Pale Rider (1985)

A long break from posting, but with good reason…the birth of my son, Nicholas on July 4th. All are well here, and hopefully I’ll get back to posting a bit more regularly.

As I started thinking about my recent viewing of Pale Rider, I was immediately reminded of Shane (1953), as well as another recent viewing: The Magnificent Seven (1960). Of course, thinking about that film got me thinking about an all-time favorite: Seven Samurai (1954).

Pale Rider seems to me a pretty clear homage/remake/knock-off of the George Stevens classic, Shane. Most striking is the lone gunman riding into town to save the poor people from the rich cattleman/miner, who buys power and influence and thuggery with his growing empire of ill-gotten gains. On top of that, the dialogue at the end of the later film is identical in places to that of Shane, with Megan crying out for the Preacher, asking where he is and that she loves him.

On the other end of the spectrum, The Magnificent Seven is an acknowledged remake of Seven Samurai, and translates the bulk of the story and characters into a film that emphasizes the “cool” of its stars and minimizes the rich characterization and intensity of Kurosawa’s Japanese original. And of course, these two films share a similar thematic structure with the previous two – they involve a group of villagers who are in need of help of getting out from under the thumb of terrorizing thugs.

What strikes me most about these four films is that while the central problem in all of them is the same, the way that problem is dealt with is quite different – at least in comparing the first two films with the second two. Pale Rider and Shane both hinge on the lone gunman who comes to town, and while preaching togetherness, ultimately needs to take down the forces of evil on their own. Most obvious here is Eastwood’s Preacher in Pale Rider, who tells the villagers of Carbon Canyon that they have no hope unless they stick together, no matter what. Yet in only a few hours, he ditches Hull (Moriarty) so that he can ride into town alone and finish the job, which he essentially does. Shane does a similar thing, as he rides into town alone to face the gunman. Eastwood’s film simply ups the ante by making him face seven gunmen.

Now, in the two Seven films there is a direct contrast, with the heroes not being lone gunmen, but a group of fighters who must not only band together, but also rely on the untrained villagers for help. I think this is one of the superior aspects of Seven Samurai, btw. We see how the samurai depend on the villagers, in spite of their pride and desire not to show it.

I think these latter films have a definite one-up on films like Shane and Pale Rider. While those films have their strong points, it seems they are fraught with an inherent contradiction that doesn’t exist in the Seven films. The Seven films have heroes who both teach togetherness and unity AND show it. Pale Rider and Shane have heroes who talk about sticking together, and then deny it by their actions.

What I find most interesting about all of this though is that the Seven films come from a story told originally in Japan. It is a story about how there is strength in numbers, and that through sticking together, people can fight back the invaders. Not without loss, mind you, but it is how the fight goes on. Films like Shane and Pale Rider are quintisentially American. They feature the lone hero that goes in on his own and takes out all the bad guys, saving the poor innocent saps who are too cowardly or inept to defend themselves. There seems to me in that an inherent pride, an arrogance that talks of trusting in others, but practically has no intention of doing so. This hero is an insulated person, self-sufficient, who can take care of himself. He doesn’t really need anyone else. This taps into a sort of mythic persona that is so closely identified with America and an American way of doing things that I’m pretty sure I miss most of its outpourings.

The obvious contemporary connection here is the critique of the US policy in Iraq, for the relative lack of involvement of anyone else with anywhere near the kind of commitment the US has made. But there are others and I think this issue runs much deeper than something as obvious as the Iraq critique. I am thinking more broadly, about an insular mindset that shrugs off responsibility to others who lie outside our inner circle. There is talk about sticking together, but is there really action? For some, no doubt there is. But is that the way of the world? I think not.

I am too consumed with my own problems, responsibilities, and friends to even notice all the people floating by. I have created my own little insular world, and while I talk all the time about the virtues of community, unity, and sticking together, I have much to learn as I strive to live it out in this life. So while I am repelled by the inherent contradictions in films like Shane and Pale Rider, when I think about it long enough, I find that I deal in those contradictions far too often myself. And then I guess that maybe, just maybe, Pale Rider hits the nail on the head in its identification of the Preacher with Revelation 6:8.