Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter
Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter opens in very much the same way as the 1964 spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars in which “The Man With No Name” (later revealed to actually have a name: Joe/Manco/Blondie) rides into a small town on horseback. The main difference being this character first appears like an apparition from the sunbaked desert.
A mysterious stranger (Eastwood) slowly gallops into the desolate lakeside mining town of Lago, where the residents stare at him like he’s some kind of alien. We get the feeling right away that his presence is not welcome. When he stops at the local saloon to relax and get a drink, a few of the men at the bar make it known they don’t like “flea bitten range bums”. The Stranger ominously grabs his bottle of whiskey (causing the patrons to scatter in fear) and defiantly responds with a snarl. The three local thugs (deputies for the town) follow The Stranger to the barber shop where he’s getting a shave in peace. After one insult too many, they are swiftly shot and killed. The wishy washy sheriff (Walter Barnes) now can see that this man is a gunfighter and someone without fear.
Through a strange dream The Stranger has, we learn sometime in the past there was a murder in Lago in which a Marshal Duncan (stuntman Buddy Van Horn) was whipped to death by a trio of men led by the psychotic Stacy Bridges (Geoffrey Lewis). It was later quietly covered up without justice being done. Ever since the town has been tainted, the timid residents constantly looking over their shoulders and trying to hide the dirty secret from anyone who enters their village.
With the three deputies dead, The Stranger is offered a job to help protect Lago by the sheriff, but is reluctant to sign on. That is until he’s given free reign to do or have anything what he wants. The job entails keeping the residents safe from harm because Stacy and his men are due to be released from a territorial prison, after which they’ll be headed straight for Lago to get their revenge on the town officials who had them put away when they found out that the Lago Mining Co. was operating on government owned land. Meanwhile, The Stranger uses his new position to essentially rub the town’s collective noses in the dirt through disrupting their way of life. He rapes the local floozy (Marianna Hill), makes the hotel owner move everyone out and then has sex with his wife (Verna Bloom). To further add insult to injury he even makes Mordecai (Billy Curtis) a little person who noone respects, the sheriff AND mayor of the town!
This was Clint Eastwood’s second film as director and he immediately put his own spin on the Western by adding in aspects of the supernatural thriller, layers of social commentary and comedy along with the gunblazing action audiences obviously expected to see. The result was a unique genre mixer classic that continues to have a strong resonance with Western fans. It also was the beginning of his deconstruction of the genre which continued with The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Pale Rider (1985) and concluded with Unforgiven (1992) which is a complete de-glorification of the “invincible gunfighter” mythos.
FURIOUS FILM TRIVIA
- One of the headstones in the graveyard bears the name Sergio Leone as a tribute. Other headstones bear the names of Don Siegel (Clint Eastwood’s director on five films, four of which preceded this one) and Brian G. Hutton (director of Where Eagles Dare and Kelly’s Heroes). Patrick McGilligan’s 2002 Eastwood biography quotes the star as saying, “I buried my directors.”
- Editing of the film was done in a log cabin on the shores of Mono Lake (Lago).
- Universal Pictures wanted the film to be shot on the studio lot. Instead, Clint Eastwood had a whole town built in the desert near Mono Lake in the California Sierras. Many of the buildings were complete and three-dimensional, so that interiors could be shot on location.
- Shortly after the film’s release, Clint Eastwood wrote to John Wayne, suggesting that they make a western together. Wayne sent back an angry letter in reply, in which he denounced this film for its violence and revisionist portrayal of the Old West. Eastwood did not bother to answer his criticisms, and consequently they did not work together.
- There is no spoken dialogue until six minutes into the film.
- The character of Marshal Duncan was played by stuntman Buddy Van Horn, a long-time stunt coordinator for Clint Eastwood, in order to create some ambiguity over whether he and The Stranger are one and the same.