Pale Rider (1985)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Michael Butler & Dennis Shryack
Produced by Clint Eastwood
Proving that the western was as durable as an old Lincoln convertible — though the genre had been largely relegated to the scrap heap since John Wayne’s career fadeout The Shootist in 1976 — Clint Eastwood got back on the horse for Pale Rider, a worn down shoot ‘em up that paints over its rust with pure craftsmanship. Inviting the authors of The Gauntlet to kick around ideas for an oater, Eastwood went with an Ad Libs script by Michael Butler & Dennis Shryack that fills in the blanks by scribbling elements from westerns of much greater substance. Released with fanfare in June 1985, Pale Rider is a treat that melts as soon as you leave the air condition of the theater, but it’s well cast, gorgeously shot and maintains a disquieting tone, helping the film deliver on its poster, which promised “ … and hell followed with him.”
Pale Rider stretches its credulity far enough to snap, with miners who don’t seem armed with more than shovels and a savior whose origins are as ambiguous as the Book of Revelations verse being read aloud as he rides into camp. There’s no suspense because in addition to being played by Clint Eastwood, the hero’s supernatural prowess is spelled out plainly enough for people in the cheap seats to understand. Shot mostly on location in Idaho’s Sawtooth Range, Pale Rider never suffers from lack of scenic beauty though. With actors like Richard Dysart, Carrie Snodgress, Chris Penn, Charles Hallahan, Richard Kiel and always intriguing Michael Moriarty as his buddy, Eastwood cast the film magnificently. Collaborating with Bruce Surtees, scenes are bathed in menacing obsidian tones that elevate it above typical popcorn fare.
After raiders whip through a community of tin pan miners, 14-year-old Megan Wheeler (Sydney Penny) prays for a miracle to save them. The thoroughly decent Hull Barret (Michael Moriarty) — who’s courting Megan’s mother Sarah (Carrie Snodgress) — ignores warnings and rides into town for supplies. Greeted by the thugs who tore up camp, Hull is rescued by a lean, mean stranger who rides a pale horse and proves handy with a piece of hickory. Accepting an invitation to break bread with Hull, the stranger reveals a clerical collar and is soon given the handle of Preacher (Clint Eastwood). Hotheaded foreman of the mining operation Josh LaHood (Christopher Penn) visits the camp to scare the preacher off, but is turned away when his biggest, baddest employee Club (Richard Kiel) takes a sledgehammer to his sac.
LaHood’s ruthless father and magnate of the mining operation Coy LaHood (Richard Dysart) returns from Sacramento disconcerted by news that not only has junior failed to drive the tin pans off the dirt he covets, but that a preacher has appeared to unify their spirit. Meeting with LaHood, Preacher’s unearthly presence is enough to scare up a price of $1,000 per miner to pull up stakes and move on, but the tin pans reject the offer. LaHood telegraphs a marshal-for-hire named Stockburn (John Russell) and his six deputies to take over negotiations; based on the preacher’s eerie description, Stockburn is reminded of a man he knew, but who’s supposedly dead. While both Megan and her mother develop romantic pangs for the preacher, he appears on a path to take his pistols and wreck supernatural vengeance on Stockburn.
Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 24 users: 92% for Pale Rider
Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: Not available
What do you say?