Harsh western, Pale Rider is a work that seems to condense all of Clint Eastwood’s obsessions. Could it be the essential film to decipher the master?
California, late 19th century. The last independent gold diggers of LaHood are victims of regular attacks from the men of Coy LaHood, the founder of the city, who seeks to reclaim their land. As these peaceful prospectors are ready to abandon the concession they have been working on for years, a disturbing rider, who turns out to be a pastor, crosses their path and will help them defend themselves, to restore some form of justice …
In view of this rather classic pitch, Pale Rider might not look like much, especially in the directorial career of Clint Eastwood, who has already faced the founding genre of the western with the Brilliant The Man of the High Plains and Josey Wales Outlaw. However, before the actor-filmmaker signed with Ruthless (to which we have also dedicated a passionate dossier) the final film on the American West and the view of the cinema on it, Pale Rider stands out like a black diamond, whose sense of refinement is matched only by the thematic richness that Eastwood draws from his narrative and staging, to the point of condensing in a fascinating way all the ambiguities of its author.
The real Lucky Luke
Clint and the Wind Valley
First of all, it should be seen in Pale Rider a tribute and a cleverly orchestrated synthesis of the history of the western. If Eastwood himself embodies a mutic and nameless horseman in the manner of the characters of Sergio Leone (he will always be called “the preacher”), the script refers quite explicitly to the classic The man of the lost valleys of George Stevens, in which the figure of a cowboy defending the oppressed is already depicted, even if he himself crosses a certain moral barrier.
But where the 1953 film enjoys brilliant colors (especially in its work on the sky), Pale Rider kneads its referents to reappropriate them in a harsher and rougher way. The sublime photograph of Bruce Surtees (already at work on previous Eastwood westerns and on Inspector Harry) and its more desaturated colors than usual espouse the modern approach of the filmmaker, which gives his vision of the story a disenchanted aspect. On this point, the director has also perfectly highlighted this premise in an interview made at the release of the film: “We have often shown the sun in westerns. I wanted mine to be like in life, half day, half night”.
A film that is beautiful
From then on, this more twilight look at the sets brings the feature film towards an ecological awareness that is quite rare in the genre. The wide shot, if it sometimes retains the majesty that the western presupposes, is also used to capture the immense hydraulic projection system used by LaHood to dig the earth. Eastwood accentuates in its own way the ugliness of this terraforming monster that invades the setting. If the western is linked to the image of the great outdoors and the distant horizon, Pale Rider bECOMES a work on the disfigurement of the earth and its purity, a brilliant way for its author to put into perspective a society that was built on the scars of an ecological disaster.