Undercurrents: Clint Eastwood’s Western Apocalypse, “Pale Rider”

In 1985, Clint Eastwood re-entered the world of ‘Westerns’, producing, directing and starring in Pale Rider – an apocalyptic re-telling of the classic story of underdogs, oppressors and the outsider who rides into town to bring justice. Warning: This article contains plot spoilers!

The setting is Carbon Canyon in California during the Gold Rush of the 1880s. All the rest of the gold-seams in the area are owned by the LaHood mining empire, but one plucky village of settlers are holding out on the legality of their claim, while panning for nuggets. Carbon Canyon is a community of decent people, small families working hard to make a home in the wilderness, living in small dark cabins and working the creeks. LaHood’s land is mined by massive hydraulic schemes, washing vast amounts of soil down the valley to expose the gold beneath. These schemes are inhabited by gun-slinging thugs who enforce company law and turn the land into “hell”.

The opening scene is almost a pastiche of the vintage western. The camera cuts between scenes of the peaceful villagers working the land, with the horses of their attackers rushing across the plains towards them – framed by a backdrop of stunning snow-capped mountains. It soon becomes clear that the raiding party are not there to kill much beyond cattle and pets, but to harass the people off their land, to let the corporation in to blast the canyons for gold.

Some good actors are deployed to put all this together by Eastwood. Corporate bad-guy Coy LaHood is played by a suitably grasping Richard Dysart, and his noxious son Josh by Chris Penn. The central family in the village are key to the story-line and are engagingly portrayed by Michael Moriarty, Carrie Snodgrass and Sydney Penny. And it’s Penny’s character, the fourteen-year old Megan Wheeler who is responsible for turning the tide of the narrative.

When the mob run into the canyon, Megan is reading aloud from the one book kept in their cabin, the New Testament. As hoof-beats approach outside, she solemnly intones the words of Revelation 6; John’s vision of the apocalypse and it’s four horsemen. These are powerful words which have gripped imaginations and divided interpreters for millennia. After the attack, as pressure builds on the villagers to flee, young Megan prays to God – asking for a deliverer, to rescue them from cruelty and injustice.

And here’s the real bite of the story. Will God answer, or is he indifferent to our suffering? Is God an absentee-landlord in his creation, the first-mover who set things in motion and has left the stage; or is he an active judge over the affairs of people? Clint Eastwood seems clear about God in this respect. A rider on a Pale Horse appears,  an other-worldy figure, who wears a clerical collar. Yet this man is not a messiah who through miraculous powers turns the hearts of all the wicked to goodness. LaHood doesn’t become a figure like Zacchaeus in the gospels who’s encounter with the divine turned him from corruption to benevolence. This man, known as  “the preacher” comes with superhuman power, not to raise the dead, heal the sick and feed the hungry – but to wreak havoc and death wherever he goes. He is in fact, the fourth horseman of the apocalypse: death.

In the biblical text that Megan intones, the heavenly vision is one in which mysterious seals are opened by Christ and as a result God’s justice is unleashed upon the sins of mankind. The rider on the pale horse doesn’t come to redeem but to destroy. In Eastwood’s movie this leads to a story of deliverance where the Pale Rider intervenes to release Megan from attempted gang rape led by LaHood’s son. The rider refuses to be bought off by LaHood, leading inevitably towards a great final showdown, a classic Western shoot-out in the dusty streets of a frontier town. LaHood’s hired lawmakers, hardened killers all, face-down against the Pale Rider. It’s the O.K. Corral meets the battle of Armageddon where good versus evil is a battle fought in lead.

Pale Rider received very positive reviews on release and has gained cult status subsequently. But what’s the attraction of this simple plot in a well-worn genre?

The first is that we identify with the vulnerable, honest people trying to work out a living in the face of power structures which do not operate fairly. We instinctively understand that the poor suffer the world-over from lack of resources and access to justice, which all too often is traded like a commodity. The film taps into a very profound sense of outrage at the way the world so often is, that we all share.

The second is that it presents a narrative in which deliverance comes to us from outside ourselves, and arrives in town like a stranger to set things right. Presented with the circumstances of our own lives, the vulnerabilities of those around us, the cruelty and unfairness of life, we also face the reality that the kind of change the world needs is not incremental but apocalyptic. And quite beyond the capacity of ordinary people like us, working in offices or fields – or panning for gold can ever accomplish. Perhaps we instinctively know that the justice we crave cannot be built, but must be brought to us by a deliverer.

Then, there is an almost spiritual satisfaction in the thought that God will one day unleash justice upon the earth. He does it here in Carbon Canyon, in response to the prayer of a young girl, who is poor, powerless and vulnerable. If God doesn’t only do things like feed the five thousand, but also brings judgement, then perhaps Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Kim Jong-next and the rest will face a divine judiciary, and justice will be served. We’re provoked with the thought that if one girl’s prayer from a log cabin can bring forth death riding on a Pale apocalyptic horse to unleash divine wrath like an avenging angel; then God will one day answer the prayers of millions and usher in His kingdom  where perfect justice will prevail.

It’s always interesting to see who people identify with most in a movie. I suspect my teenage daughter might see the plot through the eyes of young Megan. I’d worry about anyone who identified most with “preacher” – death on horseback! Many of us might most want to align ourselves with Hull Barrett, the plucky gold panner who is inspired by ‘the preacher’ to stand and fight, defend his family and crusade for justice, dignity and rights against the odds. We do like to think well of ourselves generally, don’t we?!

But what if in fact our lives look more like the majority of the cast of Pale Rider, the workers on LaHood’s mines? They don’t direct the malevolence, they are perhaps not deeply committed to the system, nor enjoying much of its benefits – but are nevertheless fully implicated in it. What if we have contributed to making the earth into a suburb of “hell”, bought cheap goods made in sweatshops, cheated our neighbour, or treated others with varying degrees of cruelty? The sobering reality is that the Pale Rider – who in the biblical account is death – will arrive with an appointment for us all. According to the frame of reference of Pale Rider, the man on the horse will not come to deliver us and help us find gold; but gun us down in the street. The ‘I was only following orders’ defence seems to fall on deaf ears when the Pale Rider dynamites the house the mineworkers occupy, as much as it did at Nuremburg.

The question is, are we righteous, and when God does execute justice which side will we be found on? Ultimately, are we the noble gold-panners of Carbon Canyon, or implicated in the crimes of the machine? Profoundly, we’re aware that while we aspire to the former, our lives are deeply tinged by the latter and that in our state of darkness we should perhaps fear the reaper after all.

Clint Eastwood’s film is a riveting re-telling of the apocalyptic tale of the judgement of God upon the wicked, sent via a ghostly avenging angel. That is of course, one major thread of the biblical story. In Eastwood’s world the righteous are saved and the sinners are damned. With one exception. Step forward a man called “Club”, played by all 7 feet and 2 inches of Richard Kiel (who most readers will recognise as Jaws from The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker). Club enters the story as a company man, a hired thug there to beat up the preacher and enforce LaHood’s brutal despotism. Yet – he changes sides, and aligns his sympathies with the innocent victims of Carbon Canyon. He is the one character in the whole story who is redeemed and forgiven.

As such, “Club” is the one the character who we can perhaps truly identify with in Pale Rider. We are not completely pure and virtuous like Hull Barrett. We are tainted by our own faults and our complicity in the system which is so often cruel and unjust. We are not completely innocent like young Megan either, in that while we are often victims, in truth we are as much sinners as we are the sinned-against.

Perhaps few of us are like Coy Lahood, so deeply committed to greed that we will do any evil in order to gain the next piece of gold. Yet we are a bit like “Club”. He finds himself in the midst of a wicked system, he finds himself complicit in things he finds unethical, he looks within himself and around himself and comes to an awakening that things are not right. He alone in this movie shows a sign of what a genuine ‘preacher’ might call ‘repentance’. Thankfully he does so before the credits roll, and the end is called and the final shots are fired.

It means that Club is the character in Pale Rider’s Californian apocalypse we need to emulate before our narrative ends and our credits roll. To some people that might sound rather apocalyptic. But in Pale Rider, Clint Eastwood is consciously bringing an apolcalyptic tale to a specific time and place, and asking us to imagine what it might look like in ours. He pictures divine justice arriving to both liberate and destroy – and we cannot help but ask where we stand before it.