High Plains Drifter (1973)
By: Mr Intolerance on April 4, 2008  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
DVD
Universal (Australia). Region 2 & 4, PAL. 2.35:1 (16:9 enhanced). English 1.0, German 1.0, Italian 1.0, French 1.0, Spanish 1.0. English, Portuguese, Finnish, Norwegian, Dutch, Polish, Greek, French, Danish, Swedish, German, Czech, Turkish Bulgarian Subtitles. 101 minutes
The Movie
Credits
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Verna Bloom, Mariana Hill, Mitchell Ryan, Jack Ging, Stefan Bierasch, Ted Hartley, Billy Curtis, Geoffrey Lewis
Screenplay: Ernest Tidyman
Country: USA
The Stranger (Clint Eastwood in an amazing performance) rides (on a white horse, and remember, Death rides a pale horse) into the rather anxious (not to mention largely lawless) town of Lago one fine day, buys a beer and a bottle of whiskey, goes for a shave and a hot bath, kills three dudes for a lack of courtesy, rapes a woman as a lesson in manners – and that's all inside of twenty minutes. Y'see, Lago is a town with a secret, and The Stranger might just hold the key to that secret – is he just some vicious saddle-bum wandering into town at the right time, or is he the revenant (avenging spirit, for the uneducated) of the dead Marshall Duncan, whipped to death by some lousy rat-fink bastards while the townsfolk did fuck all and watched? You could argue successfully either way – it's up to you, but one viewing of the film oughtta set you straight.

Either way, everyone who gets it in this film thoroughly deserves punishment (although for the most part, probably not the punishment they receive), and their pasts, and mis-deeds, become clear as the movie goes on – this is poetic justice meted out in the same way as the classical revenge tragedies of Seneca and Euripides – bloody and harsh retribution with no mercy of any kind for any wrong-doer. You fuck up – you pay, and you better fuckin' believe you'll pay dearly.

Stacy Bridges and the Carlin brothers (who killed Marshall Duncan) are coming back to Lago with murder on their minds, and the townsfolk haven't got the balls to defend themselves and kill these bastards. They employ The Stranger to do it for them, and he exploits them in the most cynical way possible, exposing individuals' greed and selfishness (not to mention spinelessness) for all to see. The only real help he gets is from the town's midget, Mordechai, whose diminutive physicality is obviously representative of the town's lack of strength, conscience or moral fibre. When The Stranger makes Mordechai sheriff and mayor, it's a recognition of his courage and loyalty and innate goodness – he's the only member of the population with backbone and the courage of his convictions, not to mention the willingness to help. 

This is a bleak world view: state (the town council), church (the priest), law (the sheriff and judge) – all worthless and inefficacious. When the cowardly townsfolk finally get The Stranger to help them, they have to bribe him with material goods, and complain when he takes advantage of that (despite the fact that he's only taking them at their word), giving blankets to the Native Americans after they've been abused by the shopkeeper, for one – Eastwood is obviously (not to mention scathingly) assaulting contemporary American values (with that particular example, it's mirrored in Johnny Cash's "The Ballad of Ira Hayes", from roughly the same time – nice to see two of my heroes uniting on a common theme).

Great tough guy banter:

Some dude trying to intimidate The Stranger: "Maybe you think you're fast enough to keep up with us, huh?"
The Stranger: "I'm faster than you'll ever live to be."

Sheriff: "This is a God-fearin' town, these are God-fearin' people!
The Stranger: "You like 'em, you save 'em."

The Stranger: "Well, you're going to look awfully silly with that knife sticking up your ass."

Woman: "If your conscience lets you sleep."
The Stranger: "Oh, I sleep just fine, ma'am."
Woman: "Is that so?"
The Stranger: "Care to see for yourself?"

Woman: "I don't eat with dogs."
The Stranger: "You mind if it's the dog who runs the pack?"

Woman: (disbelievingly – thinking Clint's about to force himself upon her) "I flatter myself?!"
The Stranger: "Yeah, I'd love to oblige you, but a man's got to get his rest sometime."
Woman: (still disbelievingly) "Oblige me??!!"
The Stranger: "Look, if you come back in about a half an hour, I'll see what I can do."

Man: (having been shot by The Stranger) "Do something about my arm, Stacy."
Stacy: "I am doing something, Arthur; I'm sitting here watching you bleed to death."

Bad Guy: "Urgh, dog. Sure had a lot of blood left in him, didn't he?"

Other characters besides The Stranger have flashbacks to Marshall Duncan's death – representative of the collective American unconscious guilt at having betrayed the ideals of the American Dream in the early 70s? Matter for yourself to work out, but when Mordechai has one of these flashbacks, it seems pretty likely to me. Maybe I'm drawing a bit of a long bow on this one, but Mordechai's revulsion at Duncan's murder (the other townsfolk stare on unfeelingly) could possibly represent America's horror at the violence of the Vietnam War – the small voice crying out in the wilderness of conservative indifference; against the old head-in-the-sand tactics – maybe I'm just talking out of my arse, but remember some of the iconic televised scenes of Vietnam War horror: the Buddhist monk self-immolating, the little girl scorched by napalm running down the road, the gun to the head assassination of the VC soldier – who couldn't be moved by that? And think: these were all acts the US was ultimately responsible for, as much as the townsfolk of Lago were responsible for Duncan's death. It gives you pause for thought, if nothing else.

The stab-in-the-back (not literally) attack the resentful townsfolk make on The Stranger, after having cold-cocked poor old Mordechai, kind of re-emphasises my metaphor: predictable human self-interest always comes to the fore. In this instance, America caring only for America, and fuck the little guy, or the guy with the balls to stand out from the crowd – Australian tall-poppy syndrome, writ large.

The full-length visual of Duncan being whipped to death is harsh and unrelenting, especially given the indifference of the townsfolk – searing stuff.

Eastwood delivers all his lines snarled between the teeth, like a fucking wolf. As a tough-guy actor, he's non-pareil – maybe Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson come close on a good day - maybe. Makes you think of Kurt Russell's take on Snake Plissken in Escape From New York as an homage, and no mistake.

In the final act of High Plains Drifter, The Stranger, in a prelude to the bad-guys turning up, has the whole town painted fire-engine red and re-named "Hell" – and the apocalyptic ending makes it pretty fuckin' obvious why. Plot-wise, that's my last word.

Eastwood did a riff on this, ten or so years later, with Pale Rider, but it never lived up to the cold harsh brutality of High Plains Drifter. There's nothing like a good Western, and this is one of the best. If nothing else, this film is a savage indictment of those who stand by and let tyranny and bloodshed occur: you losers create your own problems. Stand up for yourselves, for fuck's sake.
Video
Crystal fuckin' clear – and Eastwood at his best is a genius director. In 2.35:1, anamorphically enhanced, this looks incredible.
Audio
Ditto the sound – so yeah, maybe it's in mono, but it's still good.
Extra Features
Sweeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeet f'k'all. Production notes, Cast and Crew (text bios), a theatrical trailer and some piss-ant weblinks. Gee, thanks. Where the fuck is my full length feature documentary? Or maybe my Eastwood director's commentary? Grrrrr… I mean, they don't promise 'em, but they'd be nice…
The Verdict
Shame about the disc itself – great fucking movie nevertheless. All-in-all: Clint Eastwood as unstoppable avenging angel of death – out-fucking-standing. Buy it now or die.
Movie Score
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