known as 'The Stranger' and 'The Preacher' who decides to help a small village of people from miners who intend to take over their land. For all intents and purposes, this feels a whole lot like a fresh take on the Seven Samurai structured story, but with only one bada** man.
If it wasn't obvious already, I'm very high on Eastwood's performance here. He seems like a humble and honest man in his mannerisms but when push comes to shove, no one can take him in a gun battle. The supporting cast is formidable for the story they're telling. But besides some fun Richard Kiel moments, and an interesting 3rd act arrival from John Russell, the cast is really nothing to ride home about.
Touting the lone two female characters are Carrie Snodgress and Sydney Penny as a mother and daughter from the village the Preacher is trying to protect. Although I think their performances are solid, some of the character decisions made them feel much more hollow and more down the line of clichéd females in film, sadly. Not to mention the unnecessary romantic angles Eastwood took with his direction of them.
In terms of a western, Pale Rider hits all the beats you want. It has a compelling lead, high stakes, and one amazing gun-blazing final scene. If you're looking for another well-strung western from Eastwood, this is the film for you, even if some of the supporting characters and shoe-stringed romance misses the mark completely.
+Eastwood as the Preacher is gold
+Fun appearances from Richard Kiel and John Russell
-Romance angle is botched
Being the first major Hollywood-produced western after the failure of the industry-changing Heaven's Gate (1980), Pale Rider sends the genre soaring once again. Prior to the genre churning out Best Picture Oscar-winning triumphs Dances with Wolves (1990) and Unforgiven (1992), Pale Rider was one of the first sparks to revive the genre, and it does so brilliantly. Being Clint Eastwood's big return to the western genre after nine years, the man has gotten older and so he plays a character appropriate to this theme in the film. If you can trust anyone to create a western which will have commercial appeal yet not falter in appealing to genre aficionados, then Clint Eastwood is easily the way to go.
Pale Rider has a premise which serves as an affectionate throwback to the glory days of Clint Eastwood's career in western films with a story that has elements of A Fistful of Dollars (1964), yet it goes much further. The structure of the narrative is very much in the style of High Noon (1952) in the sense that it saves the action for the climax and builds slow and effective drama up until then. There are also plot points borrowed from Shane (1953) and True Grit (1969), so there is a wide legacy of great western films that Pale Rider reaches out to. The result makes the film a nostalgia-fuelled experience, yet it is not so reliant on these pre-established films that it cannot stand on its own two feet. In short, while Pale Rider works to bring back the magnificence of the Western genre with modern technology behind the camera, it cleverly plays into the story a sense that it is indebted to many classics of the genre and becomes an entertaining nostalgia trip and step forward at the same time. Admittedly it does succumb to some of the predetermined generic flaws of many western films such as a long running time and slow pace which may bother some viewers slightly more in this film due to the way the action is spread out, but those who can appreciate the heart and subtext of Pale Rider will certainly find approval in the vision of Michael Butler and Dennis Shryack's script.
With the best intentions at heart, Pale Rider has a very touching story. Rather than succumbing to the more violent tendencies of earlier Clint Eastwood films, Pale Rider is able to bring back the man's keen eye for strong action without being shallow about it. This time, the film actually has commentary to make on violence. With the lead character being a man who simply goes by the title of "Preacher" and doesn't shoot first, Pale Rider is a film preaching a message of peace. Since there is religious allegories to the protagonist yet nothing rendering the film a straight-up religious piece, Pale Rider is simply a film which knows how to appeal to a wide crowd with a message of community and standing up for what is right. Its themes are very much traditional of the Western genre yet they are explored in a revisionist fashion, giving the film enough insight for the production to find value beyond is mere stylish appeal.
The visual style of Pale Rider is remarkable. Western films are known for having a dry, rough colour palette to capture the dreary grit of the old west. Yet set in the snow rather than the dirt, Pale Rider captures a different setting of harsh wilderness. The change of setting ends up using far more tints of white as a result, and though there is enough shade to reflect the gritty setting of the film, there is a feeling of angelic light in the film which illuminates the screen. Clint Eastwood's passion for the genre has not lost its sense of style because he takes a new path in this film, though he also relies on techniques he has established a greatness for and uses them well. The cinematography is a key example of this because Pale Rider uses strong widescreen cinematography with plenty of angles that grasp the scale of the story and the state of mind the characters are in. The editing is also executed with expertise, as are the sound effects and composition of the musical score which is laid into the film gently enough to moderate the bleak silence of the setting with a restrained score. The action scenes are also impressive as this is where the cinematography requires and gets the most precision while the editing is sped up to intensify things without going too fast.
And refusing to succumb to any shortcomings, Pale Rider benefits from a skilful cast.
Clint Eastwood directs himself through another strong performance. Though he has portrayed nameless heroes before, Pale Rider presents him in an aged state where he pursues a more peaceful route of resolution. He seems slower and wiser, yet not weaker in the slightest because he still has the same intense nature about him and a strong ability to battle his way through the action. What's most remarkable is a sense of humility in him. He is a gentle soul who can tear through the enemies without ever detracting from a the gentle spirit of his character, meaning he is a badass but a genuinely more likable character. Clint Eastwood's natural charms are as active as ever while his grit is a little more restrained, and the result is a beautiful leading performance.
Sydney Penny is the other standout of Pale Rider. Leading the main subplot of the story, Sydney Penny makes Pale Rider more touching and insightful by being the predominant source of the coming-of-age themes in the film. Echoing memories to Mattie Ross from True Grit, Sydney Penny shares a beautiful chemistry with Clint Eastwood which assists her in letting the character grow over the course of the narrative. Her vulnerability is a juvenile element yet her desire to face the world is very adult which means she captures the perfect bridge between periods of age in her character and does it with both grace and tension. Sydney Penny is a wonderful young actress in Pale Rider.
Chris Penn and Michael Moriaty also deliver solid performances.
So though it is as slow and long as one would expect, Pale Rider is a brilliant throwback to the glory days of the Western genre and a step into contemporary revisionist material benefiting from Clint Eastwood's undying charisma as an actor and visionary passion as a director.