The situation is familiar enough, previously dramatized in another film, Shane (1953): A stranger appears and becomes involved with good people who are being tormented by a powerful adversary as they struggle to eke out a living as miners camped along a river. Eastwood has duly acknowledged several similarities with Shane while explaining that he wanted to create his own version and commissioned a script based on that basic situation. As for the film's title, as she was reading the Bible with her mother (a widow, played by Carrie Snodgrass), Megan Wheeler (played by Sydney Penny), comes upon this passage: "And I saw, and behold, a pale horse, and its rider's name was death, and hell followed him." Soon after, a lone horseman (Clint Eastwood) dressed as a preacher, rides into camp. His name is never revealed, nor is his background, but the miners soon realize that the Preacher is probably much handier with a gun than he is with holy scripture. Of course, the confrontation with LaHood and his hired gunmen (led by a man named Stockburn) is inevitable. There is a vague but inescapable implication that the Preacher may have once ridden with Stockburn. There is no doubt that they once knew each other.
To his credit, Eastwood underplays any Biblical implications. In fact, most of the action occurs slowly. Opportunities to develop a sub plot are rejected, probably because Eastwood wants to sustain the focus on the conflict between decency and mendacity. Although the widow is obviously "taken" with the Preacher and he feels at least some attraction to her (as was also the case with Shane and Marion Starret), the Preacher rides off as the film ends, as does Shane. Hull Barret is Joe Starret's counterpart. Both are willing but neither is equal to the challenge of saving their friends from oppression. Shane and the Preacher become involved because they care about the good folks, of course, but also because (it is implied) their destiny is to confront and eliminate evil, then depart. Stockburn is a contract laborer, as is Jack Wilson in Shane. Literally, a hired gun. Nothing personal, although Stockburn (as portrayed by John Russell) seems to me somewhat world-weary whereas Wilson still seems to enjoy killing whomever he must to complete an assignment.
One final point: I have admired as well as enjoyed the development of Eastwood's skills as a director over several decades, beginning with Play Misty for Me (1971). I think there is much greater diversity in his selection and presentation of material as a director than there is as an actor. Some have characterized this as a "noir film" and in certain respects it is. The somber tone he establishes and then sustains in Pale Rider (1985) may well have contributed to the effectiveness of a comparable tone in later films, notably Unforgiven (1992). I am eager to see what new challenges he takes on in films yet to be directed but I am equally eager to see relationships of those films with earlier works such as this.
This movie is largely a remake of the classic, "Shane", starring Alan Ladd, only this time the daunting task that the wandering gunman does with the local man is breaking up a large rock rather than removing a stump. A group of miners have a valid claim to a section of creek bed, but they are being pressured to leave by a wealthy miner (LaHood) that owns the neighboring claims. The group is about to leave after a group of the miner's workers rides through and disrupts their camp, killing a dog and … more
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