With an amoral, enigmatic and thought-provoking character at the centre of its mythical tale, Clint Eastwood’s 1973 High Plains Drifter treads ambiguously towards good and evil as it intertwines past feelings of guilt with a thirsty for revenge and pathetic cowardice.
Although the supernatural aspect of High Plains Drifter manages to add a further layer of meaning to the already ambiguous story, it is as a morality play that the film excels. As it deals with universal themes such as honor, honesty and courage in a microcosm of humanity, the movie wisely illustrates how little difference there is between this isolated, frontier town, at the threshold of civilization’s moral certitudes, and our modern, ever-changing, media-centred existence. What a magnificent and unconventional masterwork!
An enigmatic stranger (Clint Eastwood) arrives in the mining town of Lago. While drinking peacefully, he is confronted by three men, who after trying to murder him are all killed by the Stranger. He then rapes Callie Travers (Mariana Hill) after she publicly insults him. The morning after, she tries unsuccessfully to kill him. It is then revealed that outlaws Stacey Bridges (Geoffrey Lewis), Dan Carlin (Dan Vadis) and Cole Carlin (Anthony James), who brutally whipped to death Federal Marshal Jim Duncan (Buddy Van Horn) as the town folks passively watched, are being released from prison. Then, the people of Lago decide to engage the Stranger in defending the town against the bandits. At first, he refuses point-blank, but as they offer a deal of total submission, the Stranger accepts the responsibility.
The tone of the film remains ambiguous to the very end. On his first night in town, the Stranger recalls in a dream the whipping of Marshal Jim Duncan (who is played by Eastwood’s own stunt double, thus suggesting a link between the two). When the Stranger is finally leaving town, the diminutive Mordecai (Billy Curtis) tells him ‘I never did know your name…’ and he replies ‘Yes, you do.’ As the camera focus on Duncan’s gravestone, my first thought wasn’t that he was the dead man’s spirit on an avenging mission, but instead that perhaps the marshal is not buried there. No conclusive proof can be found to ascertain that he was indeed dead – there’s simply not enough background story to confirm that.
..‘Just a Peaceful Hour to Drink It In…’
However, just an instant before the end credits, the Stranger disappears from the frame, reenforcing the assumption that he was in fact the ghost of Marshal Jim Duncan. Speculations abound about his identity. For some he was Marshal Jim Duncan’s brother, who being aware of the release of the prisoners, decides to visit Lago in order to get revenge against them. For others, the Stranger was the devil himself, trying to exert chaos in the little town. Personally, I stick with the idea that the Stranger and Marshal Jim Duncan are the one and the same, despite the unlikelihood of folks not recognising him. Just remember that when people are under pressure and in denial, their minds play tricks on their perceptions.
A little more subversive though is to assume that the Stranger’s brand of vindictive justice is actually justified. Although the film stirs us towards such a view, reasonable people understand that vengeance and justice ought not be in the same sentence (forgive the pun!) The old West is by its very nature a place where shootings and executions and posse mentality are part and parcel of life. We might enjoy the fantasy of heroism, virtuous ladies and shrewd prostitutes as a relic of an idealized past, but would not accept its rules as a framework for modern society. And I speak here with no hint of cynical irony as I admit that few of its principles and codes of honor were passed over to us through the decades.
Contrary to the modern version of ‘an eye for an eye’ kind of justice, implicit in capital punishment – which does not teach anyone anything as the victim is dead, the perpetrator is executed and the victim’s family feed off their anger over the death of the criminal – here, every single guilty individual, who through their action or inaction caused the death of the marshal, gets to experience proper remorse. Every day, as they anxiously await for the arrival of the outlaws, they are reminded of their atrocious attitude. The framework might seem over the top, where one guy gets to play dictator, but it serves a rightful purpose, as well as not even coming close to replicate on them what has been done to Duncan.
Because the punishment imposed onto the people – and let’s not forget that the Stranger keeps his part of the bargain and get rid of the criminals – is collective in nature, the catharsis as a result of such experience becomes long-lasting. As every one of them are mirrors for whom the others see their true disgusted reflection, a necessary healing process is initiated, leading the community on the path of recovery and redemption. Thus the town’s transformation, so apparent on the surface of the buildings painted red, exerts its influence on a deeper level, inside the minds of the population of Lago. It is interesting that the red paint as a metaphor might allude to communism, or collective action.
First of all, High Plains Drifter is a wonderfully weird masterpiece, infused in mystery and morality. Secondly, it has to be said, this is a film which is oftentimes unjustly underrated. And lastly, the Stranger is indeed a great incarnation of the Man with No Name…