‘High Plains Drifter’ review

11 10 2010

[written by writer,  Thomas Emson]

I am a Clint Eastwood fan. I count Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby among my favourite films. I remember watching him in Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy when I was young, and also enjoying The Outlaw Josey Wales.

Released in 1973, High Plains Drifter was Eastwood’s second film as a director after Play Misty For Me. It was written by Ernest Tidyman, who won a best screenplay Oscar two years previously for The French Connection.

High Plains Drifter tells the story of a stranger (Eastwood) who rides into the town of Lago and is ultimately hired by the townsfolk to protect them from three gunfighters due to be released from prison. A flashback reveals that the gunfighters whipped Lago’s marshall to death while the population watched. Eastwood cast his own stunt double Buddy Van Horn in the role of the marshall, which suggests a physical similarity between the two characters. And could the stranger also be the reincarnated marshall? Eastwood has certainly never shied away from supernatural explanations.

When the three gunfighters arrive in Lago, they discover the town has been painted red and renamed Hell. Ultimately, the stranger kills the trio and rides out of the ruined town.

High Plains Drifter falls under the Weird West sub-genre, which also includes Westworld, Wild Wild West, and the more recent Jonah Hex. Eastwood virtually remade it 12 years later when he directed Pale Rider – another ‘stranger rides into town’ movie; another one for the Weird West drawer.

I never quite understood High Plains Drifter when I was young. I suspect it was because of the supernatural element: the possibility that Eastwood’s character was an avenging angel or the ghost of the marshal. It wasn’t a straightforward Western like Shane, The Magnificent Seven or The Outlaw Josey Wales. Watching it again a few days ago, I hoped to grasp its subtleties. Sadly that didn’t happen.

Although the viewer doesn’t necessarily need to sympathize with a movie’s protagonist, he or she does need to find them appealing – even in a bad way. The stranger is certainly an anti-hero, and that’s fine. But I lost interest in the character when he drags Callie Travers (Marianna Hill) into a barn and rapes her – after she gets a little uppity with him. This was the 1970s, a misogynistic period for film-making, but I found this gratuitous (and that’s coming from a horror novelist).

The assault on Hill’s character just wasn’t necessary. If he felt he needed to teach her a lesson, the stranger could have dumped her in a water trough, which was outside the barn. To drag her into the hay and rape the woman was too much.

Violence has to be in context, and I just couldn’t fathom the reason for the attack on Hill’s character.

But let’s not damn the whole film on the basis of one scene. High Plains Drifter is not one of Eastwood’s best. It’s a strange film that might not appeal to traditionalist Western fans, but the supernatural element makes it a little bit more interesting.

Eastwood is a great film-maker, and has made one or two true masterpieces. High Plains Drifter shows signs of an ambitious director who dared to try something different. It is a shame about the misogyny; it made me grimace and certainly dislike the main character – but you have to put it in context, as I said – and if you can bear that unnecessary scene, High Plains Drifter is definitely worth watching.

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One response

18 06 2011
High plains fan

The rape scenehas to be viewed in context… Callie used sex to manipulate the men in the town to get whatever she wanted, and was attempting to “put her hooks” into the”new meat”. So he took her sexual manipulation and turned it against her in the form of “rape” (looked like she rather enjoyed it to me) and all of her subsequent anger and faux indignation stemmed from his refusal of her agenda, something she had grown all too accustomed to with the other men of the town.

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