A mysterious preacher helps protect a small town from a greedy mining company trying to obtain their land.
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Western films have evolved over time to encompass more wide views and perspectives on life. In the beginning the themes were the same; good versus evil. We clearly knew who the bad guys were and their intentions. Directors such as Sergio Leone expanded on that idea by creating anti heroes that better reflect the environment they came from. Suddenly good and bad were no longer discernible because now both traits were common in every character. The Man with No Name was the good guy, as long as it served his interests. If killing and stealing were necessary, he would oblige.
Pale Rider is one of Eastwood’s only films to incorporate religious undertones throughout, not necessarily preaching a specific idea but rather using religious ideology as the background for his characters. A drifter (Eastwood) arrives in town saving a man using nothing but a hickory axe handle. To everyone’s surprise the man turns out to be a Preacher, and a skilled gunslinger, with a mysterious past. The Preacher becomes part of the Wheeler family who continue to be harassed by “deputies” of the corrupt US Marshal Stockburn (Dysart). The film unfolds as a classic western honoring the mythology of the genre while also involving religious tones as well.
The title itself, Pale Rider, is a biblical reference to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in which the rider is Death. In an interview regarding the supernatural elements of the movie, Eastwood said about the protagonist that he is “out and out ghost.” Blending supernatural with western ideas is not seen in many films, if not any. It’s a unique and innovative twist that adds a certain appeal to the film.
During a scene in which Megan Wheeler (Penny) is being sexually assaulted, the Preacher shows up almost out of nowhere. He arrives to save the girl after showing some of his moves as a gunman and carries her away; homage to the classic westerns in which the hero rides into town, saves the girl, and rides off into the sunset. Another moment that relates to the supernatural theme occurs early on when Megan, whose pet was killed in a melee, prays to God for someone to defend the village from the marauders; soon, the Preacher arrives on a pale horse. Eastwood’s love and admiration for the genre that launched his career is evident in the treatment of the material and characters.
The setting takes place in a snowy environment contrary to most westerners where the towns are desert settings. Like most western films there’s a sense of desperation and despair, and many of the character evoke those feelings. The cinematography emphasizes the despair with well shot images of the bleak snowy terrain which contrasts perfectly with the sense of hope the Preacher brings to the town.
Sydney Penny does an excellent job as the innocent and naïve child who admires the Preacher, and scenes with the two of them produce touching moments of sincerity. Pale Rider is a well done captivating film that explores religious and supernatural ideas intertwined with the traditional western way of life for that time. Eastwood channels his previous characters that embody the cowboy persona mixed with the modern American anti-hero seen mostly in characters such as The Man with No Name and now in the Preacher. Pale Rider is a testament to classic and modern westerns, and any fan of the genre will appreciate Pale Rider as a movie worthy of being in the same league previous western masterpieces.