Under The Radar: Pale Rider (1985)- The Return of the Classic Western
Updated: Mar 25
I remember Pale Rider, like it came out yesterday. I also remember how my neighbors and my parents cogitated the return of the good “ol’ fashioned western”. The genre that made Eastwood a superstar to begin with. I was so excited to see Clint Eastwood acting in a western and if that wasn’t cool enough, he was directing the movie as well.
Now, you have to remember that the 80’s were the very beginning of the Hollywood blockbusters and franchises. We had Rocky, Rambo, Commando, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, Star Wars, Star Trek, Die Hard and Lethal Weapon. Westerns weren’t exactly cleaning up at the box office. If there wasn’t a spaceship, explosions, sexy vixens or bulging biceps, the film wouldn’t get a major push from a big Hollywood studio. The track record speaks for itself, Heaven’s Gate made a total of 3 million dollars against its rumoured 44-million-dollar budget, The Long Riders made 15 million against its 8-million-dollar budget. Even with Hollywood heavy weights like Charlie Sheen, Emilio Estevez and Kiefer Sutherland, they couldn’t get Young Guns past the 45-million-dollar mark compared to that of the 100 million dollar hit films at that time.
Pale Rider was made with a modest budget of almost 7 million dollars however it grossed over 40 million at the North American box office. The film’s plot was about a mysterious man called the Preacher who takes up the cause of defending a mining community against Coy Lahood, a scoundrel who wanted to bilk the miners’ out of their property for the mineral deposits beneath it. The narrative is nothing new, drawing its inspiration from the classic film Shane along with Eastwoods’ very own, High Plaines Drifter. But, it’s the air of mystery and the spiritual / religious subtleties surrounding the Preacher character that made Pale Rider fan favourite among both critics and movie goers.
At the beginning of the film, the mining community endures a brutal attack, and one of the survivors of the attack, Megan Wheeler (Sydney Penny) is heard reading aloud two very different passages from the Bible. The first one, Psalm 24 which basically asks for guidance and protection and the second being the Book of Revelation, which asks for retribution. <When He opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, “Come and see.” So I looked, and behold, a pale horse. And the name of him who sat on it was Death, and Hades followed with him.>. Just as Megan finishes to read from the Book of Revelation, Clint’s’ character rides into the mining community. Has Megan’s prayer been heard? Is the Preacher an avenging angel?
As the story progresses, we see that the film’s protagonist, Coy LaHood (Richard Dystart) hires Marshal Stockburn and his six deputies to kill the Preacher and the remaining miners. If we stick to the religious theme, 7 is very significant. The book of revelations describes that “Seven angels pour out seven bowls of wrath” (15:7). As well, the name Stockburn, could be closely associated with the Dragon or Serpent in English culture,
therefore can we interpret it as a reference to the Book of Revelation where the <avenging angels of Michael fight against the angels of the Dragon>. Is Clint’s Preacher character Michael? There are so many references in Pale Rider and each can be interpreted differently. To be perfectly honest, I never really followed all the spiritual/religious subtleties closely. I just thought that it was cool that the Preacher could be an avenging angel.
Over the years I picked up more and more of the spiritual/ religious subtleties, however they never took away from the entertainment value of the film. In fact, I thought that it added an air of mystery to the film, most notably to the Preacher character.
All that being said, what did I get out of Pale Rider upon my initial viewing was this: Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider was a big “F”-you to the major studio heads. He came in and made a good film on a modest budget that resonated with the movie-going public. It seemed that Clint Eastwood saw that the 80’s were only the tip of the iceberg with regards to films relying solely on special effects, over the top action and unbelievable heroes. He seemed to see the future of cinema would be that of franchises and their inferior sequels. With Pale Rider, he showed that people simply wanted a film that they could relate to or believe in and a quote from the film’s antagonist, Col LaHood (Richard Dysart) proved that thought. “When I left, those tin pans had all but given up. Their spirit was nearly broken. A man without spirit is whipped. But a preacher, he could give them faith. Shit! One ounce of faith, they'll be dug in deeper than a tick on a hound.”
All in all, Pale Rider is an entertaining film and deserves at least one viewing in your lifetime. The film has a basic but timeless story of good versus evil and the faith needed to overcome it. It still holds up today and showcases a film that doesn’t need to throw everything and kitchen sink at the movie goer to get its message across. Because Eastwood’s Pale Rider was a success with both critics and movie goers it gave a much needed second wind to the western genre but more importantly it sent a clear message that a good story is a good story. Period. Besides,if it were not for the success of Pale Rider, 1992’s Unforgiven may never have seen the light of day.
If love westerns, then look no further than the film that may have saved the genre 32 years ago.
You can purchase Pale Rider right here at the Aroundtable Store.