Movie Brief

There are No Heroes Here

A look at Eastwood's Drifter 40 years later

high-plains-drifter-blurayI watched Universal's newly restored and remastered Blu-ray edition of Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter (10/15; Amazon) last night and before hitting play I'd actually forgot I'd seen it before until Eastwood as "The Stranger" came into view, riding into the small town of Lago where the duration of the film takes place.

Released in New York 40 years ago this past April, Drifter is an interesting one when compared to today's cinema, which is hellbent on revenge whereas this is a story of retribution... or is it? The citizens of Lago are made to pay for their past misdeeds while at the same time seeking protection from a trio of gunmen they previously watched whip their own town marshal to death after he threatened to reveal their mining town was actually on government land.

Riding into town looking for a whiskey, a shave and a bath, Eastwood channels his iconic "Man with No Name" and quickly finds himself in a bloody shootout, but it's the scene afterward that captures my attention. After gunning down three men, the Stranger is attacked by a woman (Mariana Hill) whom he proceeds to rape, an act just as, if not more, violent than the bullet wounds he inflicted only minutes earlier. Can such a man be considered a hero? Just how should the audience interpret him? We've only just started.

That night he dreams of a man being whipped to death, a scene we later come to assume he could have no knowledge of until he's told of the incident. The man who's beaten, we come to learn, was the town marshal, Jim Duncan, played by Buddy Van Horn, long-time stuntman stand-in for Eastwood. It was a casting decision that was made to possibly suggest the marshal and the stranger were related. The connection between the two men is suggested again late in the film when Mordecai (Billy Curtis) says to the stranger he doesn't even know his name, to which Eastwood replies, "Yes you do," as the camera then pans to the newly carved gravestone reading "Marshal Jim Duncan, Rest in Peace."

There's something of a supernatural air to these final words and the dream the stranger has, not to overlook the religious undertones throughout the film, least subtle being the painting of the town red and the word "HELL" painted over the sign that once welcomed visitors to Lago.

So is this a story of retribution and possible religious wrath, or is it a revenge story? The Stranger says Mordecai knows his name, is that to be interpreted literally or is this Ezekiel 25:17 in a nutshell?

And I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious rebukes; and they shall know that I am the LORD, when I shall lay my vengeance upon them.

Curiously enough, if you do view the Stranger as a vessel of the Lord, exacting vengeance on the evil townspeople of Lago, what does that say of the Stranger raping that woman? What does it say of the murders that took place? Perhaps there is no definitive answer, nothing to make you entirely comfortable with what takes place. Perhaps that's the point.

High Plains Drifter has some issues with pacing and, at times, feels a bit mechanical and by-the-numbers, but the overall narrative is rather intriguing and the ambiguity it offers as to its thematic motivations and allegorical connective tissue make it a fun and fascinating watch.

FINAL NOTE: I don't own a copy of the previous DVD releases so I can't compare this new restored image with previous versions, but I can say it is bright and vibrant with plenty of detail. I didn't notice any overall extreme levels of DNR, but I'll be curious to see how others react to the image, which really does pop right off the screen.

Buy a copy of the Blu-ray here.

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  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Winchester/ Winchester

    I've never seen this film but Universal seems to be very good at taking it's back catalogue and giving them nice Blu Ray restorations and transfers. Moreso than some other studios.

    • Walt Coogan

      It's worth seeing, an important Western in the history of the genre. Former longtime "Village Voice" critic J. Hoberman, in his 2003 book "The Dream Life," writes that "High Plains Drifter" allowed the Western to finally grant the Vietnam War a viable allegory. Of course, there are no allusions to Vietnam in the film, but the "High Plains Drifter" is somehow culturally significant and also provided the clearest early sign that Eastwood was a visionary director with a viewpoint all his own.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/TheLastEquivocationofBrist/ TheLastEquivocationofBrist

    Love this movie. Thanks for reminding me about it Brad! Well-written article and I didn't know about the stuntman connection, which makes it even more interesting.

  • Walt Coogan

    What are the "issues with pacing"? I think that "High Plains Drifter" is exceptionally paced: absorbing, ironic, fatalistic, and gradually momentous. As writers Richard Thompson and Tim Hunter stated about Eastwood as a director in the January/February 1978 edition of "Film Comment": "His films are also superbly paced: unhurried; cool; and giving a strong sense of real time, regardless of the speed of the narrative." And writing in the December 1980 edition of "Millimeter," writer Ric Gentry agreed. In their article, Thompson and Hunter added that in 'High Plains Drifter," "The pacing casually makes the most of the action." Unfortunately, our technologically-saturated society and various forms of contemporary media have left consumers so ADD-oriented that anything that is paced more meditatively or reflectively, anything that gives "a strong sense of real time" by allowing time to stand still or become a character in its own right, becomes seen as "slow" by increasingly impatient viewers raised with pulsating, MTV-style editing. Thus most older films will seem "slow," even if the pacing is just right.

    Obviously, we're talking about matters of opinion and aesthetic taste, but there is certainly no consensus that there are "issues with pacing" in "High Plains Drifter." Indeed, any change could have destroyed the brilliantly surreal mood that Eastwood creates.

    I also cannot comprehend how the film "feels a bit mechanical and by-the-numbers" at times. "High Plains Drifter" constitutes arguably the most radical Western ever to emerge from the Hollywood system. The film is about as convention-twisting, startling, daring, and anti-cliched as they come, and as longtime film critic and author Richard Schickel writes on page 293 of "Clint Eastwood: A Biography," the film features "an anarchic unpredictability unique in this genre."

    Continues Schickel, correctly:

    "It says much about Clint Eastwood that at the moment when he felt he was finally fully in control of his destiny, he risked this tightly wound and single-minded film, so harsh in its light and its angles, so mannered in its style, so black in its humor, so unforgiving in its view of human nature. Far more than 'Dirty Harry,' it tests, redefines, the nature of screen heroism, asking the audience if it can come to terms with the darkest (or anyway the most enigmatic) side of Clint's screen character."

    As Schickel also writes, on page 291:

    "Indeed, to turn that stock western character, the mysterious stranger, into a figure that can be persuasively understood as apparitional is to take revisionism into previously uncharted realms."

    Or as playwright and critic Robert Tanitch writes on page 85 of his book "Eastwood":

    "Well-written and well-directed, 'High Plains Drifter' was a highly imaginative revenge story, one of the best Westerns of the 1970s and probably the first ever supernatural Western."

    And based on the title of this blog entry and some of your comments, you seem to understand these points. "High Plains Drifter" is an original, subversive, stylized, iconoclastic, and virtuosic film, with nothing mechanical or conventional about it. The movie broke plenty of new ground and elevated Western revisionism to a Gothic and apocalyptic apex. Indeed, "High Plains Drifter" amounted to perhaps the first ever color Gothic Western (among mainstream American films) and one of the most influential Westerns ever. Over the last forty years, many filmmakers in movies and television have tried to imitate its Gothic look and style, especially in the 1990s and 2000s (and now the 2010s), and maybe that influence and imitation now makes "High Plains Drifter" seem "mechanical" and "by-the-numbers" to some viewers. But one should judge a film's freshness by what came before it, not by what came after, and besides, none of the Westerns since "High Plains Drifter" have achieved the film's sense of "organic Gothic," instead rendering the Gothic element too obvious and forced. Eastwood, conversely, conveyed that aspect with a sense of stylized naturalism that retained ambiguity and transcended easy trappings.

    • Stonecutter

      Do you mind laying out a bibliography for this? MLA format would be preferable.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/drew/ drew

      This is good and everything, but what do you think of the movie?

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Deliciousky/ David Delaney

      I think this was meant to be emailed to your dissertation supervisor bud.