pale rider featured

Death Rode a Pale Horse: Pale Rider — A Western Retrospective  

pale rider poster

Ghosting through the desolate valleys of the late 20th century western

It’s fair to say that the Western genre, by the mid 1980s, was on the ropes. Hollywood was no longer churning out cowboy-related movies at the rate it had during ‘The Golden Age’. Spaghetti Westerns, which emerged in the mid to late sixties, and the revisionist anti-westerns of the sixties and seventies, spearheaded by the likes of Sam Peckinpah, George Roy Hill and Arthur Penn, had also run out of steam. Thrillers and cop movies were the order of the day. Westerns were out of favour. Nobody was making them anymore. 

This was partly down to the terrible reception of Michael Cimino’s legendarily expensive and wildly overblown studio killer, Heaven’s Gate, which cost a fortune and tanked at the box office in 1980, thanks to an inflated budget, a protracted and problematic production, poor press and the director’s own obsessive and difficult personality. The film is often credited with bookending the decade of auteur-led productions during the New Hollywood era, that arguably commenced with Arthur Penn’s Bonnie And Clyde in 1967, and again, arguably, was snuffed out by Heaven’s Gate upon its 1980 release.

What is irrefutable is that the aftershocks felt in the wake of Heaven’s Gate’s capitulation were seismic. Cimino never made a successful film again. United Artists would collapse in the wake of what was considered at the time an unprecedented critical and commercial disaster. The brief flourishing of director led productions which had grown up in the wake of the studio system collapse at the fag end of the ’60s, and had birthed amongst others the film careers of Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Francis Ford Coppola, sputtered out. Investors were reluctant to back individual visionaries for fear of another Heaven’s Gate. The studios, after a decade spent floundering and playing catch up, got their act together. Normal service was resumed and revisionist westerns during the 80s fell out of favour along with the genre in general.

Heaven's Gate Pale Rider

Ronald Reagan’s term in office ought to have signalled a new dawn for the traditional western, and traditional western tropes in American cinema. Reagan cut his teeth as a contract player for Warner Bros during Hollywood’s Golden Age in the run up to the second world war when historically inaccurate, upstanding westerns, fronted by the likes of John Wayne, dominated the box office. His inauguration triggered a period of conservatism in America that should have provided the perfect climate for conventionalism in the Western to take root again.

There’s plain few problems can’t be solved with a little sweat and hard work.

The Preacher

However, for whatever reason this didn’t happen. Westerns released between 1980 and 1985 were thin on the ground. They were also variable in quality, ranging from the last gasp ultra-violent revisionism of Walter Hill’s The Long Riders to made-for-TV fare such as High Noon 2 and The Return of Will Kane, a vapid imitation of the Gary Cooper classic that was symptomatic of the period. By the time Pale Rider was released, Eastwood had not made an out and out western since his own spin on the anti-western The Outlaw Josie Wales, a more celebrated directorial effort, which was released in 1976 to generally loud applause. Bronco Billy, a more personal outing, released in the same year that Heaven’s Gate mortally wounded the genre, juxtaposed old and new western themes in a comedic and knowing narrative that met with generally positive reviews but fostered a modest return at the box office. 

Clint consoled himself in the run up to Pale Rider by sticking to the thriller genre. Churning out movies the Reagan era could get on board with, Eastwood would direct Firefox (1982), a more personal, musical themed effort, Honkytonk Man (1982), Sudden Impact (1983) and Tightrope (1984). The release of Pale Rider was therefore was all the more surprising, since the production of a reasonably budgeted Western in the toxic climate fostered by the failure of Heaven’s Gate must have seemed like folly to all but the director.

Pale Rider Clint

Thankfully, Pale Rider was not a folly, but it wasn’t a total success either. It may have fared well at the box office but critical consensus was split. Longtime Eastwood nemesis Pauline Kael declared “There isn’t a gleam of good sense anywhere in this picture”, whilst Roger Ebert insisted “the movie has a resonance that probably was not even there in the screenplay.” From the very outset it is clear that the film runs along traditional lines, being the tale of a ‘hero’ who rides into an oppressed town in its hour of need to solve a problem and deal with elements of villainy. Dennis Shryack and Michael Butler delivered a thinly veiled Shane retread at Eastwood’s behest that closely paralleled the 1953 movie, though with sharper edges and a moodier tone.

Where the movie differs and where Eastwood deliberately subverts the principles embodied by Shane is its depiction of the grizzled and rough-hewn protagonist more in keeping with the anti-western heroes of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah than anyone from the Golden Age of classically structured American westerns. Eastwood’s film also deviated metaphysically from George Steven’s movie. Was Preacher an avenging angel who had returned from the grave to seek retribution, or were viewers simply noting in the film a level of meaning that wasn’t actually present?

The film’s title openly refers to the Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse, which is pretty telling. Characters in the film quote scripture that hints at Preacher’s supernatural origins. Some of the film’s character’s recognise Preacher, though are unsure of the circumstances under which they made contact. Preacher’s eyes have a disturbing effect on people when he stares at them. He has an innate ability to disappear and reappear at will. Also, in the film’s climactic shootout, Preacher’s final victim, Stockburn, played by John Russell, receives bullet wounds that match the scars seen in an earlier scene on Preacher’s back.  

Pale Rider Chris Penn

Unlike Clint’s other supernatural western, High Plains Drifter, released in 1973, in which horror and ghost story elements fuse with the Western in a less subtle, more apparent manner, Pale Rider assumes a more ambiguous stance. Preacher’s motives and history are uncertain, allowing for responsibility for interpretation to be placed squarely on the viewer’s shoulders. The audience are left to make up their own minds about Preacher’s nature, though there is plenty of evidence to suggest he was a restless spirit and not of this realm.

Clint’s performance in the movie was perfectly pitched. A dab hand at playing men of violence who summarily dole out justice to criminals and sinners alike, the role of Preacher was moulded to his personality. A man of few words whose facial expressions are limited, he doesn’t say much during the movie, but then he never really needs to. Eastwood always knew how to direct himself onscreen. In Pale Rider, more than any of his other movies, this self awareness, the use of silence and stillness to convey mood and ambiguity, is as impactful and memorable as anything that preceded it.

Who are you? Who are you… really?

Sarah Wheeler

Despite being a solid western founded on formulaic principles laid down over the best part of a century, Pale Rider is not without its flaws. Though Eastwood is well assisted by the support cast, specifically Michael Moriarty as emasculated tin pan Hull Barrett, the rest of the cast are thinly drawn archetypes. Sydney Penny as adolescent daughter Megan Wheeler, the girl responsible for summoning the Pale Rider at the film’s commencement, suffers most. Clumsily handled, incongruous scenes in which she asks Preacher to teach her how to make love and a subsequent scene in which she actively places herself at the mercy of a would-be rapist in the shape of cardboard villain Josh LaHood (Chris Penn), before Preacher’s timely intervention, are jarring. A more mature handling of these scenes and respect for the issues raised would have added to the film’s resonance. As it stands, they feel unnecessary and could easily have been omitted from the final edit.

Pale Rider Eastwood

Cinematographer Bruce Surtees makes good use of location, favouring a no nonsense approach to emphasise the harsh autumnal landscape and minimalist, isolated conditions of the tin pan’s existence. Some of the interior and night time shots come off a bit dim, but generally the low light and leathery qualities of the film work well, providing texture and shadow and a sense of the period.  

Despite divisive reviews Pale Rider would go on to become the highest grossing western of the eighties, which is unsurprising given its evangelical undertones, interpretation of masculinity and the dearth of quality westerns for the remainder of the decade. Eastwood would return to the genre a final time for the best film of his career in Unforgiven in 1992, a movie in the tradition of the revisionist westerns of the seventies. However, as with Pale Rider, Unforgiven would not revive the Western’s fortunes in Hollywood, and despite a number of quality releases since, the genre has remained relatively niche for filmmakers, with its celluloid glory days fixed firmly in the past.

Pale Rider logo

Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: Michael Butler
Music: Lennie Niehaus
Cinematography: Bruce Surtees
Editing: Joel Cox

1 comment

  1. Although I enjoyed 1980’s Westerns such as this film and “Silverado”, I’m not a huge fan of the genre overall. Maybe it was the year (1977) and era I grew up in, or the conservative tone & storytelling style of Westerns past which is mentioned in this essay, but the genre doesn’t really grab me. Funny, I love John Carpenter’s oeuvre up until the 1990’s, and he’s said that initially he wanted to make Westerns ( well, I feel his original “Assault on Precinct 13” was an urban western).


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