T

he lineage of Pale Rider, Clint Eastwood’s 1985 masterpiece, goes back to the beginning of westerns themselves. From the one-road mining town and train depot to the posse of villains showing up in the third act and mysterious stranger riding in to save the day, Pale Rider tips its hat to everything that came before it while repossessing it and transforming it into something new. Melding Shane and High Plains Drifter, Pale Rider is an avenging angel ghost story, one in which the ghost is both talented with a gun and extremely pissed off.

The opening credits of the movie are nothing short of exhilarating as director Eastwood pivots back and forth between approaching marauders and quiet, peaceful prospectors mining for gold.

When the marauders arrive, the small mining community is destroyed but determined to start over again and take on the mining baron running the valley, Coy LaHood (Richard Dysart). If only they had some help. A small girl prays for deliverance and a pale rider appears in the mountains, making his way toward town. That girl, Megan (Sydney Penny), is the daughter of Sarah Wheeler (Carrie Snodgress) whose husband ran out on her. Hull Barret (Michael Moriarty) has taken both in and heads up the prospecting community. He rides into town to refresh their now-ruined supplies and runs into LaHood’s men who waste no time in bullying him, beating him, and threatening to set his wagon and new supplies on fire. Of course, in the distance…

When they take to using hickory axe handles to beat Hull into submission, the pale rider appears again and proves he’s much better at cracking heads with “a nice piece of hickory” than anyone else in town. Of course, Hull invites him back to the prospecting community (he’d be a fool not to) but it soon becomes evident there’s more going on with this pale rider than just an opportune intervention in town. He showed up right after Megan prayed for a savior and rides into the mining community just as Megan reads the passage from the Book of Revelation, “and I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.”

And that is where Pale Rider really soars above anything else Eastwood had done up to this point. Eastwood himself said in interviews there was meant to be no ambiguity, the pale rider was dead, period. One almost imagines Eastwood would’ve been okay with a preamble stating, “The Pale Rider was dead: To begin with. This must be distinctly understood or nothing wonderful can come of the story.” Clues to this fact are peppered throughout the film, as when LaHood calls in a ringer, Marhsall Stockburn, a marvelously effective John Russell, cutting a pale, ghostly figure himself, to finish him off and the Marshall tells LaHood the rider sounds like someone he knew. “Maybe it’s the same man,” LaHood suggests, to which Stockburn rebuts, “No, that man is dead.”

In another scene gunmen attempt to take down Preacher, sitting at a table drinking some coffee. When they fire into the chair, there’s no one in it and yet they don’t seem to know it (perhaps this served as a later inspiration for another empty chair incident in a … ahem … future Eastwood stage production).

That Eastwood is able to guide this story, written by Dennis Shryack and Michael Butler, who previously wrote Eastwood’s The Gauntlet, without veering off into overwrought supernatural nonsense, is a testament to how confident he was behind the camera. In keeping the ghostly pale rider as down to earth as possible, he keeps the story grounded too. The final gunfight in town is a mythic battle, between good and evil, the living and the dead, but shot more with an eye towards righteous vengeance than paranormal retribution.

The film itself is a masterpiece of group achievement. The editing of Joel Cox, longtime Eastwood collaborator and Oscar winner for Unforgiven, is a masterclass in technique, unnominated merely because, by 1985, the awards groups had yet to get on board with how legitimately brilliant Eastwood was as a director and how talented were his accomplices. Cox employs hard cuts between the charging marauders and prospectors in the opening, soft dissolves between the praying Megan and the pale rider in the mountains, and keeps to simple over-the-shoulder cuts during the emotional confessions of Megan and Sarah, at different times, to Preacher.

Of course, Cox is given so much to work with from cinematographer Bruce Surtees (Play Misty For Me, High Plains Drifter, Tightrope), who strays from the temptation to simply “shoot the landscape” and instead looks for every angle there is, literally. The marauders, pale rider, and the Marshall all come down slopes, along diagonal lines in the distance, the mining community sits on a slope and is shot like it’s about to fall into the stream, and the town looks like the moors of England, transplanted to the American West. From start to finish, it is a beautiful film to behold.

If all of this sounds like I can’t recommend PALE RIDER enough, it’s because I can’t. It should be seen and seen often, preferably as a one-two punch on a double bill with UNFORGIVEN, the latter about one man coming to grips with his past while avenging his friend, the former about a ghost from the past avenging his own death. Eastwood made a lot of damn fine movies before Pale Rider, from Play Misty For Me to Tightrope, but Pale Rider stands as his first true cinematic masterwork. Had Eastwood been established by 1985 as the top tier director he was, it would’ve won all the awards that year.

One final note: Pale Rider ends with a shot of Megan, calling out to Preacher, just as Brandon deWilde calls out to Shane in George Stevens’ classic.

That Eastwood could literally end this movie by directly referencing the shot of bona fide classic before it takes a fair amount of gumption because if it fails, all the audience will think about is how much better that other movie was. No chance here. Eastwood’s visual choice at the end is absolutely correct, as if calling out to the cinematic past, and letting it know that Eastwood has arrived. And Hell has come with him.

Greg Ferrara has been writing for TCM for over ten years. Before that he wrote for Movies Unlimited, Cinema Retro, Cinema Fusion, and had a brief stint as a music critic for Mondo Cult Magazine.