Saturday, February 18, 2017

Welcome to Hell: High Plains Drifter (1973)

directed by Clint Eastwood
written by Ernest Tidyman
“High Plains Drifter isn’t what the West was all about. That isn’t the American people who settled this country.” – John Wayne in a letter to Eastwood.
Years later, Eastwood said this: “It’s just an allegory…a speculation on what happens when they go ahead and kill the sheriff and somebody comes back and calls the town’s conscience to bear. There’s always retribution for your deeds.”

 In the first fifteen minutes of High Plains Drifter, Clint Eastwood's unnamed rides into the lakeshore town of Lago and kills a trio of gunmen then rapes a woman who insults and smacks him (Marianna Hill). Instead of trying to arrest Clint, the town's sheriff tries to hire him. Later, when the woman tries to shoot Clint, someone suggests she only did it because she was mad he because "he didn't go back for more." Clint's no sort of hero, making this, it would seem, the model of a Revisionist Western.

Clint Eastwood as the high plains drifter
If you read the explanation of Revisionist Western on Wikipedia, though, it's really all rather vague. It states that, starting after WWII, directors and writers started questioning "the ideals and style of the traditional Western."  Among the pictures it grants the distinction of belonging to the sub-genre are Ride the High Country (1962), The Wild Bunch (1969), and Little Big Man (1970).The only thing that ties them together is a marked degree of cynicism. In the first film, a fairly traditional one, it's moderate, while in the other two, to call it severe is inadequate. 

The Western has always lent itself to critiquing American assumptions, I think the only thing that really makes the films most commonly called revisionist "revisionist," is the presence of more blood and sex than in older films. The same thing that happened to the rest of filmmaking happened to Westerns: the boundaries around those two matters were pushed and expanded until they broke. 

Marianna Hill and Eastwood
Sometimes, as with Little Big Man, it was a good thing, others, like in A Man Called Horse (1970), a little less so. The point is, I don't think Revisionist Western really means anything. That said, High Plains Drifter is plenty bloody and violent, and has that rape.

Take out that rape, though, and HPD could probably have been made at any time in the history of Westerns. Shortly after Clint's nameless rider comes to town, we learn, as seen through a nightmare he has, that Lago's marshall was whipped to death in the middle of the street. The same men looking to hire Clint were there and didn't lift a finger or say a word to stop the murder. Clearly, the wanderer is linked to the killing.

The Whipping

The men Clint killed in the opening scene were hired by the town to stop a trio of men (played by Geoffrey Lewis, Dan Vadis, and Anthony James) from wreaking havoc on Lago. The way the sheriff explains it, the good people of Lago caught them stealing and got them sent off to jail. Now, their sentences are up and everyone expects them to come back looking to get even. The viewer knows it's not that simple: the men with the whips were the three prisoners. Later we learn, the murder was commissioned by the people of Lago to cover up another crime.

Vadis, Lewis, and James

Clint signs on, but only after extracting concessions from the townspeople. First, anything he asks for, from any merchant, any citizen, he gets free of charge. Second, all the men of the town must join a defense force and practice every day. The "good" people of Lago, readily, if very unhappily, agree to his demands and immediately start paying a steep price.

The gun dealer and the tailor learn quickly that this deal applies to them as well as everyone else. When the sheriff and mayor needle the saloonkeeper when he balks over eating the price for a round of drinks for the whole bar crowd, Clint strips them their offices, as their own contributions. Increasingly, the drifter's demands become stranger and stranger.

Mordecai (Billy Curtis) becomes Mayor and Sheriff

HPD practically revels in its darkness. Most of Lago's citizens are corrupt and hypocritical. When Clint tells the pastor to take in the folks put out when the hotel's blown up, he does, but for only for a price. The only good people (all two of them) are powerless. The villains might as well be twirling their mustaches they're so despicable. By the end, Clint doesn't make anyone confront their sins, but instead, suffer and burn for them. The survivors are shell-shocked and few.

Production-wise, Eastwood drew on his experiences with Sergio Leone. His character, dressed in wide-brimmed hat and cigar stuck to his lip only needs a poncho to double for any of his three Man With No Name appearances. His dry, laconic line delivery is exactly the same. Like the towns in Leone's Westerns, Lago exists in isolation from the rest of the world, on the desert-surrounded shore of a bleak looking lake (Mono Lake in California - a high salt, alkaline lake). It could easily be a setting for a post-apocalyptic movie as much as a Western (and really, how far apart are those two genres, really, you know, except for the V8 interceptors instead of horses?). 

A drifter arrives at Lago
So what to make of this movie? If you don't know how Eastwood described it, how do you approach High Plains Drifter? Well, as a story of vengeance. Everybody who participated in or abetted the murder of the marshall pays. Even the first rape, which quickly mutates into a disturbing "she really wants" scene, serves to set up Hill's character for a later scene where it's clear she's a purely mercenary opportunist. The implication with the rape being she senses Clint's the strong horse worth grabbing hold of.

As a revenge story, it's brutal and effective. It's not so much you root for Clint - he remains coldly unknowable - but against the townspeople. We see what they did and know why, and that they don't have a drop of remorse. We want to see some sort of justice meted out for the dead marshall, and Clint's clearly the tool that's been chosen for retribution.

The thing I haven't mentioned is that High Plains Drifter isn't just a story of vengeance, but of supernatural vengeance. Clint, though, is no avenging angel, but an ambassador from below. For its inhabitants' crimes, Lago is turned into an outpost of Hell. The movie doesn't have any ghostly apparitions or spectral coyotes howling in the sagebrush, but gradually, the mystery of Clint's presence in Lago is revealed to have unearthly underpinnings.

This movie doesn't succeed because of its characters' depth, but on its powerful images and the elemental nature of its story. The landscape is harsh and barren, much like the townspeople's souls. These are people sunk in corruption. They they used three evil men to kill in order to protect their secrets. Now they are hoping to use someone even meaner to try and avoid their justifed fate. Unknowingly, they welcome the hand of judgment into their homes. 

Justice demands to be served. Lago must be purged - and it is.with fire, bullets, and a whip. As the final part of the films begins, when every surface of Lago has been transformed, the viewer is left without a doubt to the depth of terror the town and its people are about to be subjected to. 

Rating  - A: From the first time I saw High Plains Drifter, probably when I was twelve or thirteen, I was struck by Eastwood's stark vision of justice for the dead and punishment of the wicked. Lago painted red will never leave my brain. This is filmmaking as primitive mythmaking, and as such it is unforgettable.

I'm starting to think I shouldn't bother with the ratings, as I won't be reviewing movies I don't like (so no Silverado or High Noon). I'll probably keep them though. I have a tradition of revisiting old favorites and finding them disappointing (I'm thinking of John Ford's Cavalry Trilogy). I'm also hoping to hit a few films I still haven't seen yet (One-Eyed Jacks springs to mind)

High Plains Drifter's historical location

Like so many Westerns, the film's exact location is never made clear. It was filmed largely around Mono Lake, just east of the Sierra Nevadas

Rating System
A: Ace - Brilliant or groundbreaking; one of the best that no fan should miss.
B: Bravo - Good stuff, but less than perfection
C: Cowpoke - Routine oater, filler
D: Dismal - Sloppy or junky, but either way not worth the runtime

Next time: Ride Lonesome (1959), one of the Bud Boetticher/Randolph Scott movies. It co-stars a young Pernell Roberts and, in one of his first films, James Coburn. Spaghetti Western icon, Lee van Cleef is also on hand.


  1. Excellent take on a movie that always disturbed the hell out of me…
    Jim Cornelius

    1. Thanx! It must have been weird as hell to see up on the screen back in '73.

  2. Nice one, Fletcher!

    But what makes you think it's supernatural? As I remember it, the reveal is that he's the Marshall's brother (or related in some way). It's been a few years, so the details are fuzzy, but that's how I recall it.

    1. First, as he's leaving, Mordecai says: "I never did know your name" and Clint responds "Yes, you do." The camera pulls around to reveal the freshly inscribed headstone for Marshall Jim Duncan. Second, the Clint couldn't have seen the murder if he wasn't there. Finally, Eastwood wanted a more supernatural tone to the movie and deliberately excised any idea his character was the marshall's brother. He wanted to his character to be a revnant visiting punishment on the wicked.

  3. This is probably one of my favorite Eastwood movies. The scene where the townspeople have been abandoned by Clint and are being held in the saloon and the whip comes flying in over the swinging doors from out of the darkness is one of the most powerful in the whole movie. And you're right. It's a ghost story, a subtle but highly effective one. Never fails to give me chills.

    1. It's up there for me too, right next to Josey Wales. The whip scene reminds me of the final gundown Clint inflicts in Unforgiven. Need to rewatch and compare.

    2. I had forgotten that scene in Unforgiven.

  4. A lot of the old time westerns are a lot darker than people think. The Searchers is pretty dark. (The book darker than the movie.)

    Leigh Brackett, pulp write and screenwriter for Rio Bravo, noted the mythological West wasn't like the real west, though she liked the real West.

    Robert E. Howard wrote a few "Weird Westerns" like the "Man on the Ground" and "Old Garfield's Heart." He also wrote what is an early anti-hero type Western, "The Vultures of Whapeton."

    1. Absolutely. There's some bitter and dark stuff in a lot of older Westerns. Way more than many casual viewers realize.

      I'll have to track down Brackett writing about Westerns. She's totally right vis a vis myth vs. reality. Heck, the reality is mostly going to be closer to Laura Ingalls Wilder's books than Sergio Leone's movies.

      I've only the REH Westerns in the Collected Horror. I remember digging them.

    2. I've not read many, but there are some relatively inexpensive collections of both his serious and his humorous westerns to be had.

  5. got this kicking around somewhere

    1. Ooo...that's collectible. Bison Press did a collection roughly a decade ago, and then the REH Foundation recently published all the serious westerns in one hardcover edittion.

    2. Hilarious. My dad, a connoisseur of Western stories and fan of REH, bought it and hated it. He told me they were terrible.

  6. There is also the manner in which Eastwood's character materializes from the heat shimmer at the beginning and fades away the same way at the end, that signifies the supernatural.