Weird Westerns: High Plains Drifter (1973)
Clint Eastwood's tale of supernatural revenge in the Old West is probably the most successful Weird Western even made, in part because critics refuse to admit it is a Weird Western.
By Max Sparber
"High Plains Drifter" is likely the most successful Weird Western ever made, despite what I can only assume is a critical conspiracy to refuse to identity it as such. When you read reviews of the film, even from when it was released, there is a lot of talk about the film being ambiguous, with perhaps hints of the supernatural, for those who want to dig for them.
The film is not ambiguous. It is about a mining town that collectively participated in the murder of a lawman, and the lawman's ghost comes back as Clint Eastwood to take revenge on all of them. That's the plot, and the only reason there seems to be any ambiguity is because Eastwood doesn't turn directly to the camera and declare it to be the plot.
Despite all the fuss critics made in the 60s about a participating in a critical reevaluation of the Western, it was mostly hooey. Critics celebrated Westerns that were already critical darlings, such as "Stagecoach" (nominated for seven Oscars, winner of three!) and "Shane" (six Oscar nominations, one win!). But they ignored the sort of Western that critics had always sneered at, the Poverty Row oaters, the serials, the Weird Westerns.
"High Plains Drifter" is a very well-made Western. Eastwood himself directed it, and he's often a terrific director. Despite his association with the genre, Eastwood has directed surprisingly few Westerns in his long career, but his films have been smart, complicated pieces that question the basic tropes of the Western, including heroism and the heroic use of violence.
There is nothing heroic about "High Plains Drifter." The film is set in a little mining town on a alkali lake that is barely a town, but instead a handful of recently constructed buildings and a surprisingly large cemetery. The town has a secret, collective sin: Their mining operation is on government land, and they hired three desperadoes to bullwhip to death a marshal who found this out and planned to report it. The town leaders then railroaded the three desperadoes.
The film is set on the eve of the desperadoes release from prison, and follows the town's preparations, as well as the desperadoes, who are led by an especially oily Geoffrey Lewis. All of the is a little unsettled by the arrival of Eastwood, who squints and scowls, kills the gunmen hired by the town, abuses everyone in the town, and rapes a local woman.
About the last part: The film manages to try and squirrel its way out of the act, first by suggesting that the character wanted it, and later by presenting the character as an awful creature who will cravenly shack up with anyone who will present her interests. And the scene is consistent with a lot of scenes from 70s films in which the men are too aggressive and the women eventually yield, and it turns out that's what the women wanted all along.
And it doesn't work. It didn't work then — the film was widely criticized for the scene — and it especially doesn't work now. Because there is no point in the film where it is clear the woman gave consent, and, in the absence of consent, there is only rape.
I suppose a case might be made that the film includes a rape to indicate that Eastwood's character is morally ambiguous, but that doesn't work for me either. He kills a lot of people in the film, but never preemptively; it's always in self-defense, or, at least, after they have demonstrated their murderousness. He's a force of revenge in the film, and that is morally ambiguous territory, but we get the sense that the revenge is earned. Nothing about the rape seems earned, nor should it.
For some, the rape is going to be a deal-killer, and I can't blame them. It's a strangely frequent storytelling device (especially in 1970s horror films), but rarely by filmmakers who had any sensitivity about the subject.It's frequently a deal-breaker for me — I have seen so many films that use sexual violence as a shitty plot point that I just don't have the energy for it any more.
It's too bad, too, because there are reasons "High Plains Drifter" is frequently seen as a classic. The script is lean and sardonic, and was written by Ernest Tidyman, who also wrote "The French Connection." The film looks terrific, and includes a striking, startling image unparalleled in the history of Western films: At our ghostly stranger's insistence, the locals paints their entire town red and rename it hell.
The cast is uniformly superb, with Verna Bloom as the lone voice of conscience in the town, Walt Barnes as an ineffectual sheriff, and "Terror of Tiny Town" star Billy Curtis as a diminutive, put-upon townsperson who finds himself in an unexpected position of authority after Clint Eastwood arrives. I said at the start that this is a film without heroes, but it's not entirely without sympathy. Eastwood's camera frequently turns to either Bloom's or Curtis' eyes (it's a film with a lot of reaction shots), with Bloom looking outraged and Curtis looking heartbroken. It makes the the sole sympathetic characters in the film, and the film doesn't precisely reward them for this, but, in a film about punishment, it spares them.
The film's reliance on reaction shots is especially effectively used in a recurring flashback, in which the entire town watches as the lawman gets bullwhipped to death. This is surprisingly long and brutal scene that carefully establishes the culpability of the town and was reportedly inspired by the stories of murder victim Kitty Genovese, whose screams for help were supposed to have been ignored by dozens of bystanders.
We don't actually see much of the whipping; Eastwood uses the same sorts of tricks Hitchcock employed in his "Psycho" shower scene to imply graphic violence without showing it. But we do see the audience for the event, and, by seeing their reactions, we know what sort of people they are.
John Wayne was famously outraged by this film, and one suspects by Eastwood's entire career in Westerns until then, writing a letter to Eastwood. "That isn’t the American people who settled this country," Wayne wrote, complaining that this was not a country built on cynical, homicidal selfishness, but instead on collaboration and cooperation.
One suspects Wayne had not read "A People's History of the United States," or looked into history too much in general. I've been to Wayne's birthplace of Winterset, Iowa, in Madison County, where Eastwood would later make a film about romance in the shadow of the area's historic covered bridges.
Winterset is part of the greater Des Moines area, an area that was first used by the White man as a military fort to control the Sauk and Meskwaki Indians, originally from Eastern Iowa but forcibly relocated by the U.S. government; they were later pushed further West. This was in the shadow of the Black hawk war, a conflict over the loss of tribal lands that cost between 450-600 Native lives.
So it is hard to sympathize with Wayne's romantic view of the West, which was, after all, forcible settled after a genocidal war against its native inhabitants.
But, when you know history, it's also hard to sympathize with Eastwood's film, in which the killing of a white marshal causes cosmic revenge that literally destroys the killers, their supporters, and the whole town where it happened.
In order to believe it, we must believe the universe could rest easily with the extermination of the original Native inhabitants, but the killing of one White man demands the earth spit out a supernatural gunman for revenge.
"There's always retribution for your deeds," Eastwood said of the film, but that's not true. If it were, the whole west would have been painted red and scorched off the face of the earth, as the whole of it was built on the graves of murdered Indians.