The following review is going to rely very heavily on spoiler material, as it is impossible to say what I wish to say about Pale Rider without it.
I don't think that Clint Eastwood is trying to fool anyone. Pale Rider almost screams Shane!, and it would be unrealistic to expect that people wouldn't notice the similarities. Moreover, the basic source of those similarities is the script, so Eastwood must have known from the beginning what he was doing. Therefore, the central question about Pale Rider is why, for his first Western in a decade, in a time when Westerns just aren't made any more, did Clint Eastwood choose to remake Shane?
As far as the script is concerned, the similarities are substantial enough that a lawsuit might be in order. A stranger rides into a situation where a group of hardworking, peaceful folks are being menaced by a greedy man and his bloodthirsty minions. In the course of setting things straight, the stranger comes between the leader of the peaceful folks and the woman he loves. He also receives hero-worshipping attentions from a child. The final violence is precipitated when a pitiful little man is shot down by the villains. The stranger cleans up the villains, leaves the woman to the decent leader, and rides out of town, with the hero worshipping child shouting after him to come back. This sequence happens in both films, and it is no coincidence.
The style of the two films is very different. Shane worked from the archetypal traditions of three decades of movie Westerns. The West of Shane was the same West that William S. Hart rode through in the 1920s, just in color. Pale Rider, on the other hand, uses the West developed by Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, a squalid, violent place alternately gloomy and glaringly white with the blaze of a sterile desert. Hart or Alan Ladd would be distinctly out of place in this West. Eastwood is no more deceptive about his stylistic influences than the plot ones. When the villains show up wearing long dusters, we all remember Once Upon a Time in the West, and cannot be expected to overlook that memory. A hero who bushwacks his opponents and shoots them in the back is also a Leone tradition, as are several other elements in Pale Rider, such as the contrast between brightly lit exteriors and almost excessively dim interiors. Eastwood borrows from himself, as well, with several traces of High Plains Drifter showing up here and there. (Most bizarre of all, Eastwood cribs a bit from Moonraker, when Richard Kiel, for no apparent reason and against all expectations of his character, prevents Christopher Penn from shooting Eastwood in the back, just as Kiel saved James Bond in Moonraker.)
So, just what is Eastwood up to? My guess is that he is exploring a way to make the Western work in the 80s. The old fashioned style of Western doesn't play any more. We know nowadays that the Indians were more sinned against than sinning, that cowboys were, by and large, ignorant lowlifes, that the famous marshals frequently wound up on the wrong side of the law, and that the infamous gunfighters didn't have a noble bone in their body. Peckinpah exploded those myths forever, and the only way they can play today is as parody or nostalgia. On the other hand, the cynicism of the sixties Westerns is also out of step with today. People want real heros nowadays, like Rocky, Rambo, and Indiana Jones. At worst, they'll take heros who are more interested in results than methods, like Dirty Harry. Today's audiences don't want amoral gunfighters slaughtering each other over caches of gold, they want heros who ride to the rescue, if not of America then at least of a microcosm of it. Pale Rider seems to me to be an experiment in which Clint Eastwood takes an old fashioned story and tells it with newer conventions. Unfortunately, the experiment is unsuccessful.
Pale Rider doesn't have the spark necessary to make for a classic, and it has too much ambition to settle for anything less. The story never flies, never captures us. The action sequences don't thrill. We don't get the sense of justice served when Eastwood finally mows down the corrupt marshal and his deputies. The finale shows some particularly poor choices, with Eastwood playing hide and seek with the badmen, killing them one at a time. I had been waiting in some anticipation to see how the Preacher, Eastwood's character, would handle seven men with one sixshooter. Instead of offering us a big rousing shootout, Eastwood has the villains go through that time honored but so cliched "let's be real dumb: split up and look for him" bit. Even the individual fates of the bad guys are hackneyed. Everyone in the audience knows that Eastwood is hiding in the water trough, not the outhouse, but the villain doesn't even check it, and, predictably, a gun appears out of the water and shoots him down. Another deputy gets dragged off by a horse, apparently because there had only been one horse drag in the film so far.
Pale Rider is not a total failure, merely unsatisfying. Eastwood is good in the lead role, and Michael Moriarty makes the most of his part as the morally strong but physically weak leader of the little people, here a group of independent miners up against Richard Dysart's big hydraulic mining company. The women of the film are not as good. Carrie Snodgress, usually a very capable actress, is almost laughably obvious as Moriarty's fiancee, a widow who falls for Eastwood. Sydney Penny is also snicker-provoking as Snodgress' adolescent daughter, filling in for Brandon de Wilde, who develops a crush on the Preacher. Penny is saddled with terrible lines like, "They killed my dog and my grandfather, too." She lacks the experience to overcome this kind of obstacle. Richard Kiel has a brief, and as mentioned, implausible part, and Christopher Penn plays the obligatory rapist, without distinction. Dysart has the same part he's had many times before, a corrupt capitalist, and gives the kind of performance one expects from a talented character actor uninspired by his role. One of Eastwood's strengths as a director is his use of bit players, a legacy from Sergio Leone. There are lots of interesting faces and voices filling in the margins of Pale Rider.
While Eastwood, in his role as director, fails to make Pale Rider succeed in the important ways, he does have some minor successes. There are several fine scenes in Pale Rider. Unfortunately, they tend to be the scenes which are secondary to the thrust of the film, rather than the vital ones. His visual choices are sometimes interesting, but puzzling at other times. Until the end of the film, he makes scant use of the natural beauty of the Northern California setting. During the film's climax, we finally see that the tiny town is set on a hill, seemingly surrounded on all sides by incredible mountain vistas. Eastwood could have easily worked the countryside into the film more effectively. Bruce Surtees, his cinematographer, seems intent on imitating Rembrandt in certain scenes. Pretensions aside, his photography is good, but not outstanding.
Michael Butler and Dennis Shryack's script is the main problem. It offers Eastwood one good line, early on, and the rest of the dialog is either bad or just acceptable. The plot is copied from Shane without any important additions or variations. The mystery behind the Preacher falls between the two possibilities. The classic mysterious stranger of Western myth can either be a total mystery, or his mystery can be revealed. (The former variant was one of Leone's discoveries. In three films, all we learn of the past of the Man With No Name is that he was born in Ohio.) Butler and Shryack tell us too much or too little. A word about why Eastwood chose to become a preacher (if he really is one, as the film implies), how he happened to survive six bullet wounds in the chest, an indication as to what caused his encounter with the marshal are all needed. Full explanation isn't required, as Eastwood demonstrated in High Plains Drifter, but the film must offer up at least some hint of his past if it wishes to address the question at all. A slight attempt at tying in ecologic themes was foolhardy, and is carried out without conviction. Trying to replace old myths with the new myth that Western miners were early ecologists is ludicrous.
My own feeling is that the Western, as a genre, will not become strong again unless there are two big Western hits within a year or so. I had hoped that Pale Rider and Silverado might do the trick, since I've always liked Westerns. Pale Rider won't be a big hit. It will do fair business, but industry watchers will correctly attribute it to Clint Eastwood's popularity. Even if Silverado succeeds, it will be viewed as something of a freak. Since only those with great industry clout can make any Western at all, I don't expect to see any more of them for a year or two, so cancel the projected Great Western Revival.
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