Today in “The Movies We Love”, I’ll be discussing Clint Eastwood’s surrealist Western, High Plains Drifter. Why is High Plains Drifter so lovable?
High Plains Drifter was released in 1973. Up to that point, Westerns had been dominated by Hollywood’s production codes. This means that the bulk of them were drenched in hokey moralism. It was a platform perfect for John Wayne. But in the late 60’s, an American television actor named Clint Eastwood paired up with an Italian filmmaker named Sergio Leone, who was free of production code shenanigans. The duo created the Man With No Name trilogy, which helped chip away at the standard American Western. And as a handful of directors in America in the late 60’s and early 70’s did the same, it seemed that the American viewing populace was ready for something new. This meant violence. It meant nudity. It meant anti-heroes galore. Sam Peckinpah tore down some barriers of his own in 1969’s The Wild Bunch. Eastwood then took the next logical step when he directed and starred in High Plains Drifter. Whereas The Wild Bunch gave viewers loads of nudity and violence, it was absent one thing that High Plains Drifter was not- an iconic character, much in the vein of John Wayne… but gone horribly wrong.
You see, Eastwood’s “The Stranger” has all of the swagger and quotability of Wayne, but he is a far cry from the moralism of Wayne’s era. Morally, the Stranger is a “hero” in the most unconventional sense of the word. He’s a rapist. He’s hell-bent on vengeance. He cruelly tortures the people he’s charged with protecting. It was unlike anything that Americans had seen before and it steamrolled the last roadblock of the production codes.
Adding to the unique aura of the film is the surrealist nature of it. It’s a ghost story. The score is peppered with a seraphim, which is The Official Musical Instrument™ of ghosts. It takes place in a hazy, boiling town located on the sea. Seemingly, Lago (the town) disappears in and out of the sea throughout the movie, just as the Stranger appears out of thin air and subsequently vanishes into thin air at the film’s beginning and end. The town is given a “runt” mayor/sheriff and is then transformed into Hell… which apparently features picnics. And you have to love that the film comes completely full circle- beginning with the Stranger appearing out of nowhere, riding through a graveyard, into Lago… only to disappear at the end of the movie after riding through the same graveyard.
The Stranger isn’t just any hero. He’s an avenging angel with bloodlust, devoted to righting the wrongs perpetrated on Marshall Jim Duncan. It’s the amazing question that hangs over the film that makes the whole thing so damned fantastic. Just as the nefarious Stacey Bridges wails out as he’s dying at the hands of the Stranger, “Who are you?!?!”.
Three aspects really fuse the whole thing together. First, obviously, is Eastwood as the Stranger. His performance certainly wasn’t anything new. He was the exact same character he’d been in all of the Man With No Name films. But the plot and the air of uncertainty that surrounds his performance are a match made in heaven. As the unknown Stranger, his long bouts of silence build tension and curiosity. And it helps draw focus on the other characters and their past, which brings me to the second aspect. There is so much foreshadowing of the death of Marshall Jim Duncan. It always serves to move the plot forward but it’s always done subtly, building slowly to conclusion with the flashbacks showing precisely what happened to Duncan and why it happened. The third and final aspect that makes High Plains Drifter stand out is the vengeance angle. Having seen what happened to Jim Duncan, the viewer is left with no choice but to join in on the Stranger’s bloodlust. It’s a dirty, evil triumph in which the wicked are given their comeuppance by the wicked.
As I said, it’s really unlike any other Western out there. It’s firmly rooted as a Western but it takes on an extra helping of horror and moral-conflict drama. It is rather easily one of my two or three favorite Westerns ever made.