The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Pale Rider

By the 1980s, the western genre had played out the string. Revisionist westerns of the 1970s had nailed that coffin shot, leaving an occasional western for a 1980s audience, flicks like The Long Riders (good), Tom Horn (a near classic), Heaven's Gate (potential but a disaster), and Silverado (okay but meh) among others. What was the most financially successful western of the decade? That would be 1985's Pale Rider.

It's the 1880s somewhere in the California mountains and Hull Barrett (Michael Moriarty) is one of many miners trying to carve a life for himself in a small, isolated mining village. Some gold has been found -- enough to keep the people around -- but no huge lode just yet. Finding any gold strike has proved to be extremely difficult as a local businessman and miner himself, LaHood (Richard Dysart), constantly sends a gang of thugs to disrupt the village's activities. Miners and not gunfighters, the village doesn't know what to do following one particularly dangerous raid. The situation seems hopeless until a mysterious drifter known only as the Preacher (Clint Eastwood) arrives in town. He instantly tangles with LaHood's thugs, prompting a bigger showing of power. Will the Preacher be able to hold off LaHood, especially when he calls in help from a corrupt marshal?

Making over $41 million in theaters in the United States alone, 'Rider' was a huge hit with audiences. Both producing and directing as well as starring, Eastwood makes his return to the western genre that helped make him an international star. His last true western was a classic in itself, 1976's The Outlaw Josey Wales. It is an interesting if not particularly unique western, borrowing very liberally from both Shane and another Eastwood flick, High Plains Drifter. I liked it if I didn't love, a dark if still traditional western that is worth a watch. The filming locations in the Boulder Mountains and Sawtooth National Recreation Area in Idaho are a change of pace visually, beautiful, cluttered and claustrophobic like it's hanging over the story. Composer Lennie Niehaus' score was forgettable as I'm unable to member a single note or tune.

This is one of a few Eastwood movies that's evaded me over the years. I heard less than sterling reviews, but when it showed up on TCM's scheduling recently I wanted to give it a shot. Eastwood is one of a few faces of the western genre, a huge star who's name is instantly associated with it. He plays a similar character here to what we're familiar with, a quiet (although he talks more than usual) drifter, a gunman who travels with the clothes on his pack and his bedroll and saddle. He doesn't seem to take money, only doing what he believes to be right; in this case, defending the miners against the greedy, evil LaHood. Though he is downright talkative relative to his other roles, Eastwood is a menacing, intimidating presence more than anything. His Preacher is a great character, a familiar if worthwhile anti-hero.

The most accurate description I can give of this movie is Shane meets High Plains Drifter. It blends the idea of a hired gun -- Shane -- protecting landowners/farmers with a possibly other-worldly potential -- as was the case in HPD. Nothing is ever spelled out, but there is obviously the intention that Eastwood's Preacher is some sort of avenging angel, quoting literally Revelations. Preacher actually shows up following a prayer asking for help. He moves effortlessly, seemingly disappearing at times, especially in a final showdown. Hired guns fire blindly where they saw him, but he's not there anymore. Is he a ghost? Is he dead? An avenging angel? There's another route, one that I prefer. Preacher is a man back from the dead -- we see his back riddled with past bullet wounds -- and one key character appears to know him from somewhere. However you interpret the character, it allows for some pretty cool possibilities.

The supporting cast, while solid, doesn't jump off the page. Maybe there's too many characters, too much going on. Moriarty is the Joe Starrett character, the miner trying to build a life for himself, taking in a widow (shrill, annoying Carrie Snodgress) and her daughter (Sydney Penny), both taking an instant like to Preacher. He pairs well with Eastwood, both good men, one just more pure. Dysart is a decent villain but underused. The real villain is John Russell as Stockburn, an aging, corrupt marshal who works for whatever law will pay him and travels with six gunslinging deputies (including Billy Drago). Also look for Chris Penn as LaHood's bullying, entitled son and Richard Kiel as one of his miners/henchmen. That's just the start though with at least a dozen other speaking parts, none given a whole lot to do.

The action too is saved for a few specific set pieces. One, Preacher's introduction in town as he whales on a handful of LaHood henchmen with a solid piece of hickory, almost like a samurai wielding a sword (watch it HERE). The best is the finale as Preacher goes up against Stockburn and his deputies on an empty, quiet street. This is the scene that most convinced me the character is some sort of avenging angel, especially the ultimate resolution. I did like this western, but it is missing something that prevents it from being a classic. The insistence on Snodgress' Sarah and Penny's Megan both falling for Preacher is a little much, especially in execution in some painfully stilted scenes. Even the final scenes loses some effectiveness because of it. A good western, not a great one.

Pale Rider (1985): ***/****    

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