Pale Rider

June 26, 1985

PALE RIDER is a solid, well made, mostly traditional western starring, produced and directed by Clint Eastwood, from a script by Michael Butler & Dennis Shryack (THE GAUNTLET, TURNER & HOOCH). Clint stars as a mysterious drifter only referred to as “Preacher,” because when he takes off his stylish trenchcoat he reveals a priestly collar. But this is only after we’ve seen him stick fight a gang of bullies to unconsciousness and comment, “There’s nothin like a nice piece of hickory.” So there are reasons to question whether that’s his true occupation.

The Preacher wanders into a small California mountain town called LaHood, destination unknown. When asked if he’s just passing through he says he hadn’t really thought about it. The man he saved from a beatdown, Hull Barret (Michael Moriarty, Q), invites him to stay for a while.

Hull lives in a camp of gold prospectors with his sort-of-fiance Sarah Wheeler (Carrie Snodgress, TRICK OR TREATS, later WILD THINGS and ED GEIN) and her 14-year-old daughter Megan Wheeler (Sydney Penny, GETTING PHYSICAL). Many of their neighbors have given up and left after repeated, deadly raids by thugs working for greedy mining boss Coy LaHood (Richard Dysart, THE LOST MAN, THE THING, later J. Edgar Hoover in PANTHER), who can legally reclaim their land if he can get them to abandon it. Hull is too stubborn to leave and so is Megan, because those motherfuckers killed her dog. Some JOHN WICK shit.

Okay, they killed her grandpa too, but in the opening scene they kill her dog, and as she buries him she prays to God for help. It seems to work, because we get our first glimpse of Preacher riding in superimposed over Megan’s face as she says “Please? Just one miracle?” But the first time she sees him she’s reading that Bible verse about “Behold a pale horse.” So she and her mom assume he’s bad news and want him gone until they see that collar. Then they’re literally pulling out his chair and asking him to say grace.

I think my favorite scene is when Hull jokes about a boulder in the middle of the stream, how either it’ll be the death of him or vice versa. He’s not fishing for help, but Preacher figures this is a problem he can help with, finds a sledge hammer and starts pounding. So Hull gets his hammer and they alternate strikes, as everyone in town starts to watch.

Suddenly LaHood’s punk son Josh (future BEST OF THE BEST star Chris Penn after FOOTLOOSE and THE WILD LIFE) and 7’ 2” henchman Club (Richard Kiel, FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE, MOONRAKER, MAD MISSION 3, CANNONBALL RUN II) ride in to threaten Preacher. Club walks over, takes one of the hammers and splits the boulder in half with one hit. I think the plan is for everybody to be too scared to do anything, but instead Preacher bashes Club in the nose and the balls with his hammer. Then he leads him over to his horse and helps him get back on. Like a true gentleman.

As soon as Josh and Club leave, the boys go back to pounding the rocks down, and this time all the miners who were watching come over to help. Leadership.

So LaHood knows he can’t scare Preacher away, but he doesn’t want to make him a martyr either, so he tries to bribe him. Sorry bud – no deal. Preacher negotiates an offer to pay the “tin pans” $1,000 to relocate. That would be better than nothing, and if they don’t take it LaHood plans to send in an infamous marshal named Stockburn (John Russell, RIO BRAVO) and his six deputies (one of them played by Billy Drago, soon to be in INVASION U.S.A.). Law enforcement as hired guns of the rich. Hmm.

Preacher and Stockburn have a past, of course. That much is clear, but thankfully the details are left to the imagination. The beautiful thing is that Stockburn asks LaHood what this preacher looks like and he says, “Tall. He has eyes – somethin strange about ‘em. That mean anything to you?” And it does mean something to him. He knows who he’s talking about just based on that vague description and sense of awe! Can’t be who he’s thinking of, though, can it? The guy he’s thinking of is dead. Not saying who did it, but he’s dead, I swear!

Classic legendary badass stuff. Perfect.

Hull, bless his heart, makes a rousing campfire speech that convinces everybody to turn down the money, stay and fight for their homes and their dignity, not to mention the gold nuggets that must be around somewhere if LaHood is willing to pay that much. And you can pretty much guess the steps from there.

One weird thing about Preacher is that two generations of Wheeler fall madly in love with him. It’s super uncomfortable when teenage Megan takes her shot and then flips out, yelling “I hope you die and I hope you go to Hell!” when he turns her down. He gives her many reasons and nice affirmations but his best explanation is just the look on his face:

He’s clearly horrified by the idea, and Megan argues that she’s about to turn the same age her mom was when she got married, so it’s a historical thing. But it’s still a little odd for Clint (who is four years older than COCOON‘s Wilford Brimley, incidentally) to put his character in that position and make it a big part of the story. (Similarly, the thing where she forgives him because he rescues her from being gang raped. That was sort of like a “save the cat” of the era.)

Megan assumes he says no because he’s in love with her mom. Nope, but sure enough mom is ready to throw herself at him too. That scene is pretty funny because he just stands there while she talks herself through why she loves him but shouldn’t love him and should marry Hull instead.

Yep, yeah… what you just said. Do that.

Clint is exactly as cool as Clint always is, and it’s a big strength to have Moriarty playing the second lead. Exactly as in THE STUFF, it’s easy to picture another actor playing the same character and falling kind of flat. It’s a straighter character than in the Larry Cohen movies, but he has some of that dry, humorous tone that makes people wonder if he’s fucking with them. It’s a perfect vibe for the guy who stubbornly stands up for what he wants, befuddling the rest of the town.

There’s one little buddy moment that seemed improvised to me, but either way it’s beautifully executed. Preacher and Hull go to LaHood’s part of town to blow up some cabins and tents. Preacher tries to do a little hand flip with a stick of dynamite, but he fumbles it. Hull goes over (not in a hurry), picks it up and fearlessly tosses it down the hill right on time for it to explode.

This scene also has the great moment when Club stops Josh from shooting Preacher, and Preacher tips his hat to him. I’m not sure I follow – does he like Preacher because he helped him get on his horse? That didn’t seem sincere to me, so maybe I missed something. Doesn’t matter. I like this fight brotherhood.

I want to mention how much I like the staging of the climax. Preacher does this cat and mouse thing where the deputies look for him and we don’t know where he is until he pops out from behind some crates or inside a horse trough to shoot them. At the beginning of the sequence, they come out and see his hat sitting on the ground. Stockburn stands back while his guys go to look for him, and we keep seeing him standing back watching them…

And then we see him in the distance, like in the upper left corner here.

But after Preacher has picked off the six henchmen we get him in the foreground, picking up his hat…

And then in the distance, watching Stockburn.

The way he kills him (SPOILER) is so impressive, considering it’s a standard one-on-one quick draw duel: he shoots him six times in the chest, and you see the bullet holes pop out the back of his jacket! It’s so cool it didn’t occur to me until later that it mirrored Preacher’s scars seen near the beginning. And he still pulls out a tiny second gun and shoots Stockburn in the forehead. Gratuitous bonus wound.

This brings up something that didn’t occur to me while watching: apparently Preacher is a ghost? Clint said so in an interview, and I think he was being literal. This would explain the spooky horror movie music that often plays for him, and it fits with the scars on his back, and Stockburn believing he’s dead. On the other hand, surviving six bullets would be enough of an explanation for why somebody would believe he was dead. Still, this is the rare time when the “you may not have picked up on this, but he’s a ghost” thing seems pretty cool to me. (I don’t like it for POINT BLANK, personally.)

Clint was working with his regular crew: cinematographer Bruce Surtrees, editor Joel Cox, production designer Edward Carfagno, stunt coordinator Buddy Van Horn. It was the first movie Lenny Niehaus scored for Eastwood as director, though he had done TIGHTROPE and CITY HEAT. Before his death in May of this year, Niehaus scored a dozen more movies for Clint.

The distinctive poster was painted by C. Michael Dudash, a freelance illustrator and painter who has since become a fine art painter specializing in depicting the old west. He also did a poster for that summer’s SILVERADO (not the main one with them all riding the horses towards us – the one used in Australia).

Let’s consider where Clint was in his career at this time. In the last few years he’d done the super-jet movie FIREFOX, the Depression-era drama HONKYTONK MAN, his fourth DIRTY HARRY movie SUDDEN IMPACT, the thriller TIGHTROPE, and the buddy comedy with Burt Reynolds CITY HEAT. He hadn’t done a western since THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES in 1976, so this was kind of a return to his roots during a summer when Chuck Norris was doing a cop movie (from a rejected DIRTY HARRY script!) and Sylvester Stallone was kicking off the genre’s musclebound jungle commando period. Perhaps more important, it was the first big Hollywood western since the financial disaster of HEAVEN’S GATE five years earlier.

The risk paid off. It opened at #1 (with ST. ELMO’S FIRE as its new release competition) and went on to earn $41 million, making it the #14 movie at the U.S. box office in 1985 and ultimately the highest grossing western of the ‘80s. But it should be noted that just the first POLICE ACADEMY movie made about twice as much as that. So you can see why westerns became less common. Clint waited until the ’90s to do one more – UNFORGIVEN.

I think you know I agree with the conventional wisdom on that best picture winner. That one takes it to the next level. It’s probly his masterpiece, and definitely the perfect last western for him. But PALE RIDER’s a pretty strong next-to-last one. I like it.


Summer of 1985 connections:

As mentioned, Michael Moriarty also starred in THE STUFF.

Screenwriters Michael Butler & Dennis Shryack also wrote CODE OF SILENCE – originally intended as a DIRTY HARRY sequel.

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41 Responses to “Pale Rider”

  1. I like this one, but it always seemed like a sneaky Shane remake and I wasn’t sure why they didn’t just make Shane. Same basic plot, same bonding over the gunslinger helping in the field (I think it was a stump in Shane, not a boulder), same ending where the kid chases after the gunslinger as he rides out of town.

  2. I like this one, but I always get it confused with HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, I think because they both share the unusual premise that Clint is undead or some kind or revenant or specter of revenge or something.

    HPD probably has the edge for me just because I like the apocalyptic ending with the town painted red and everything. Very striking. It’s also interesting how much Clint is a straight up bastard in that one, much more so than most of his westerns IMO.

  3. Did you guys know that Clint turned 90 about a month ago? And he’s still on a roll.

    I find it always fascinating that we can look at this film, 35 years old, and even at the time he was considered an old legend for movies he did 20 years earlier. There is just nobody like Clint.

  4. And when he did Dollar Trilogy in 64-66, he was already bordering on being middle-aged.

  5. I remember Dolph doing a remake of this called MISSIONARY MAN.

  6. This is one of those movies where I pretty much only remember one scene (the “nice piece of hickory” scene, obviously) but that scene is so awesome that my brain assures me I like the whole movie. I completely forgot Moriarty was in it and that makes me want to revisit it.

  7. I’ve never liked this one. Too derivative of Shane but with one ridiculous thing after another. Clint is a workmanlike director and doesn’t have the stylistic chops to pull off the absurd stuff, in my opinion. Moriarty is good though. I’m friends with him on Facebook and he always leaves strange (but complimentary) comments on my artwork. He’s reposted one drawing with the caption, “AN ENTIRELY SUCCESSFUL AND NEW IDEA OF THE EROTIC!” (It was a charcoal figure study). He’s gone full-on MAGA though and I had to unfollow him because his timeline was a steady stream of right-wing memes.

  8. I’ve always viewed Pale Rider as a “kinder, gentler” remake of High Plains Drifter. HPD’s protagonist comes back from Hell to wreak revenge on both those who killed him and the feckless town folk who didn’t back him up. He hates everyone except Mordecai (Billy Curtis’ character). In PR, Preacher comes back from Heaven to stand up for the downtrodden (and to take his revenge on the person who killed him). He certainly doesn’t rape anyone like The Stranger does in HPD.

  9. The scene I remember most is the one with the boulder, and when the preacher hits Club with the hammer. “Iiiiiiice”.

    Was this Clint’s biggest hit of that decade, box-office wise? I’d probably guess SUDDEN IMPACT was, “make my day” and all that. But otherwise he was not as teflon in the cinemas as he was in the 70’s.

  10. When this came along I had been going on a steady diet of all the westerns I could get my hands on at my local video store (or I should say stores, because there were quite a few i visited on a regular basis). And compared to my favourites, Clint’s previous 8 included, PALE RIDER felt a bit light. I enjoyed it, but I had no trouble waiting 6-7 months to rewatch it on VHS.

    Vern, I always felt that Club helped Preacher because he respected him for being the first, maybe in his whole life, to beat him.

    The ghost aspect of HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER and PALE RIDER is lifted from the Klaus Kinski (as a good guy!) western …AND GOD SAID TO CAIN.

  11. On The Wall,

    If you adjust for inflation, which you have to do compare to modern B.O, the list would look like this, in the domestic box office:

    Any way which you can 248 million (5th highest grossing movie of the year).
    Sudden Impact 196 million
    Firefox 144 million
    Tightrope 131 million
    Bronco Billy 122 million
    Pale Rider 106 million
    Heartbreak Ridge 104 million
    City Heat 104 million
    The Dead Pool 84 million

    …He was pretty big in the 80’s.

  12. I guess we won’t be getting a Summer of 1985 revisit to SILVERADO, as we were there only a couple of years back, but PALE RIDER neatly makes the point I was making then about casting, except that here, with the exception of Chris Penn, everyone really does look like they belong in a western. Russell had real history with the genre and indeed with Eastwood, having played Bloody Bill Anderson in THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, and he looks cadaverous and truly haunted in this, and Charles Hallahan – another survivor of THE THING – takes a good beating from a nice piece of hickory.

    Part of me regrets that summer didn’t start in March, as we could’ve seen Vern’s review of the other big western of 1985, Paul Bartel’s LUST IN THE DUST, although it’s not great Bartel or great Divine.

    I liked PALE RIDER in 1985 and having seen it again recently, I still like it. As has been noted, it’s easily distinguished from HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, since in PALE RIDER Eastwood’s character prevents rape rather than commits it.

    Part of my current liking for this may simply be that it’s become inextricably linked in my head with Johnny Cash’s When the Man Comes Around. And, bless the internet, it seems I am not alone:

    When The Man In Black With No Name Comes Around

    My very first YouTube video presented in glorious low definition with free letterboxing!. A tribute to Clint Eastwood and Johnny Cash Video: Scenes from Pale...

  13. The ghost aspect of HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER and PALE RIDER is lifted from the Klaus Kinski (as a good guy!) western …AND GOD SAID TO CAIN.

    It goes back even further than that, for example DJANGO KILL… IF YOU LIVE, SHOOT! can easily be interpreted that way.

  14. But is Tomas Milian’s character really dead, though?

  15. When I saw this as a kid, I recall viewing it as your standard tale of a man’s soul being sent back to the world from the purgatory, to complete that one final task – albeit a version of the tale transported from its usual medieval times into the realia of the United States and its Wild West period. Otherwise, it touched all the familiar aspects of the traditional old story – I never even thought it would be interpreted as anything else.

  16. But is Tomas Milian’s character really dead, though?

    It’s not explicitly stated that he’s dead, he just gets shot and buried and then finds himself in a strange, hellish place. All of these films are ambiguous about their supernatural aspects.

  17. I have this movie almost memorized so I can clarify a few of Vern’s questions:

    The scene where Clint drops the dynamite was definitely intentional. I remember thinking it was funny a character like that would fumble. But no, he did it so Hull would get off his horse and throw the dynamite, thereby allowing Clint to run his horse off so Hull can’t follow him to the big shootout.

    The bit about Club saving Preacher…I love that bit of storytelling cause it’s nuanced and makes the movie not so black and white. But Club doesn’t seem like an enforcer, he seems like some guy who works there. And he’s probably been fed a bunch of shit about how the settlers are fucking things up so he didn’t mind being the muscle the day he went there. But after Clint beat him up, he was still decent to him. But the real breaking point is, when the bad guys are going to rape the girl. You see Club come in, pissed off and he’s throwing guys off of her when Clint shows up. He may not have a problem shoving some settlers around, but he draws the line at rape. And THEN, Clint, even though he could have, doesn’t kill the asshole son. Son gets a whole lot of warnings even before Clint shoots him through the hand. All of this makes Club respect Clint and realize he’s not a bad guy, maybe Club’s on the wrong side. And it all comes to a head when he saves Clint from the asshole son. A nice little character arc for what could b a throwaway character.

    I LOVE this movie.

  18. Of Eastwood’s 10 westerns I would place this one last on the list. But it’s still quite good.

  19. Thanks Muh, those are good explanations. It sounds like the dynamite scene is actually way cooler than I picked up on, because I was distracted trying to figure out how it was done.

  20. No prob! And the dynamite scene couldn’t be an ad-lib because you see Hull throw the dynamite and it explodes in the same shot. They don’t just wing shots like that, explosions are expensive! They would have cut.

  21. If it was one of the ‘60s westerns I could buy that maybe they just decided to go for it in one take with explosives, because they were all crazy back then (see for example the boat chase scene in, I believe, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE where an explosive goes off a little too early and a stuntman still in the boat has to make a hast exit).

    Speaking of, it just occurred to me- I remember watching PALE RIDER as a kid in like the mid-90s, and I didn’t realize it wasn’t from the ‘60s. I guess I just figured they stopped making ‘em for the most part (which was true, I guess), but now with some more perspective it’s really interesting to think this was just seven years before UNFORGIVEN. Feels like Clint aged 30 years between them.

  22. Pegsman, I’d put Hang ‘Em High below this one just because it’s so goddamn boring and it’s shot like a TV movie. But outside of Unforgiven, (most of) Josey Wales, and the Dollars films, I don’t rank Eastwood’s Westerns very highly.

  23. Hang Em High is terrible. No one cared when they made that one. I like most of Eastwood’s westerns. I think High Plains Drifter may be my favorite since it’s basically a horror movie.

  24. Plus, of course, HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER inspired a great Beastie Boys song, so it’s got that going for it.

  25. This is just my personal opinion, but HANG ‘EM HIGH has Ben Johnson, Bruce Dern, Dennis Hopper, LQ Jones, Pat Hingle and Ed Begley in the cast. It can never be at the bottom. The scenes with Dern alone pushes the whole movie upwards. PALE RIDER feels more like a pander to the many fans of Cowboy Clint. MACKENNA’S GOLD was supposed to be Eastwood’s first American western. I Wonder what kind of career he would have had after that movie?

  26. I agree with Fred. It pains me to say it, but a movie written by Elmore Leonard and directed by John Sturges is at the bottom of my list of Clint’s westerns. But, to quote Pegsman, it’s still quite good.

  27. Again, just my opinion, but the slightly unusual story, and the presence of Robert Duvall, Don Stroud and Paul Koslo, elevates it in my book.

  28. Sure, it also has some gorgeous Bruce Surtees photography and a likeable Schfrin score. And I’m always happy to see John Saxon. But, just my opinion, it doesn’t work as well as those parts suggest it should and always leaves me feeling a little disappointed.

  29. I wonder what Clint’s career would look like if PAINT YOUR WAGON had been a hit.

  30. So, do we dare to make a list from 1 to 10? I know we’ve disagreed on which one is best in the past…

  31. PALE RIDER feels more like a pander to the many fans of Cowboy Clint.

    On it’s initial release (I saw it at the drive-in, for crying out loud) I called it “Clint comfort food” and pretty much accepted it as that. “So you like me in cowboy movies? Well, they’re not really making those anymore. But, hows about we take one last ride together before packing it in?”

  32. I don’t like any Clint western not directed by him or Leone. Anyone else who made one is just doing mediocre work. Even Leonard basically said Joe Kidd sucked.

  33. I saw this in the cinema back in ’85. Always liked it, even though it is essentially a lesser remake of SHANE mixed with HPD, which are both superior, IMO. What always stood out for me was the cinematography and the sound, very naturalistic. It feels very much like you are there, much like the feel of the excellent show DEADWOOD, which is an awesome thing that if you haven’t seen, Vern, you absolutely should. It has everything you enjoy, from blistering badassness, amazing writing, and it feels very much like this. Only far better.

  34. God, MacKenna’s Gold is so bad, but apparently it’s considered one of the best films of all time in India. If I were to rank Eastwood’s Westerns I’d have For a Few Dollars More or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly at the top. Followed by Unforgiven and Josey Wales (although I’d much rather see Philip Kaufman’s version, honestly). After that the quality takes a steep drop in my mind. Even High Plains Drifter I find dull and amateurish in places. I’d rank Joe Kidd over Pale Rider if only for Leonard’s humor and the fact that I find so many scenes in Pale Rider downright embarrassing. Two Mules for Sister Sara is an ok attempt at a Spaghetti Western, but it has a saggy mid-section. Hang ‘Em High does have a great cast but I can barely remember anything that they do because it’s so deadly dull.

  35. Now that we’re gonna be discussing that time travel thingy for weeks, this feels a little pointless. But I’d go THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, UNFORGIVEN, A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA, HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, HANG’EM HIGH, JOE KIDD and PALE RIDER. If we had gotten, as was planned, Sergio Leone’s HANG’EM and Philip Kaufman’s JOSEY WALES, the list might have looked different.

    MACKENNA’S GOLD had some cool ideas, but it looks like they were trying to imitate the German WINNETOU movies while simultaneously pleasing the American western audience who prefer their heroes to wear pants that go up over the nipples.

  36. This is my earliest recollection of ever seeing Moriarty onscreen, and this was pretty much the “Law and Order” guy he would play from there on out, so seeing him just BALL OUT in Q a few a years ago was a trip. I’d imagine that’s how the kids these days probably feel when they see Tom Hanks in something like Bachelor Party.

    And Muh, stuff like that post is what I come to this sight for.

  37. I’m sure I have things to say about the time travel thingy, but I’ll stick with this for now.

    I will suggest that Clint’s westerns can be divided into three groupings, which we can see emerging here in the talkback: the top tier – Dollars trilogy, UNFORGIVEN, JOSEY WALES – middle tier – TWO MULES, HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER – and the rest. We can argue about the order of the movies in those three groups, but probably not so much about the groups themselves, although I respect Muh’s appreciation of HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER.

    That said, I just checked the TWO MULES talkback, where we did this last time, and Mr. Majestyk’s list really messes with my theory. But I guess that makes sense.

    Anyway, since I didn’t play last time, here goes:

    Of course, the Leone westerns are the most important.

    I also note that last time we did this, people wanted to include BRONCO BILLY and PAINT YOUR WAGON, but not so much THE BEGUILED, which is Southern Gothic rather than western anyway and a genre I dislike, but it’s a helluva movie.

  38. A PERFECT WORLD has a bit of a place in this discussion if we’re going to include something like BRONCO BILLY. The character does at least, that element of law enforcement that isn’t so far removed from the West as a mythology.

  39. That list was me mostly talking out my ass, considering I haven’t watched most of Clint’s westerns since the VHS days, but I must regrettably stand by its most blatant blasphemies. The fact that I can only pay attention to maybe 27 minutes total of the first two DOLLARS movies is one of my greatest shames. The classic bits are classic as fuck but holy shit do I not care what happens in between them. The second one might be the most boring movie I’ve ever watched more than twice, just because I refuse to believe how much I hate it. And the first one ain’t much better. The parts that are just a sizzle reel of spaghetti style are magnificent but when it tries to be an actual movie with like a plot and stuff, I take a nap.

  40. I couldn’t stand Salvador Dali’s monologues at the Ritz in Paris. They seemed to go on forever. I had to hide in the bathroom. Then one night The Tango King and Miss Mona came in, and…

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