“High Plains Drifter isn’t what the West was all about. That isn’t the American people who settled this country.” –John Wayne
Legend has it that John Wayne was so infuriated by “High Plains Drifter” that he wrote a letter to Clint Eastwood expressing his disappointment.
By all accounts, Mr. Eastwood did not care. If anything, the angry letter was a badge of honor. Eastwood did not like John Wayne and he definitely didn’t like John Wayne movies.
I’m guessing that some people would be surprised to hear that. Young people who haven’t watched any Clint Eastwood films might be inclined to think that all old conservative cowboys are pretty much the same.
But as soon as he was popular enough to choose his own projects, Clint Eastwood began to tweak his good-guy image and explore the boundaries of what a Western movie can be. First he went to Italy and made some terrific artsy Spaghetti Westerns with Sergio Leone.
With the first Western he directed, 42-year old Clint Eastwood went even further than Leone. He wasn’t just reimagining the Western, he was deconstructing the genre. “High Plains Drifter” is a ghost-story/horror movie that just happens to be set in the Old West.
The film begins with eerie music playing and a nameless stranger appearing on the horizon. The Stranger (Eastwood) casually rides into the mining town of Lago, California and orders a drink. Within five minutes, he has massacred three men and raped a woman.
The Stranger is a man of few words. And when he does speak, he makes heartless sadistic jokes. He isn’t a hero or even an anti-hero. He’s a demon, perhaps literally. When he dreams about the cold-blooded murder of the previous sheriff of Lago, it is the first clue that The Stranger may not have wandered into this town by coincidence.
The hapless, helpless townspeople have no clue what they are in for. They hire The Stranger to protect Lago from ex-cons. Indeed, they give The Stranger free reign in town.
“High Plains Drifter” is a dark tale. But director Eastwood fills his movie with comedy. The Stranger has a fun time taking advantage of his carte blanche – getting free drinks, free stuff, and generally working to divide the townspeople into feuding factions.
We are all supposed to be anti-murder. But when the victim has it coming, most people are eager to lionize a killer. From The Punisher to Deadpool and everything in between, we like watching vengeance and we even mistake it for justice.
To Mr. Eastwood’s credit, he has been deglorifying vengeance his whole career as a filmmaker. In the end, we understand clearly who The Stranger is and why he wanted to wreak havoc on Lagos. But only the cruelest among us think what he did was morally acceptable.
Eastwood exposes vengeance for what it really is: nightmarish anarchy. The reason why we need police is that humanity tried the vendetta method of law enforcement and it was a bloody disaster.
“High Plains Drifter” is a grim, pessimistic allegory. It’s also a well-paced, crowd-pleasing Western. I enjoyed it thoroughly.
For those who picture John Wayne and Clint Eastwood in the same category, please watch some movies that Mr. Eastwood directed. He is one of America’s greatest filmmakers.