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Film & TV

‘And Hell Followed with Him’: Gothic Economics in Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider (1985) – Part 1

The following is part one of a four part series by John Edgar Browning about Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider, taken from “Undead in the West II: They Just Keep Coming“, a book chronicling films in the Gothic Western and Weird Western genre.

Pale Rider (1985), a film regarded by many as Clint Eastwood’s remake of Shane (1953), breaks radically from the more generic conflict readily seen in Westerns, wherein the line between heroes and villains, good and evil, “giver” and “taker,” is often clearly demarcated. Instead, Pale Rider adopts a more complex narrative that, Joseph K. Heumann and Robin L. Murray ex plain, “highlights and critiques” the environmentally devastating corporate mining practices of the 1850s to 1880s and, potentially, their “continued repercussions into the 1980s.” The film pointedly underscores “the exploitation of the environment and of those most connected to it,” a theme that although occasionally treated in films such as How Green Was My Valley (1941), as Heumann and Murray note— is missing from Eastwood’s other Westerns and indeed from the genre as a whole. With its use of supernatural violence carried out “very pointedly on behalf of the good community,” Pale Rider not only represents a decisive shift in the moral and ethical imperatives of the genre but also stands, I argue, as the first true American Gothic Western: a new kind of film that blends seamlessly the generic structure of the classic American Western with the antiheroic, antiestablishment, capital-driven motifs and, more significant, Gothicized elements of the spaghetti Western or Eurowestern. Pale Rider’s return to more conservative ideologies sets it apart from the capital narratives we see in Gothic Eurowesterns. Preacher, the title character, represents a new strain of antihero whose clear sense of morality, overtly heroic actions, and fundamental concern with the welfare of the community.

Clint Eastwood's Pale RiderPale Rider’s return to more conservative ideologies sets it apart from the capital narratives we see in Gothic Eurowesterns. Preacher, the title character, represents a new strain of antihero whose clear sense of morality, overtly heroic actions, and fundamental concern with the welfare of the community around him distance him, characteristically and psychologically, from the antecedents in the Eurowestern to which his Gothic trappings visually link him. Our access to the inner workings of a fundamentally moralistic antihero deeply steeped in the Gothic mode, as we eventually achieve with the character of Preacher, embodies a new Gothic Western aesthetic that is uniquely American. Environmentalism and the Eco-Gothic Hero The film displays its environmental stance through a combination of dialogic description and powerful imagery, illustrating the devastation wrought by “hydraulic mining” on the landscape.3 Trees topple over one another as topsoil is stripped away from the mountain slopes under the force of the pressurized water. The once sublime scene of a pristine mountainside melts away under the equally sublime, destructive force of the water; the entire exchange is Gothic. Pale Rider not only reveals how the environment is ultimately susceptible to exploitation but demonstrates “a better way, an alternative to the absolute destruction of large scale corporate mining centered around the fact of hydraulic mining.” The film ’s alternative vision of mining— “individual tin panning in a cooperative community seeking to plant roots and raise families”— is embodied by a peace-loving, environmentally friendly colony of prospectors led by Hull Barret (Michael Moriarty). This community provides the crux of Heumann and Murray’s analysis, and while the authors are apt to call attention to Pale Rider’s central theme of the “environmental horrors [of] hydraulic mining,” they pay scarce attention to the marked way in which the film ’s environmental critique is infused with mythological overtones.’1 They note, for example, that while the film presents “extreme violence . . . couched in mythological terms” as the solution to the miners’ problems, the presence of Barret “in the mayhem and killing keeps [the film’s] environ mental argument grounded in the here and now.” Inevitably, what this anti other critical analyses avoid doing is to offer any sort of explanation for the supernatural presence in the film. This chapter seeks to redress that balance. It argues that Pale Rider employs, in the literary sense, a Gothic vocabulary: one that serves as a means of representing the “horrors” of the economic crisis that mining baron Coy LaHood (Richard Dysart) imposes on Hull Barret’s family- and community oriented colony of hard-working panhandlers when he targets their land for hydraulic mining. Barret’s people, to borrow Patrick McGee’s phrase, “believe in private property” and honest, nondestructive labor. They embody, collectively, “a social identity that refuses to sell itself as labor power that refuses to work in that sense, and that holds onto its autonomy while resisting or struggling against the exploitation or domination of others.” LaHood and his henchmen, in contrast, serve as the embodiment of corporate avarice: single-minded, soulless, and— in their indifference to the physical destruction and human suffering left in their wake— literally monstrous.

Joseph K. Heumann and Robin L. Murray explain, “highlights and critiques” the environmentally devastating corporate mining practices of the 1850s to 1880s and, potentially, their “continued repercussions into the 1980s.” The film pointedly underscores “the exploitation of the environment and of those most connected to it,” a theme that although occasionally treated in films such as How Green Was My Valley (1941), as Heumann and Murray note— is missing from Eastwood’s other Westerns and indeed from the genre as a whole. With its use of supernatural violence carried out “very pointedly on behalf of the good community,” Pale Rider not only represents a decisive shift in the moral and ethical imperatives of the genre but also stands, I argue, as the first true American Gothic Western: a new kind of film that blends seamlessly the generic structure of the classic American Western with the antiheroic, antiestablishment, capital-driven motifs and, more significant, Gothicized elements of the spaghetti Western or Eurowestern. Pale Rider’s return to more conservative ideologies sets it apart from the capital narratives we see in Gothic Eurowesterns. Preacher, the title character, represents a new strain of antihero whose clear sense of morality, overtly heroic actions, and fundamental concern with the welfare of the community.

The threat posed by LaHood and his corporation is countered, in the film, by another Gothic figure: Preacher (Clint Eastwood). The “pale rider” of the title, his ambiguous history, old-fangled dress, and ghostly behavior firmly situate him in the realm of the supernatural. He is strongly implied to be an undead avenger, returned to the world of the living to protect Barret’s community and mete out justice to LaHood and his thugs. This “solution” works in the film because, as William Beard suggests, “there is a marked transformation from a soft organic world in Shane to a hard mineral one in Pale Rider, seen most clearly in the metamorphosis of Shane’s farmers, who are seeking to make the earth produce a rich bounty of food, into Pale Rider’s miners, who are attempting to dig material wealth in the form of gold.” The shift from one of the Western’s central community values (tending the land) “to the nakedly materialistic one of a search for an innately useless substance with a high exchange value” is a deliberate one, to say the least. Pale Rider arrived at a moment in American history— the corporate dominated, economically rapacious mid-1980s— in which Shane’s “classical generic project” no longer resonated. Its casting of small-time miners as heroes and its inclusion of Eastwood’s theme of the protagonist “as a troubling figure whose mysterious transcendent source may be either good or evil— or, more probably, some unthinkable conflation of the two”— boldly announce this shift. Gail Turley Houston says of particular Victorian writers that “fragments of the Gothic subliminally haunt [their] [texts], for there is always the sense that there is something irrational, monstrous, or supernatural about economic panics because no rhetoric or set of laws can contain them.” In line with Houston’s analysis, I contend that Pale Rider resorts to employing familiar Gothic tropes and supernatural elements— the senselessly destructive, monstrously envisaged corporate hydraulic mining and the mythological solution required to thwart it— to make sense of the economic crisis facing the mining colony.

John Edgar Browning

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