Movies We Like
High Plains Drifter
Oh, the seventies, the best decade for movies ever! So often I see a film from that period and think, "they would never allow that to happen in a movie today." Case in point: High Plains Drifter. The year, 1973. This was a big movie for Universal, a big budget film. It was directed by and starred Clint Eastwood, who at that time was the biggest megastar in the world. Clint was playing the "hero" of the picture. Now you won't see this from a megastar in a movie today: in the first ten minutes or so he goes and rapes a woman, brutally in the light of day, while the people of the town ignore her plea for help (in Clint's defense, later in the film she comes back for more).
That's not the only naughty shenanigan Clint gets into. Clint's stranger, the new man in an unusually picturesque seaside Western town, is hired by the town's business class to protect their property from some revenge-seeking tough guys who recently got out of jail (those same business owners once employed them and when they got out of control, framed them and sent them to jail). And now Clint is the town's new protector and he seems to be hell-bent on his own kind of revenge against the town, in the form of humiliation. He takes advantage of his open tab to spend, he appoints the town little person as town sheriff and then, in preparation for the returning outlaws, he makes the town paint itself red (even the church is forced into being covered in paint).
The men in this town are constantly reminded how unmanly they are. They need a true man to protect them. Slowly it is revealed, with the help of some flashbacks, that perhaps Clint was once the town's controversial sheriff who was whipped and murdered in the town's square as these same townspeople just stood and watched. Yes, there is a supernatural element at play here. Clint would kind of use those same mystical elements again later with his Shane rip-off/remake, Pale Rider.
What a glorious and interesting time for movie Westerns. The Spaghetti Western had peaked and left its strangeness as a major impact for the Westerns to come. High Plains Drifter is a good example - before this period you would have never seen Jimmy Stewart or John Wayne playing this role. Actually, in the seventies Wayne was almost dead, and even he seemed to be breaking out of his mold with slightly more complicated (psychologically speaking) Westerns (True Grit, The Shootest, The Cowboys). Indeed the seventies were packed with many off-beat American Westerns blazing a new trail, films like Bite The Bullet, Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, The Missouri Breaks, Rancho Deluxe, Hearts Of The West (the later two starring young Jeff Bridges) to name but a few - all films that one could not imagine being funded in later years.
It would end in 1985 and the slickly limp Silverado would finally put the nail in the American Western coffin (for at least a little while - of course, Eastwood would have major success with his Unforgiven and again spark a new generation of American Westerns). Or maybe in the eighties the American Western was just recast - the frontier was traded in for the apocalypse, when George Miller and Mel Gibson updated the Fort Apache formula with their Mad Max hero in The Road Warrior.
But back to the seventies. Besides the Western, it was a glorious time to be Clint Eastwood (when wasn't it? Maybe when he was making those "good ol' boys" Orangutan movies). High Plains Drifter was Eastwood's second gig as the director; it was a follow up to his equally shocking Play Misty For Me. He would then take two steps back with his next directing choices, the goofy William Holden love story Breezy (think Gran Torino, if there were no gangs and if the old guy got to have sex with a cute hippie chick) and the ultra boring Eiger Sanction. But then a few years later in '76 he would hit with his best film and one of the greatest Western of all time, The Outlaw Josey Wales.
Like High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales is very violent (maybe not by today’s standards, but both films have a brutality or meanness about the violence). In terms of message however, the two films are mirror opposites of each other. Where Drifter is downright nihilistic, Wales is almost uplifting. In Drifter the Eastwood character is trying to create hell (hence painting the town red. Get it? Get it?). Josey Wales, by the end, is creating heaven with his rag tag posy replacing his beloved murdered family. Both films mark a peak for the American Western and especially for Eastwood as both an actor and a director. He would have a rough patch of mostly bad films to follow until he would reinvent himself as old man director and critical darling. I’ll take High Plains Drifter over that award-winning Million Dollar Baby crap any day.