Remembering an underrated Clint Eastwood classic on his 93rd birthday

Warning: Contains major spoilers

The result of having a filmography replete with mega-blockbusters and award-winners is that admirers are spoiled for choice.  Some eminent efforts are dwarfed because they didn't receive the acclaim that the milestone films did.

Clint Eastwood's masterful High Plains Drifter, released fifty years ago this year, was a hit and was appreciated by most critics.  Yet it is often overlooked when his best works are celebrated.

High Plains Drifter subverts most conventions of the traditional western. 

The settings are that of a western, but it has elements usually found in horror films.  It also delivers a scathing indictment of societal apathy and the idea of revenge.

This unconventional depiction and the layers of complexity emanate from the brilliant screenplay by Ernest Tidyman, who earned a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for The French Connection.

It is hard to know how much was in the script and how much was conceived by Eastwood, but the result is riveting and haunting. 

After watching the film, audiences will be left with more questions than answers.  Like all eminent works of art, it is up to the beholder to deduce and interpret.

The film begins with a stranger riding on horseback almost materializing in the distance.  We see the images distorted by glistening waves of heat.  It's impossible to conclude if the stranger is human or an apparition.  Compounding the mystery of the visuals by cinematographer Bruce Surtees is the eerie score by Dee Barton. 

This was Eastwood's second effort behind the lens, yet his command over the medium from the very first frames makes him seem like a seasoned veteran.

The stranger rides into the town to disapproving glances from townsfolk.

When the stranger proves his skills with a firearm, the townsfolk hire him to protect them against a gang of murderous outlaws.

The Stranger accepts the offer and begins abusing his position of power to inflict tyranny.

He empties the town guesthouse for himself and forces businesses to hand out freebies to himself and others.

He lavishes Native Americans with freebies at a general store when the purveyor of the establishment mistreats them.

He fires the sheriff and the mayor and appoints the town dwarf in both positions.

He orders townsfolk to paint their homes and businesses red and paints the letters "H-E-L-L" in crimson on a signpost at the town's border.

He humiliates and terrorizes everyone, and soon it becomes clear that the Stranger is almost as much a menace as the outlaws.

The motive behind the Stranger's maltreatment of the townsfolk isn't revealed, but clues are offered when the Stranger suffers a nightmare. 

In this hazy, almost psychedelic sequence, the townsfolk watch helplessly as the same outlaws, who are on their way to exact revenge on the town, brutally whip the town's former marshal to death.

It is left to the audience to infer if the Stranger is a friend, relative, or reincarnation, or a ghost of the former marshal.

The legendary John Wayne famously criticized the film in a letter to Eastwood.  He wrote, "That isn't what the West was all about.  That isn't the American people who settled this country."

Wayne belonged to a generation and a time when most citizens had values and a sense of community.  This was reflected in Wayne's westerns, where towns were inhabited by a close-knit group of God-fearing, selfless, kind, and righteous individuals.

By the '70s, when High Plains Drifter was released, the values that defined the nation were devolving.  There were anti-war protests, which were often an excuse for outrageous behavior.  The "hippy" countercultural movement began attacking societal convention.  This group had contempt for religion and relished in making a demonstration of it.  The wide use of contraceptives and the legalization of abortion enabled sexual promiscuity and began to weaken the traditional family structure and values.

Self-interests overrode societal interests.  Sensationalism rather than accomplishment became a shortcut to success.  Identity politics was beginning to plant its roots in various governmental organizations.

The adults at that time, instead of intervening and forcing remedial action, remained bystanders as the anarchists were attacking the nation's founding with a sledgehammer.

High Plain Drifter was a reflection of its time.

Perhaps the outlaws were an allegory for the anarchists wreaking havoc all over the nation.  Perhaps the bystanders were a metaphor for the helpless adults.  The departed marshal being whipped to death represented the order, convention, and tradition in the nation.  The stranger is the ghost of the nation's past, sent to awaken the citizens and remind them of their power.

The film delivers the Nietzschean message "Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you."

As the film proceeds, the antihero devolves into an outright villain.  The stranger rapes and humiliates a woman who verbally taunts him and knocks the cigar out of his mouth.

Even when the stranger seems to help the victimized, the goal is to humiliate the townsfolk and less about uplifting the victims.

The film equates apathy with evil.

The Stranger is there to avenge the death of the former marshal.  Yet the targets aren't just the outlaws who subjected the former marshal to the brutal whipping that led to his demise.  The Stranger holds the townsfolk who were silent bystanders to the murderous thugs equally responsible.

This is relevant today.

Most citizens are silent bystanders, due to fear of reprisals or self-interest.  Consequently, despite being owners of the nation, they are reduced to slaves.  The elected leader who reports to the citizens behaves like a monarch who regards citizens as subjects.  The governments and other nefarious forces wreak havoc and hijack the system to their advantage.

The helpless citizens hope for a stranger to magically resolve their problems. They willingly enjoy the fruits of the Stranger's bravery but seldom contribute themselves.  Their desire for safety and stability results in cowardice.  They prefer to be insulated from the perils of confronting evil. 

At times, motivated by self-interest, they reluctantly side with their tormentors to protect their interests and even disown the Stranger.

Back to the film.

High Plains Drifter excels in acting, directing, cinematography, editing, background score, production design, and the foundation of it all: the multilayered screenplay.

Eastwood once again delivers a film that, fifty years since its release, has lost none of its relevance or its power to astound and engross.  It proves that apart from being a masterful filmmaker, Eastwood was an astute observer of society he was surrounded by.

Many of his works were cautionary tales.

In the Dirty Harry pictures, Eastwood depicted decadent liberal attitudes: criminals were treated with more empathy than victims, group identity trumped individual accomplishment, and empty symbolic acts trumped real actions.

Here wishing the great man a very happy 93rd birthday, a long and healthy life, and a glorious century.

Postscript: Here are some of Eastwood's most underappreciated pictures.

Beyond the films, this was Eastwood's finest hour, when he roasted Obama at the Republican Convention in 2012.

Image: Movieclips via YouTube, CC BY 3.0 (cropped).

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