if, due to hazy memory or just the laziness of easy association, you think of clint eastwood's high plains drifter (1973) as just another spaghetti western, you should think again.
the paramount theater screened this film in tandem with rooster cogburn (1975) as part of a set of double features they have going on this week. tonight's was a slightly ironic pairing, as john wayne apparently held drifter in extremely low esteem. he told eastwood that the film "did not represent the true spirit of the american pioneer, the spirit that made america great". well, as far as i am concerned, those two phrases express vastly different sentiments. if he had said that it wasn't flattering, though, he would have been right on the money.
it begins with eastwood as an apparition, fading into view through the waves of heat given off by the scorched desert. a solitary rider on a pale horse, he makes his way down from the mountains, through the graveyard on the edge of town and into the heart of a godforsaken village named lago. the name is appropriate enough, as it a lakeside hamlet, but i have to wonder if it also a nod to the lago d'averno in naples, which dante characterized as the entrance to hell. with all that time spent with sergio leone, it's not outside the realm of possibility that clint picked up a little local color.
it would also be in keeping with the less than subtle symbolism on display throughout the picture. this is a brazen and obvious film on most levels. it's wrathful and has no time for subtlety, very old testament. this version of "the man with no name" wastes no time making his presence felt. he inspires an almost supernatural level of fear and curiosity in the townsfolk and in about as much time as it takes to hitch up his horse, get a drink and sit down in the barber's chair, he has killed three men and raped a woman. it's the treatment of the latter crime that i think is still one of the most misunderstood things eastwood ever committed to film. i see an awful lot written about how the dodgy sexual politics of the rape with the accompanying "she didn't seem to fight it too much" attitude are just in keeping with the less enlightened tenor of the times. i think this is far off the mark. i think that comes from still wanting to view eastwood as a vengeful ghost seeking justice, amoral at worst. well, forget about it. he is trying to make you understand that he is the devil here, as manipulative, disruptive and malevolent as can be. quit trying to make him out to be an antihero based on what you've seen him in before. he's practically daring you to despise him, making you complicit in the debauchery if you don't. look beyond the clint you're comfortable with. see the bigger, uglier picture.
it's the picture that john wayne wasn't ready to accept. the townsfolk want to hire him to protect them from a trio (trinity?) of bad guys that used to wear the mantle of protector he is being offered, until they outstripped their usefulness and were unceremoniously shipped off to a territorial prison. he relents once they make the offer of anything he wants with "no reckoning". now they are speaking his diabolical language. they are craven cowards, so desperate to avoid reaping what they've sown that they will resort to ignoring murder and rape and handing over the run of their town to this mercenary who immediately turns things upside down for nothing more than anarchic glee of it all. he installs the town dwarf as sheriff and mayor and begins "training" them to protect themselves with exercises that are nothing more than charades underlining how foolish and incompetent they are. it's also not enough that they are weak, childish, cowardly and incapable. we also learn, through a set of dream/flashback sequences, that they are also harboring a terrible secret that may have provided the otherworldly impetus for this stranger's arrival in the first place. there is almost no one worthy of redemption here and eastwood is certainly no redeemer. he is here to have what he wants, damn the hindmost. damn the foremost while you're at it. damn the whole thing. just paint everything red, "especially the church", and remove all doubt that hell has come to town.
the day of the inevitable showdown arrives, but just as the final preparations are being made and the townspeople are laying their trap, the stranger simply rides away, leaving them to flounder and fail, some fatally. our "bad guys", also the perpetrators of the crime that has left this black mark on the town's soul, take control of lago, setting fire to half the joint and terrorizing everyone until the ghost of floggings past comes to visit. the stranger exacts his final vengeance on these three, with a curtain of flames erasing whatever lingering doubts you may have had about his more infernal qualities. his work done here, he fades out in the distance exactly the way he faded in, leaving me with an unsettled feeling. there wasn't really a sense of a spirit avenged that can now be at peace. i felt it much more likely that the second he faded from view here he faded in somewhere else, to just start the game all over again, as there is obviously no shortage of the selfish, criminal and morally deficient for this devilish ghost to prey upon. pioneer spirit, indeed.
it's a worthwhile film, if not particularly nuanced, occupying a ghostly terrain somewhere between more traditional western fare and the non-westerns that robert altman and the like were making at the time. i appreciate how bleak and downright nasty it was willing to be. i don't think it gets enough credit for that. watch it again, if you haven't in a while. it may surprise you. and if you've never seen it, i recommend it. you can decide for yourself if the duke was right or not.