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.

The Stranger arrives

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.


– 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.



Editor-In-Chief of The Grindhouse Cinema Database/Furious Cinema contributor. Pete is a rabid movie geek who enjoys everything from wild n' crazy exploitation/cult flix to big budget mainstream classics. His other interests include: graphic design, cartooning and music.

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1 Response

  1. Tim Shey says:

    Clint Eastwood’s film High Plains Drifter (1973)

    The first time I saw High Plains Drifter was probably in the late 1970s. Clint Eastwood stars in and directs the film. Most westerns are either about cattle drives or cowboys and Indians. High Plains Drifter is different: this is a God’s-Judgment-on-the-wicked western.

    Clint Eastwood plays a stranger who rides into the town of Lago–and he has a really bad attitude. This stranger is also very good with a side arm. During the course of the film, the stranger ends up killing some bad guys and burning the town of Lago to the ground. There are a couple of flashbacks of one Marshall Jim Duncan being whipped to death. At the end of the film, the audience can see that the stranger was the Second Coming of Marshall Duncan:

    The stranger rides out of the town of Lago past the cemetery. This little guy named Mordecai is writing something on a grave marker.

    The stranger looks at Mordecai and Mordecai looks up and says, “I’m almost done here.”

    Then Mordecai asks the stranger, “I never did know your name.”

    And the stranger replies, “Yes, you do.”

    As the stranger rides off, the camera shows the grave marker: “Marshall Jim Duncan.”

    I have a short story entitled “High Plains Drifter” (Ethos, March & May 1995); I have a book entitled High Plains Drifter: A Hitchhiking Journey Across America (PublishAmerica, December 2008); I have a blog called “High Plains Drifter.” So is this some sort of gunslinger fixation or is there method to my madness? The clue is in one Scripture: “In the mouth of two or three witnesses let every word be established.”

    There is a lot of sin (unrepented sin) in the United States and in the world. When people continue to live in sin, eventually God’s Judgment falls. The more people try to hide their sin, the greater God’s Judgment. The people of Lago tried to hide the murder of Marshall Duncan, but their sin was found out. You can’t hide from God.

    There is a scene in High Plains Drifter where this lady tells the stranger, “Ever since Marshall Duncan’s death, the people in this town are afraid of strangers.”


    “When the Stranger says: ‘What is the meaning of this city?
    Do you huddle close together because you love each other?’
    What will you answer? ‘We all dwell together
    To make money from each other’? or ‘This is a community’?

    “Oh my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger.
    Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.

    “There is one who remembers the way to your door:
    Life you may evade, but Death you shall not.
    You shall not deny the Stranger.”

    –T.S. Eliot
    Choruses from “The Rock”


    There is another scene in High Plains Drifter where the people of Lago [the town of Lago reminds me of Algona, Iowa] are meeting at the church. One of the guys is speaking in the front of the church. The camera then pans to the right and shows a bulletin board with this Scripture:

    Isaiah 53: 3-4: “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”

    Marshall Jim Duncan was whipped to death; Jesus Christ was at least nine-tenths whipped to death. The stranger riding into Lago (the first scene of the film) is a symbol of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ: not as the Lamb of God, but as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.

    Isaiah 63: 1-6: “Who is this that cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah? this that is glorious in his apparel, travelling in the greatness of his strength? I that speak in righteousness, mighty to save. Wherefore art thou red in thine apparel, and thy garments like him that treadeth in the winefat? I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment. For the day of vengeance is in mine heart, and the year of my redeemed is come. And I looked, and there was none to help; and I wondered that there was none to uphold: therefore mine own arm brought salvation unto me; and my fury, it upheld me. And I will tread down the people in mine anger, and make them drunk in my fury, and I will bring down their strength to the earth.”

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