R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: High Plains Drifter

I’ve talked before how some roles just seem to follow certain actors. This is usually a role that ends up so popular, that no matter what the actor does for the rest of their careers, it is inevitably compared to this past performance. Sometimes, this can be a hindrance, as it seems we may never see Michael Keaton again, as after playing Batman, he seemed to try to get so far away from the character that he never made anything commercially viable again. One wonders if Tobey Maguire will ever really live down playing Spider-Man, Maguire is an actor of pretty high caliber, so we can at least assume he’s going to give it his best shot.

Then again, with some actors this type of role can be a blessing. To look at Bruce Willis as John McClane, all of Willis’ Action movie roles seemed to have been variances on McClane, whether it be his John McClane as an alcoholic Private Investigator in The Last Boy Scout, John McClane in space in The Fifth Element, or John McClane near retirement in Sin City and 16 Blocks. This is on top of playing his wise cracking officer in four movies, all of which have had plenty to say at the box office. Then again, when a Bruce Willis Action movie fails to live up to the Willis standard (Hostage), its really because we’ve already compared it to Die Hard in our minds.

The same can be said about Clint Eastwood and his role as The Man with No Name in Sergio Leones Dollars Trilogy. Here was a character so iconic and mythic that audiences simply flocked to him. The role made Eastwood an international star, and when he came back to the States after filming The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, studios were ready to put Eastwood back in the saddle, and they did so by immediately putting him in roles that could definitely be considered Man with No Name knock-offs.

Hang Em High is a film where once again Eastwood plays a mysterious stranger, but the movie is lightweight compared to the audacious nature Leone’s films. More comparable, but still not on the same level is Two Mules for Sister Sara, in which Eastwood plays a very Spaghetti Western-esque character, and even has an Ennio Morricone score behind him as he lights cigars with dynamite. Still, even with Don Siegel in the director’s chair, the movie is a fun romp and little more. Worst of all is Joe Kidd, which was evidently supposed to originally be a remake of the Spaghetti Western classic The Great Silence, but ended up not even resembling that film.

It wasn’t until 1973’s High Plains Drifter, nearly a decade after Eastwood had first played Sergio Leone’s cigar smoking, poncho wearing drifter, that he was able to really take the Man with No Name archetype and build on it properly to create a mystique around another character in a similar fashion. We all know that Eastwood would eventually be able to cathartically finally put the Man with No Name part of his career to rest with Unforgiven, but an important stop on that path is in the town of Lago, in High Plains Drifter.


High Plains Drifter starring Clint Eastwood, Geoffrey Lewis, Mitch Ryan, and Billy Curtis. Directed by Clint Eastwood

It shocked me to no end just how particularly good High Plains Drifter is when I watched it. The reason for this surprise is that this was only the second film ever directed by Clint Eastwood, after the 1971 Thriller Play Misty for Me, and yet it’s a picture of such precise vision and mood. This isn’t a feel-good Western like a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or a film about a lone gunman standing up for what he believes like either version of 3:10 to Yuma. To be honest, High Plains Drifter owes as much to the horror genre (Italian Horror to be more specific) as it does those earlier Westerns. Death simply permeates every aspect of this picture, and from the movie’s opening frames and the first notes of the brilliantly eerie music of Composer Dee Barton (Thunderbolt and Lightfoot), you get a really strong sense of that.


It actually shocked me the other day when I realized that in his career Eastwood has only ever directed four Westerns. Considering how his name is so synonymous with the genre, its odd to think that he was only in four of them from 1973 to 1992. Thing is, each of them, High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider, and Unforgiven, all directed by Eastwood, while being terrific examples of the Western themselves, are each divergent pieces of the format. Each of them contains a darkness that really can’t be found anywhere else in American Westerns, and this is where Eastwood really strays from the other big iconic stars and directors of the genre. Much like Leone before him, Eastwood seems to like to play with the different Western myths, whether by breaking them down or by subverting them by other means.

Eastwood’s “hero” in High Plains Drifter is definitely unlike any of the cowboys I ever saw played by John Wayne, Gary Cooper, or Henry Fonda. I actually find it kind of funny, because last week I had discussed how United Artist had actually kind of created the “Man with No Name” moniker as a marketing ploy to unite the three Dollars Films as one complete series. Looking at the DVD for High Plains Drifter it seems that Universal has also gotten in on the act, proclaiming on its back cover that Eastwood returns to his famed Man with No Name here, but this character is in a decidedly darker place than Eastwood ever went to when he was in Sergio Leone’s films.

In The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes refereed to Eastwood in one scene as a “golden haired angel”. Here, he is closer to the Angel of Death, riding into the Western mining town of Lago on a pale horse out of the mists of a desolate landscape. Sure, much like the hero of Leone’s films, he kills three men nearly as soon as he hits town in spectacular fashion, but Leone’s lead didn’t have his way with a woman afterwards.

Eastwood though, already seems to be a director that knows his own power while he’s on screen. The big thing that really separates Clint from John Wayne, is that what made John Wayne so great was that he was tough because he told you he was. Wayne was a bit of a blowhard, but deservedly so, he was always as tough as a he said he was. Clint doesn’t need to tell you how tough he is. He shows you and you automatically know. The drifter is no different.


More subversion comes in the form of the town itself. Lago isn’t a town bristling with life, like you would see in Stagecoach or Silverado. This mining community seems like its already a ghost town and the inhabitants just haven’t gotten the message. This is a town full of fear, and finding this mysterious stranger just seems to make things worse.

Eastwood populates the town with character actors that seem to constantly be on edge. It’s as if the whole town is trying to hide a guilty conscience. There’s a tremendous scene with the town barber, played by William O’Connell, who Clint would use later in a similar fashion in The Outlaw Joesy Wales. The scene with O’Connell has the stranger barely saying anything, and yet the barber can barely hold his razor as he attempts to give Clint a shave.

Now in true Western fashion, in the same vein as High Noon, three notorious criminals with ties to the town are being released that day and Lago knows that without help, the community will be burned to the ground by sundown the following night. The town had hired three men to protect them, but unfortunately they had been the first people to meet the stranger when he rode into town. With no alternative, the town decides to hire Clint’s character to train and defend the town, for who do they have to turn to?

Apparently when the film was still in production, Universal wanted to shoot it on the studio back lot, but Clint insisted that they build the entire town at Mono Lake in the California Sierras. Not only that, he wanted all buildings to be built in full for exteriors. This turned out to be a brilliant way to go, because when you look at the town, it looks completely isolated. The townsfolk seemed to have gone there simply to die, with no where else to go.

To build further tension, Eastwood does what he can to build up the viciousness of the three outlaws headed for town. They’re appearance is ragged and when they come upon various settlers and campers, they simply kill them without remorse. One scene, in which a camper is desperately trying to escape through a wooded area, feels almost like a Slasher movie as the outlaws run him down like a dog. Meanwhile the men and women of Lago are subjected to the musings of our “hero”, as he uses the training of their town to embarrass the townsfolk and drive out the dark heart that is infesting Lago.

The final conflict of the film is one that seems to be a precursor to the resolution of Unforgiven. The stranger faces off against the town’s attackers in shadow, the town ablaze, and only the outline of the town’s protector be seen, either with whip or gun doing their worst. In the end, no one that deserves punishment leaves unscathed.


High Plains Drifter is a fantastic example of the power of Clint Eastwood as a director. Knowing exactly how much power he has behind and in front of the camera, Eastwood crafts a movie that played on his already powerful image and skews it a bit to make him an even scarier vision than before. Going back and seeing his work now, its too bad it would be decades before his work like High Plains Drifter would be truly appreciated.

Picture Credits: filmstarts.de

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