The Preacher, The Gunfighter and a Good Piece of Hickory
"Nothing like a good piece of hickory" proclaims the mysterious Preacher after having dispatched 4 baddies who are beating up an innocent pan handler, one of the most memorable scenes from the entertaining "Pale Rider" and like the rest of the movie that scene mixes western action with a touch of subtle comedy. Released back in 1985 and at the time Clint Eastwood's last western till he returned with the brilliant "Unforgiven" 7 years later, "Pale Rider" on one level appears like a very stereotypical western. The storyline revolves around a mysterious loner coming to the help of a small group of victimized people and whilst helping them with the bad guys instils them with a touch of self belief. That storyline is a mainstay of many movies and not just westerns but what makes "Pale Rider" more than just another western is the mythology of it all. The whole thing leads us to question the arrival of this mysterious man known as Preacher, is his arrival purely coincidence, is he an angel sent to help them or a murdered man who returns as an avenging angel? It is this side of "Pale Rider" which makes it more than just another western.
Hull Barret (Michael Moriarty) is a decent bloke just trying to make some money as a pan handler in a small community of pan handlers who own part of a canyon. But that means nothing to Coy LaHood (Richard Dysart) and his son Josh (Chris Penn - Footloose) who are intent on frightening them off their land so that they can take control of it. Just as the community of pan handlers are about to give up a mysterious stranger (Clint Eastwood - Tightrope) arrives who not only helps to tackle LaHood and his men but instil some belief into the community. But who is this man who wears the collar of a preacher but dishes out beatings like a gunfighter?
So as already mentioned part of the storyline to "Pale Rider" is built around a stereotypical set up as we learn that a small community of pan handlers are being terrorized by LaHood and his men as they want to take their land. Just as they are about to give in a mysterious stranger rides into town and becomes their saviour, instilling them with a sense of belief whilst also fighting their cause for them. The whole set up has been seen before in countless other movies and as such there is a predictability about it as we can second guess that cometh the end cometh a big showdown. But being predictable isn't a problem as Eastwood who also directs makes the most of the important scenes and keeps things moving, mixing drama with action.
But there is another side to "Pale Rider" and that is the blend of mythology and religion as we are lead to doubt who or what this mysterious stranger is. Not only does the Preacher seem to appear out of nowhere but he seems to answers the prayers of a young girl called Meg (Sydney Penny) after the latest attack from LaHood's men. Plus at the same time whilst Meg reads scripture about a man appearing the Preacher mirrors it as he rides into the community on his pale horse. It immediately causes us to question who he is, maybe he has been sent by God as an answer to their prayers, maybe he is there out of pure coincidence or maybe he is a ghost returning to avenge his own death. The fact that this mysterious man wears a dog collar but can dish out a beating makes him a fascinating contradiction. And it is this side, the not knowing exactly who the Preacher is and where he has come from which gives "Pale Rider" an interesting layer.
On top of this there is also another level, a minor one as a mother and daughter fall for the Preacher. What is interesting is how Eastwood deals with this with this mysterious man not succumbing to the opportunity especially from the beautiful 15 years old daughter who is willing to submit to him fully. It makes for another fascinating element which lifts "Pale Rider" from just being an obvious western.
You have to say that in "Pale Rider" Clint Eastwood once more plays a variation of the man with no name, silent but amiable, dangerous but kind and he is so at home doing it. There seems almost a bit of self depreciating humour creeping in as he has fun with the legendary status aspect and that hickory twirling scene is almost comical as is the dialogue. But it all works and in the Preacher Eastwood creates a fascinating character which we are constantly trying to work out. Aside from Eastwood "Pale Rider" has some nice performances most notably from the younger cast such as Chris Penn as Josh LaHood and in particular Sydney Penny as Meg who is stunningly beautiful but also delivers a believable and interesting character.
what this all boils down to is that "Pale Rider" shows that a movie can feature a very obvious and unoriginal storyline but end up interesting and entertaining. Eastwood manages to take the set up of a stranger coming to town and helping a group of victims and turn it into more by making us question who the stranger is. It is this which makes "Pale Rider" so much more yet at the same time delivering those western elements, the gun action which you expect. It may not be Eastwood's greatest western but is most definitely an above average western.