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High Plains Drifter

October 17, 2015

HPD“Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have entertained angels without knowing it.”—Hebrews 13:2

What is Satan doing in a Clint Eastwood film? Or existentialism, for that matter? If you think you know Clint, if you think all he amounts to is a relatively dumb gunslinger and occasionally laughable romantic hero, High Plains Drifter will change all that. When Unforgiven was released in 1992, almost twenty years after High Plains Drifter, it was striking how much talk there was of it being the ultimate revisionist Western, with its “realistic” depiction of the vagaries of frontier life and murder. But Clint had done this all before. High Plains Drifter is the story of a monumentally politically incorrect avenging angel with no name, and it makes no concessions to the audience’s taste for heroes.

It all starts pretty conventionally: Stranger rides into town, townsfolk stare him out, Stranger goes to bar for a drink, townsfolk stare him out, Stranger asks barber for a shave, townsfolk stare him out, Stranger kills three men and rapes a woman who looks at him the “wrong way”; townsfolk ask him to be their sheriff. (Don’t you find it amazing that no one bats an eyelid in Western towns when this kind of stuff happens? Or that cinema audiences are so numb to it that they don’t either? Thank God real life ain’t like the, movies …) We know there’s something awry when we see the overhead shot of the town—called Lago—it’s a different kind of town than we have become accustomed to in westerns. For one thing, it’s right by the beach—a sort of “Sodom by the sea,” as one wag put it—for another, it’s totally isolated from anywhere else. It seems that Lago just appeared from nowhere, perhaps arising out of the ground as some Native American cultures believe, perhaps landing from the sky. What is clear is that there’s really no one else around; once the Stranger comes, there’s only one show in town and only one town to have it in.

There’s a clue to the path the film is going to take in the name of the town. Is there any significance to the word Lago? I think it has something to do with the old English word for jail—Gaol—people imprisoned in their own guilt; as the Stranger moseys moodily into town, one of the first things he sees is a native standing inside the frame of an unbuilt building, like a jail cell. And as I’ve said, within five minutes of his arrival, our anti-hero has shot three men and raped a woman who appears to enjoy it. This is not a film that could be made today. The Stranger arrives quietly, talks quietly, and quietly tears the place apart. It’s difficult to say more about the plot without giving too much away, so I will have to be satisfied with saying that this is a dark, vicious, violent, very serious film. It’s about the incarnation of a revenge fantasy, possibly from beyond the grave, and is a supreme example of a director’s discipline—there is no dead weight in this picture. It touches (lightly) on racism against Native Americans; a scene where the Stranger gives blankets and sweets to a father and his children could have been sentimentalized, but Clint plays it subtly—this is not “Robin Hood goes to the Wild West.” The Stranger marks out his territory by befriending the only other outsider, a dwarf, and we see that there is something very dark in the town’s past which may have led the Stranger there (nice use of elliptical flashbacks for this, by the way).

The Prophet Isaiah says that the sin of Sodom was inhospitality—the people of Lago harbor a guilty secret that is nothing if not an example of such exclusion. They say they’re God-fearing folk, which the film suggests means they keep themselves to themselves, are racist, and refuse to take responsibility for either their own actions or the needs of others: Clint Eastwood. is definitely not a fan of the church. His character quickly brings the people under his spell and gets them to attend to his every whim, to the point of redecorating the entire town his way, with a brand new color scheme; but, fear not, this is not a surrealist cowboy version of Trading Spaces  and this Stranger is not the Martha Stewart of the “Gothic Western World of Venegance,” although he does paint the town red. There’s characteristic Clint-esque humor, too, as exemplified when he enquires of the local minister regarding a group of people who have found themselves homeless:

“Are all these people your sisters and brothers?”

Minister: “They most certainly are.”

The Stranger “Well, then you won’t mind if they all come and stay at your place.”

The film is pervaded by a sense of strangeness; and there’s an excellent moment as the townsfolk realize that the Stranger is leaving them to die at the hands of those whom they had turned in for doing their own dirty work. And, lest we forget, there’s

brilliant framing in Bruce Surtees’ cinematography—especially when the Stranger stands in front of a burning building and the blur gives him the appearance of having horns. But, how should we feel after seeing this? I fear that we may feel justified in our delight that the town is punished rather than reflective about our own share in responsibility for the mistreatment of others.

We all have guilty secrets       from the bullying or name-calling we participated in during grade school to our complicity in global social inequality. A telling line in High Plains Drifter says, “You don’t want anything to happen to your town. But you won’t do anything about it,”

This is often true, but unfortunately the Stranger’s antidote to such apathy and irresponsibility is to kill those who wronged him. Walter Wink, the theologian of non-violent resistance, would hate this movie – it is the myth of redemptive violence writ large—but there is a suggestion in it that revenge is not a good idea:The Stranger has made no peace by the end of the film and merely moseys away from the town, much as he had moseyed in. Is he on his way to another site of revenge? Or has his spirit been freed to go to its final resting place? The film does not tell us. Also, as so often with Clint, it’s easy to accuse this film of misogyny, but I’m not so sure that it’s not simply cynical about everyone. (If you don’t agree, then have a look at the fully rounded female characters played by Meryl Streep in The Bridges of Madison County and Rene Russo in In the Line of Fire as counter-evidence for Eastwood’s hatred of women.)

I first saw High Plains Drifter on late night Friday television, with the picture being the only light in the room—the story is so dark that it was just as well the light in it is so great; cold, but breath-taking. It’s a cruel film, but its values are not much different to the way we sometimes live today. Early in the movie, one of the characters who least wants to see the Stranger says, “It couldn’t be worse if the devil himself had ridden right into Lago.” Actually, High Plains Drifter couldn’t be better. How Movies Helped Save My Soul: Finding Spiritual Fingerprints in Culturally Significant Films, Gareth Higgins pp. 12ff

HPD 2Sarah Belding: Be careful. You’re a man who makes people afraid, and that’s dangerous.

The Stranger: It’s what people know about themselves inside that makes ’em afraid.

Preacher: See here, you can’t turn all these people out into the night. It is inhuman, brother. Inhuman!

The Stranger: I’m not your brother.

Preacher: We are all brothers in the eyes of God.

The Stranger: All these people, are they your sisters and brothers?

Preacher: They most certainly are.

The Stranger: …Then you won’t mind if they come over and stay at your place, will ya?

Lewis Belding: I got 18 people in my hotel! Where are they gonna go?

The Stranger: Out.

Mordecai: What happens after?

The Stranger: Hmm?

Mordecai: What do we do when it’s over?

The Stranger: Then you live with it.

The Stranger: Wonder what took her so long to get mad?

Mordecai: Because maybe you didn’t go back for more?

The Stranger: A lot faster than you’ll ever live to be.

The Stranger: You’re going to look pretty silly with that knife sticking out of your ass.

The Stranger: I like chicken, fried.

The Stranger: I’d like rifles and ammunition for everyone in the regiment.

Gunsmith: What regiment?

The Stranger: The city of Lago volunteer force

Gunsmith: Never heard of it

The Stranger: Well you should have because your in it.

The Stranger: Your feet ma’am are almost as big as your mouth.

[last lines] Mordecai: I’m almost done here. [pause] I never did know your name…

The Stranger: Yeah, you do. [pause] See ya.

Mordecai: Yes, sir captain! [the Stranger rides away]

[first lines] The Stranger: Beer… and a bottle.

Lutie Naylor: Ain’t much good, but it’s all there is. [brings drinks] You want anything else?

The Stranger: Just a peaceful hour to drink it in.

Warden: Bridges, you Carlin boys, don’t forget your tickets back to my little hotel [throws their guns and gun belts on the ground] Don’t worry, they ain’t loaded.

Stacey Bridges, Outlaw: What about our horses? We rode in here on three good animals.

Warden: What do you think you been eatin’ the last six months. [goes back in and closes the door]

Cole Carlin, Outlaw: Damn him! I didn’t think I was eatin’ my own horse! He’s lying. That slop he fed us wasn’t our horses. He stole ’em and sold ’em, that’s what he done!

Stacey Bridges, Outlaw: Shut up! [smiles] When we get to Lago, you can have the mayor’s horse, fried or barbecued.

The Stranger: I’d love to oblige you. But a man’s got to get his rest sometime.

Sarah Belding: Oblige me?

The Stranger: But I tell you what, if you’d come back in about half hour, I’ll see what I can do, all right?

Sarah Belding: They say the dead don’t rest without a marker of some kind.

Mayor Jason Hobart: I don’t know if we shouldn’t mark the grave somehow, Dan?

Sheriff Dan Shaw: I don’t see any need. It ain’t likely anybody is gonna cry over them anyhow.

Sheriff Dan Shaw: Well, I been needin’ to talk with you; now’s as good a time as any.

The Stranger: What about?

Sheriff Dan Shaw: Billy Borders.

The Stranger: Don’t know the man.

Sheriff Dan Shaw: Well, you missed your chance; you shot him yesterday.

Lutie Naylor: [the stranger has bought a round for the house] Let’s see, one round for the house plus the smoke; that comes to about eight dollars and fifty cents.

Sheriff Dan Shaw: [chuckling] There’s no charge Lutie; you were at the meeting, anything he wants.

Lutie Naylor: I didn’t know that mean free whiskey!

Sheriff Dan Shaw: Everybody’s got to put something in the kitty.

The Stranger: [Reaches over a takes off Shaw’s badge and pins it on Mordecai] ‘Bout time this town had a new sheriff.

Mordecai: I’m the new sheriff! [looks around the saloon] I’m the new sheriff!

Mayor Jason Hobart: [laughing] I’m sorry, Dan; but you should have seen the look on your face when he took off your badge and pinned it on the runt.

Mordecai: I’m not a runt anymore; I’m the new sheriff!

The Stranger: [reaches over and takes off the mayor’s hat and puts it on Mordecai] And the mayor. Any objections?

Mayor Jason Hobart: Uh, no.

Stacey Bridges, Outlaw: Now, Morg. You just give us the combination to that safe in the mining office and we’ll slip right in, get the money that’s owed us and slip right back out again.

Morgan Allen: [dying] I wouldn’t give you the combination to the gates of hell. [Stacy stabs him in the throat with a sharpened stick]

Sheriff Dan Shaw: [after the Stranger blows up the hotel and shoots four men] What the hell happened?

The Stranger: Somebody left the door open and the wrong dogs came home.

Sheriff Dan Shaw: Billy, he wasn’t a loved man. He didn’t have much personality and what he did have was all bad.

Callie Travers: Just what do you consider going too far? Isn’t forcible rape in broad daylight a misdemeanor in this town?

Mordecai: What did you say your name was again?

The Stranger: I didn’t.

Mordecai: No. I guess you didn’t at that, did you?

Dan Carlin: He can ride double with me ’til we come across some body else. Likely we’ll all need fresh mounts anyway. They probably found those bodies by now and they’ll be hot on our trail. We need to keep moving.

Stacey Bridges, Outlaw: I just want enough time to take one year out of my life back from Lago.

Cole Carlin, Outlaw: How long you reckon that’ll take?

Stacey Bridges, Outlaw: [smiling] For some of ’em; a lifetime.

“You make people fear you, and that’s dangerous. It’s dangerous when people fear you.”

“What’s dangerous is when people look inside themselves and fear what they see.”

When the Stranger says: ‘What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?’
What will you answer? ‘We all dwell together
To make money from each other’? or ‘This is a community’?

“Oh my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger.
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.

“There is one who remembers the way to your door:
Life you may evade, but Death you shall not.
You shall not deny the Stranger.”

–T.S. Eliot Choruses from “The Rock”

HPD 3One of the guys is speaking in the front of the church. The camera then pans to the right and shows a bulletin board with this Scripture: Isaiah 53: 3-4: “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”

Marshall Jim Duncan was whipped to death; Jesus Christ was at least nine-tenths whipped to death. The stranger riding into Lago (the first scene of the film) is a symbol of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ: not as the Lamb of God, but as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.

“The focus on guilt and atonement in High Plains Drifter, for example, seems to go some way to explaining why the town of Lago apparently contains no children–typically symbols of innocence in adult cinema.”

So who exactly is the stranger?

This is purposely left ambiguous to give it an almost supernatural feel, but the theories put forth are as follows: (1) The stranger is Marshal Jim Duncan’s brother who learned that the three men who killed his brother were being released from prison and would likely return to their town, so the stranger “passed through” in order to take revenge on the three men and on the town itself for simply standing by and watching as his brother was brutally murdered. (2) The stranger was Marshal Jim Duncan himself come back to exact his revenge (perhaps through a deal with the devil.). This would explain why nobody in the town recognized him, but he knew how exactly the Marshal was killed and he was able to kill the three men in the same way. (3) The stranger was the ghost of Marshal Duncan.

The buildings were painted red because the Stranger wanted to make the statement that the town was Hell.

The horseman comes riding on a Pale Horse (one of the four horsemen early in the apocalyptic narrative); he gets himself ‘hired’ as a defender of the town against their enemies (The Beast, probably #2); Prepares everyone for a futile battle (Apollyon); evacuates the hotel (Rapture) to keep the innocent people (virgins in the narrative) safe; but most of all, he has them prepare for a picnic — a completely illogical and baffling “move.” But not illogical vis-a-vis St-John’s Revelation, where Jesus returns to wed his congregation with a wedding supper where the food is supplied by the wicked who are slain in revenge for how he (Jesus) had been made the food of a “last supper” in his first time on earth (hence, called the Lamb who was sacrificed).

A dwarf, named Mordecai, becomes, through the stranger, the titular mayor and sheriff of the town. In Biblical accounts, Mordecai “sat in the king’s gate” to signify his intimacy to the ruler, or, in the film, the stranger. The historicity of the name, in Persian, suggests the meaning ‘little boy;’ in Aramaic, follower or servant, or follower and servant of God.

In Rabbinical literature, the angel of death, a creation of God on the first day, exacts slaughter, in the manner ordained by God, to restore the honour of mankind. Slaughter may be by burning, beheading, or throttling. All the major series of deaths in the film are in threes: of the hired men at the beginning of the film, of the men murdered for their horses by the three murderers of the town marshall (which had set the retribution in motion), and of the three murderers themselves—one by throttling, another by scourging by lash, the last by death before the burning flames.

The angel of death, who is the Satan depicted in Paradise Lost, is not inherently evil, being created by God, but is that creation of God who Himself contends with evil, and, indeed, tempts it. In this, then, is also created the possibility of free will.

Rob Ager, in a detailed and wordy interpretation of the film, and also argues that the avenging angel is the ghost of the murdered marshall. I myself prefer to think that the angel carries the ghost, or, perhaps better, the soul of the man who was, with or before him, as that seems a more satisfactory, and more universal, allegory.

It is important to recognise that High Plains Drifter is a revisionist Western – that is, a Western movie that intentionally reworks and transforms the traditions of the Western genre. A clear example is the way this movie challenges the convention of the hero as an attractive, charismatic and above all, honourable figure, by featuring a morally ambiguous protagonist, who has no compunction against violence. The rape scene clearly illustrates how Eastwood has chosen to subvert the archetype of the Western hero.

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