“THE AVENGING CONSCIENCE”
An analysis of philosophical themes in
HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER
© By Rob Ager July 2009
Watch the 40 min video version (uploaded Nov 2012) or scroll down and read the text version.
3) THE AVENGING GHOST
4) DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL
5) GOD-FEARING PEOPLE
6) KARMA PERSONIFIED
7) TALL IN CHARACTER
8) THE AVENGING CONSCIENCE
9) PRAISE FOR CLINT / MAKING FILMS THE RIGHT WAY
WARNING – PLOT SPOILERS
For those who haven’t seen High Plains Drifter, I’ll here offer a very basic description of the plot, although I urgently recommend you watch the film before reading this review so that you can experience it, at least initially, on your own terms.
Clint Eastwood plays a nameless character, The Stranger, similar to his nameless roles he played in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns of the 1960’s. The film begins with The Stranger on horseback as he rides into a seaside town called Lago, which has been built on the profits of the Lago Mining Company (gold miners). His background and his motives for entering the town are not explained at any point in the film, but his presence causes havoc for the town inhabitants. Within fifteen minutes of entering Lago he gets into a showdown with three local misfits and guns them down. He then gets into an argument with a feisty woman and rapes her in a barn.
The town inhabitants, including the sheriff, are too scared of the Stranger to take him into custody or tell him to leave, but they have another problem. The three men who the Stranger killed were hired guns and their job was to protect the town from criminals and outsiders. So the people of the town are now defenceless. By strange co-incidence, three previous hired guns who are in an out-of-town prison, for supposedly stealing a gold ingot from the Lago Mining Company, are being released on the very same day as the Stranger’s appearance … and they want revenge against the people of Lago.
Desperate for immediate assistance, the townspeople beg the Stranger to protect them, but he is disinterested. Only when they offer him “anything you want” does he agree to their request. The Stranger then takes advantage of his position by giving himself “unlimited credit” in the town stores, stripping the sheriff and mayor of their titles and sleeping with wives and girlfriends of the Mining Company officials. His activities create fear and friction between the inhabitants of Lago, yet the Stranger carries out his duty by attempting to train the locals to fire guns and by helping them plan an ambush on the ex-cons.
At the last minute, when the ambush is all set up and the enemies are about to ride into town, the Stranger gets on his horse and calmly rides out the opposite end of the town. The people of Lago now have no choice except to go ahead with the ambush on their own, but the ex-cons quickly overpower them, killing several people and holding the rest hostage.
Unexpectedly, the Stranger returns to town later that night and faces off with the ex-cons. He kills all three. The next day he rides out of town the way he came in, leaving the townspeople still in the dark about whom he was and why he came to Lago in the first place.
Mixed in with the story are a series of flashbacks to another dark event in Lago’s history. We see the former town marshall, Jim Duncan, bullwhipped to death by the three hired guns (the same ones who were later imprisoned for the gold robbery). It is revealed through scenes of meetings between the town officials that the murder was planned by them to prevent the Marshall from exposing their corrupt gold mining activities (the mine was located on government property).
Although High Plains Drifter was a commerical hit in 1973 and is generally held in high regard by film fans and critics, it has somewhat faded from memory over the years. This is ironic in that the power of memories is one of the film’s central thematic pillars.
From what I’ve read, critical discussion of the film has centered round the mysterious identity of the Stranger. This is surprising being that his identity is prominently revealed through subtext and symbolism. The Stranger is the ghost of Marshall Jim Duncan returning to haunt those who conspired against him. However, the confusion seems to stem from the differing themes of the early script treatment, in which the Stranger is apparently revealed to be the brother of Jim Duncan, taking revenge on the people of Lago and the ex-cons for his sibling’s murder. Apparently, some foreign language translations of the film also depict the Stranger as Marshall Jim Duncan’s avenging brother. Another factor is that, while Marshall Jim Duncan looks like The Stranger, he’s actually played by Clint Eastwood’s stunt double, Buddy Van Horn, which could be taken as evidence to support the “avenging relative” interpretation.
So before we delve into the deeper philosophical aspects of High Plains Drifter, I’ll first cover the various details that overwhelmingly lean toward the ghost story subtext.
THE AVENGING GHOST
The title of the film is the first clue, High Plains referring to the heavens of the afterlife and Drifter referring to Jim Duncan’s soul, which won’t rest until he has achieved retribution.
In the opening shot The Stranger materializes ("fades in" in simple editing terms) out of the shimmering heat of the desert plains, accompanied by ghostly music. He exits the film identically in the final shot.
Ghostly music reccurs at many other points in the story.
While approaching Lago the Stranger is seen passing through a graveyard.
Once inside the town the Stranger is startled by the sound of a bullwhip from a passing wagon, not far from where Marshal Duncan’s murder by bullwhip took place.
A few seconds later the Stranger dismounts his horse and sees the town undertaker staring at him next to an open coffin.
Skipping a few scenes, the Stranger settles down on a bed in a hotel room and we fade into the first flashback of Jim Duncan’s murder. The similar profiles between the Stranger’s face and the bullwhipped face of the marshall are highly suggestive that they’re the same person. We then fade back to a close-up of The Stranger awakening. It appears he dreamt the flashback.
Possibly adding to the shared identity symbolism, The Stranger looks into a mirror after getting off the bed.
Now onto the second barber shop scene. As the stranger is having a bath Callie, the woman he raped in the barn, comes in firing a gun at him. His reaction is simply to duck under the water. Despite Callie firing at least two whots into the water, he emerges unscathed. He’s either supernaturally bullet proof or incredibly lucky.
The supernatural subtext then disappears while the story concentrates on the population of Lago, the release of the three released convicts and some background exposition regarding how and why Marshall Duncan was killed. But the supernatural subtext returns as the Stranger orders all occupants of the hotel out on the streets so he can sleep alone. At this point Lewis Belding, the hotel owner, sarcastically refers to the Stranger as “… our guardian angel”.
Next we get our second flashback of Jim Duncan’s murder, but this time it’s the midget, Mordicai, who is remembering the atrocity. The fact that this sequence is an expanded, but otherwise identical, repetition of the Stranger’s dream sequence demonstrates that the Stranger’s flashback was a real memory. The Stranger’s flashback was identical to Mordicai’s because he was there – he is Jim Duncan ghost.
Skip a few scenes and we hear Lewis Belding make another supernatural comment, while ranting in the church about the negative influence of the Stranger. “It couldn’t be worse if the devil himself had ridden right into Lago!”
After the failed attempt to kill the Stranger that same night, he sleeps with Mrs Belding. In the morning she brings up the story of Jim Duncan’s murder. “He’s lying out there right now in an unmarked grave. They say the dead don’t rest without a marker.”
The ghost subtext now disappears again until after the failed ambush on Stacey Bridges and his cousins. The Stranger suddenly bullwhips Cole Carlin by the neck and drags him out of the saloon then bullwhips him to death. But look at the angle from which the whip pulls Cole through the saloon doors – It clearly comes from above the door. The Stranger isn’t this tall. Is this another hint of some supernatural force effecting the proceedings?
The next clue comes as Dan Carlin and Stacey Bridges search the flamelit town for the Stranger. Dan is bullwhipped around the neck from above, like Cole was, and he’s hung from a balcony. Bridges looks up but doesn’t see anything of the Stranger. Again it’s as if a supernatural force has lashed out from the dark night sky. The hanging metaphor may also be relevant. The leaders of the town had conspired to have Stacey and his cousins kill Marshall Duncan, but the rest of the town had watched the crime and kept quiet after the fact. The head of the Mining Company, Dave Drake, summed it up, “One hang, we all hang.” So perhaps Dan Carlin’s hanging is symbolic of the punishment of the entire town.
Our next clue is what Stacey Bridges hears after he fires into the darkness at the Stranger. He hears “help me” whispered identically to the way it was whispered by the dying Jim Duncan.
Then we have the devilish Stranger backed by fire and ghostly music as he kills Stacey Bridges.
And finally, as the Stranger leaves town the next day, he has instructed Mordicai to put a name on Jim Duncan’s gravestone. Mordicai states, “I never did know your name”. The Stranger responds, “Yes you do”. The camera then pans down so that the Stranger, riding into the distance, briefly disappears behind Duncan’s gravestone – the dead can now rest.
With all these clues, which range from subtle to blatant, plus the absence of comparable references to the Stranger being a relative of Jim Duncan, it’s only logical to conclude that the Stranger is the dead Marshall’s avenging ghost.
DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL
Interweaved with the ghost themes are repeated suggestions that the people of Lago are in hell, or at least that’s where the Stranger takes them in the latter half of the movie. Again here, I’m covering fairly obvious themes in preparation for an exploration of the film’s more subtle themes.
In the flashbacks of Jim Duncan’s murder, the Marshal looks up at the people of the town. In realization that they’ve framed him he snarls, “Damn you all to hell.”
Discussing their impending conflict with the ex-cons, the Mayor tells the Preacher, “They’re gonna burn this town to the ground and you know it.”
The Stranger paints the word HELL in red letters over the town’s entrance sign. An interesting comparison with this is that the opening titles and credits of the film are also depicted in red. This could be a simple metaphor of the blood vengeance aspect of the story, but it could also have been chosen in relation to blood sacrifice as part of the film’s hellish underworld themes.
Immediately after the Stranger orders the people of Lago to paint the town red, the preacher enquiries if he means the church as well. The Stranger responds, “I mean especially the church”. And the bar owner verbalizes the underworld symbolism, “When we’re done this place is gonna look like hell”. We then see a shot of them disappearing one by one behind the freshly painted HELL sign as they walk back into town having just buried their dead neighbours. They’re “going straight to hell”.
A scene or two later Morgan Allen, having been shot during his attempt to kill the Stranger, is asked by Stacey Bridges for the combination to the Mining Company safe. He replies, “I wouldn’t give you combination to the gates of hell.”
Once the people of the town have been rounded up by the ex-cons we see through the saloon windows that several buildings are on fire. It isn’t explained who started these fires, but the lack of response from the ex-cons strongly suggests they were responsible. Whether the Stranger lit a few more buildings on fire before taking on his murderers is left to our imaginations, but a possibly deliberate reference to the underworld aesthetic is that the Stranger positions himself directly in front of the burning church as he kills Stacey Bridges. Stacey cries, “Who are you?”. Is the silhouetted Stranger now symbolizing the devil?
Just a few minutes earlier, Cole Carlin’s POV as he is whipped to death shows the whip wielding Stranger backed by roaring flames – again, very devil-like.
And a final note regarding underworld metaphors. The most widely distributed poster for High Plains Drifter shows the town of Lago beneath a sunset drenched sky that could equally pass for a sky of burning flames.
Now that we’ve covered the fairly obvious supernatural subtext of High Plains Drifter, let’s explore its more earthly, philosophical themes.
Sam, the incompetent town sheriff, tells the Stranger, “This is a God-fearing town. These are God-fearing people.” But why would decent, honest people fear God? The only people who need to fear God are unrepentant sinners, which is what the people of Lago are.
For starters, their whole town is built upon theft. The Lago Mining Company is the source of their wealth and their mines are dug illegally on government property. Their selfish desire to protect these illegal profits is what drives them to have Jim Duncan killed, but why the brutal bullwhipping? Was this simply an expression of sadism on the part of Stacey Bridges and his cousins? Nobody tries to stop them from their sadistic act (except Mrs Belding). Hardly any of them turn away in disgust. Nobody calls out for the three men to administer a quicker and more humane death, not even the preacher. Did the town officials, angered by Duncan’s desire to expose the mining scam, request the bullwhipping as a warning to the remaining citizens? One scene in particular suggests this to be the case. When Morgan Allen and his companions sneak into the hotel room to kill the Stranger, rather than simply shoot the figure beneath the sheets, they attempt to sadistically beat him to death with sticks – a parallel of the bullwhip attack on Jim Duncan. And when Dave Drake, head of the mining company, states, “This whole town had a hand in what happened”, the line could be a sly pun on the handling of bullwhips.
The people of Lago have been lying to themselves and each other that they had no choice regarding the murder. Lewis Belding arguing with his wife, “will you never understand, woman? That wasn’t anything we wanted to do.” Yet Lewis was smiling as he watched Duncan being murdered. And earlier in the Mining Company office, Morgan Allen, “This whole business has gone sour since that business with that former Marshall Duncan”, Dave Drake, “Now wait a minute. We had no choice in that matter. And you know it.” The maintenance of lies begins with lying to one’s self.
False sincerity is another trait of Lago life. The Preacher has to be the main purveyor of this. After being challenged to bring something productive to the table during a meeting, he ducks out by offering a false excuse of moral duty. “Where’s time gone to? Mrs Peekins’ eldest is feeling poorly, so I promised I’d …If you gentlemen will excuse me”. Listen also to the comically polite banter between the Preacher and Belding.
Belding: “Ahh preacher”.
Preacher: “Good morning brother Belding”.
Belding: “Mrs Lake was just asking about you”.
Preacher: “How is the dear old soul?”
Belding: “She’s chipper as a jaybird. Don’t know how she does it.”
Preacher: “She’s got the strength of her faith brother Belding. Praise God, the strength of her faith.”
And for a classic moment of self-contradiction, the Preacher tries to lecture the Stranger about his “inhuman” throwing of the hotel tenants onto the streets. After the Stranger’s sharp reply that the Preacher should let his homeless “brothers and sisters” stay over at his place, Preacher suddenly leaps at an opportunity for financial profit, “We shall find haven for you in our own homes … and it won’t cost you one cent more than regular hotel rates.” As is often the case with institutionalized religion, the Preacher uses his so-called “faith” to disguise his own greed, cowardice and denial of reality. Discussing the release of the ex-cons, “Possibly they have repented their ways.” Mayor, “Preacher, they’re gonna burn this town to the ground and you know it.”
Personifying a different set of unethical traits is Callie Travers. Her rape scene is one of the more controversial events of the story, but let’s take stock of the rest of her behaviour. She picks an argument with the Stranger immediately after he has just shot and killed three men – that’s asking for trouble. Unlike Mrs Belding, she stood and watched Jim Duncan’s murder without shedding a tear. She sleeps with the Stranger a second time, possibly as a way of setting him up to be beaten to death. And when Stacey Bridges takes control of the town she falsely declares her love for him. Callie uses sexuality to latch onto whoever the dominant male of the town happens to be, regardless of his ethics or crimes. Responding to the Stranger’s dinner invitation, “Thank you, but I don’t eat with dogs”. Stranger is bang on the money with his reply, “Do you mind if it’s the dog that runs the pack?”
Some characters of the town also express racist attitudes. The Mayor tries to impress the Stranger by offering to provide a Mexican woman to keep his bed warm and by barking abuse at the Indians who are merely shopping for blankets. Then there’s Lewis Belding’s aggression toward the Mexicans, “What do you greasy bastards think you’re doing to my barn?”
Betrayal is a typical trait among Lago people. They betrayed the Marshall, but they also betrayed the men they hired to kill him by framing them for a robbery they didn’t commit. One of the most revealing scenes about the politcs of Lago is when Morgan Allen, Lewis Belding and Dave Drake argue in the Mining Company office. Consider the following dialogue carefully, Morgan, “Every man that ever got sent up went away saying he’d come back and get even, right? Well think about it. Can you actually remember anyone ever coming back and doing anything? I can’t think of one, can you?” In that brief spurt of dialogue, Morgan has revealed that having men sent to jail on questionable grounds has been a recurring part of Lago’s history. These men are well practiced in corruption.
Cowardice is another central trait of the Lago population. They let the Stranger push them around, order them about, and generally turn their lives upside down, all because they’re scared of facing three ex-cons, despite the grown men of the town easily outnumbering them. Stranger, “The only problem you’ve got Sheriff is a short supply of guts.” And Callie Travers screams about the cowardice of Lago, “I wonder if there’s a man left in this town! I mean a God honest man with a full set of balls!” Note the “hat off” response from the wagon owner. During their target practice of the three dummies on a moving wagon, it’s easy to write the townsmen off as weaklings and idiots, but consider this. They have no qualms about conspiring to kill others and will almost always try to bribe or manipulate someone else into doing it for them. So are the men of the town really this inefficient with guns or are some of them playing stupid while deliberately missing, all in an attempt to make sure that the Stranger will go it alone against the three outlaws? The fact that at least one of the men in town is a gunsmith suggests that there should be at least one man who is efficient with a rifle. And Dave Drake doesn’t seem so fearful in his plan to kill the Stranger rather than pay him a $3,000 reward, “Promising’s one thing, paying is another. He may just catch a bullet.” Belding also sums up enough courage to try and shoot the Stranger after Stacey Bridges is killed. These Lago officials are no better than the ex-cons they hired to kill Duncan. The only difference is they hire or manipulate others into doing their dirty work for them.
So the people of Lago seem to personify just about every possible unethical trait and consistently they say one thing, but do another. But do they really deserve the harsh level of punishment that the Stranger reigns upon them?
After the Stranger has slept with Mrs Belding she asks him why he rode into town. His reply is simple, “I was just passing through and decided to stop by for a shave and a hot bath.” At face value his statement could be taken as the truth. When he first entered the bar and ordered a bottle of whisky the bartender asked will there will be anything else. The stranger replied, “Just a peaceful hour to drink it in”. The hired gunfighters of the town, despite hearing his statement of peaceful intention, then attempted to insult him before harassing him further in the barber shop. Rather than play games the Stranger gives them the gunfight they wanted and ends the matter quickly.
The next person to harass the Stranger is Callie Travers. She deliberately barges into him, accuses him of ruining her dress and unleashes her own barrage of insults. The Stranger’s response of raping her would certainly be an unjustified response if this was all Callie had done, but in the broader context of her habit of using sex as a weapon to control and manipulate men she is effectively reaping what she has sown. As the Stranger pointed out, “There’s no need for all that. If you want to get acquainted why don’t you just say so?” This is pointed out again after callie tries to shoot the Stranger. Stranger, “Wonder why it took her so long to get mad.” Mordicai, “Maybe because you didn’t go back for more.” Mordicai is familiar with the people of the town and so his statement about Callie’s motive isn’t mere conjecture. He knows what she’s like and her nature is further revealed later. The wagon owner approaches the Stranger with the intention of stabbing him – Callie is watching and charges back indoors when the wagon owner backs off – she put him up to it, undoubtedly by using her sexuality again.
After the rape scene nobody in Lago messes with the Stranger, nor does he bother them. Instead events turn in a different direction. Rather than fear the presence of the Stranger they beg him to protect them. Stranger only agrees to offer when they offer “anything you want”. So the Stranger did want something, but he never announces specifically what it is. He uses the people of the town to, as Belding describes it, to “set himself up like a king”. The Stranger gradually makes more and more unusual demands – evicting people from the hotel where he’s staying, tearing down barns, and making store owners shell out for seemingly unnecessary activities such as a "welcome home" picnic for the ex-cons. It becomes more and more evident that the Stranger is using his position of power to frustrate and annoy the people of Lago, and to cause conflict between them. Their attempt to kill him in his sleep only increases his animosity and grueling demands. He kills his attempted assassins, destroys the hotel, sleeps with Belding’s wife, makes them dig graves in the middle of the night and has them paint the town red.
His ultimate insult to the people of Lago is when the bell is sounded to inform of the ex-cons impending arrival. The Stranger dons his horse and calmly leaves town, leaving the people of Lago to the mercy of Stacey and the Carlin brothers.
So what is the point of the Stranger’s antics? Well, there’s a fairly obvious revenge motive. The Stranger wants to kill the three men who bullwhipped him to death in his mortal life. By returning unexpectedly at night he is able to take them by surprise. But he also wants revenge against the people of Lago not just for standing by and watching his gruesome death, but for collectively conspiring to make the murder happen.
Every cruel deed that the stranger inflicts upon the population of Lago is a direct retribution either for their own sins against Marshall Duncan or in direct response to their attempts to lie to or manipulate the Stranger. He doesn’t provoke the events of the film directly, but rather he creates situations whereby the people of the town can “put a rope around their own necks” so to speak. He sets them up to betray themselves and each other.
He doesn’t pick a fight with the three gunfighters, but merely by his presence creates a situation whereby they bring about their own deaths.
His slaying of three gunfighters is also a reversal of Marshall Duncan being slain by three hired gunfighters. (An interesting aspect of this scene is that when the Barber sees the three men approaching in a mirror, he deliberately turns the Stranger’s chair away from the mirror. Was this to hide the Stranger’s presence from the gunfighters or to hide the gunfighter’s approach from the Stranger?)
The timing of the Stranger’s arrival is crucial. By killing the hired men on the same day as Stacey and the Carlin Brothers’ release from prison, he is putting the people of Lago in the urgent position of begging for his help, which he intends to ignore, just as Marshall Duncan’s cries for help were ignored. The fact that the people of the town don’t take him into custody for three murders and a rape shows where their priorities really lie … with themselves.
The Stranger lies to the sheriff about his reasons for initially not wanting to help them out, “Because I’m not a gunfighter, and besides I’ve got nothing against these men.” He also lies about the outcome of the ambush right before leaving town – someone asks, “Are you sure it’s gonna be alright?” Stranger, “It’s gonna be alright.” The lies he tells are an important aspect of the karma and retribution motifs because the people of the town lied to Marshall Duncan about the source of their wealth and his impending murder. And they’re still spouting lies. The sheriff lies about the reasons for Marshall Duncan’s murder and how the men who carried out the deed were framed and imprisoned. The Stranger sees through all of this, “Kinda funny aint it. Does the mining company normally leave gold ingots lying around?” … and regarding Duncan’s murder, Sheriff, ”Wasn’t anyone from this town anyhow.” Stranger, “How do you know?”
Every time the Stranger catches someone in the town displaying some despicable behaviour he makes it his mission to punish them for it. For example when the Mayor makes racist comments about the Indian family in a store and barks at them for touching blankets, the Stranger immediately gives them a free pile of blankets and jars of candy. And when the Mayor offers him a false smile afterwards he simply returns it.
Another interesting paradigm regarding the Mayor’s comments is that the Mayor offers the Stranger a “Squaw or Mex” to keep his “bed warm at night”. Rather than take advantage of the racist offer, the Stranger sleeps with Mr Belding’s wife instead.
It’s also interesting that the supposedly civilized people of Lago have a habit of bossing around the less fortunate, be it the Indians, the Mexicans or Mordicai the midget. In response Stranger bosses the officials around in the same way.
The Stranger’s looting of the town stores is a reversal of the town itself looting gold through an illegal mine. It’s also a reversal of the money-grabbing attitudes of the shop owners. The bartender, being told to get himself something as part of a round for the house, “Oh thank you sir. I’ll have a cigar and eh … smoke I later.”
The people of the town are such idiots that they openly take pleasure and amusement in watching each other’s misfortune as the Stranger puts them out of pocket. Each time this happens the Stranger dishes out appropriate punishment. For example, when the bar owner is made to give out free whisky the Sheriff laughs, “Well, everyone’s gotta put something in the kitty.” Stranger responds by stripping him of his Sheriff title. The Mayor, witnessing this, expresses amusement and refers to Mordicai as a “runt” so he’s quickly stripped of his title as well.
The stranger consistently shows sympathy for the underdogs of the town and affords them appropriate privileges, be it free blankets for the Indians or making Mordicai the Sheriff and the Mayor. A very subtle expression of his sympathy for the underdog comes just before the failed ambush on the ex-cons. One of the Mexican’s asks, “Can we come to the fiesta?” Stranger bluntly replies, “No.” He wants the Mexicans to stay out of harm’s way.
After the Stranger scares off the knife-weilding wagon owner by blowing off the heads of the three dummies, Sheriff puts his big mouth in it again by assuming the Stranger is going to do all the fighting on behalf of the town. Sheriff, “We’ve got nothing to worry about. This is gonna be a picnic!” Stranger initially seems unresponsive to the comment, but in the next scene begins issuing orders for a “welcome home” picnic. This is a direct response to the Sheriff’s ignorant comment. When the ex-cons charge back into town it’s the Sheriff who is lassoed and dragged over a picnic table. His beating by Stacey Bridges in the bar reveals that the Stranger set him up to take the blame for the failed ambush … interesting, considering that it was the Sheriff who tried to recruit Stranger for the job. The picnic farce could also be a punishment for the Sheriff’s “greed” so to speak. Even when trying to persuade the Stranger to defend the town he couldn’t help himself. “You won’t be eatin’ that pie will ya?”
On one level, the Stranger evicting the occupants of Belding’s hotel can be seen as a deliberate provocation to create internal conflict in Lago, but on another level it makes moral sense. Why should the Stranger wish to sleep under the same roof as people who conspired in Marshall Duncan’s murder? Naturally, he despises them.
When the Stranger sets himself up in luxury with a hotel to himself, a fried chicken dinner, female company and the “best bottle of wine in town” he is basically doing what the town leaders’ do for themselves on a regular basis and he’s making them foot the bill. His actions trigger the townsfolk into an attempted murder during the night, which backfires horribly. This is a reversal of the successful murder of Marshall Duncan. Unlike Duncan, the Stranger always anticipates and thwarts whatever deceitful trickery the towns people think they have in store for him.
It’s interesting that the attempted murder took place after a meeting in the church, in which Lewis Belding did a lot of preaching. He certainly knew of the murder attempt. This is demonstrated in his response to the explosion, “My beautiful hotel. They promised me they wouldn’t …”. The Stranger overhears him. So the paradigm of Lago’s sordid past repeating itself in a sort of outcome-reversal could be a revelation that Marshall Jim Duncan’s murder was planned in the church, of all places. This would certainly justify the Stranger’s desire to paint the town red, “I mean especially the church.”
Another major parallel comes in the digging of graves. The Stranger makes the people of the town bury the dead in the middle of the night, a task which takes them until morning. How long did they leave Marshall Jim Duncan’s body in the street? Was he left there to die slowly overnight?
The unmarked grave of Marshall Duncan is paralleled in the burial of those who tried to kill the Stranger in his sleep. The people of the town decide not to mark the graves, “Nobody’s gonna cry over ‘em anyhow.” Burying the past seems to be second nature for them, while mourning the dead is beyond their comprehension.
Specifically, Morgan Allen, Dave Drake and Lewis Belding set up Marshall Duncan to be murdered by Stacey and the Carlin brothers. So the Stranger conspires to have them murdered by the same men. His dynamite assault on the ex-cons ensures that their return to town will be hate fuelled, sadistic and murderous. Stacey, “I’ll kill every man in Lago!”
Dave Drake’s false promise of a $3,000 reward to the stranger is less than subtle. The Stranger overhears his comment, “Promising’s one thing. Paying is another. He may just catch a bullet.” Stranger responds by ordering him to take part in burying the would-be assassins, “You and Lewis can pick up shovels too.” He also reverses Dave Drake’s attempted swindle by requesting “$500 an ear”. He acts literally by simply shooting off Cole Carlin’s ear to get the ex-cons even more enraged.
As a side-note, one other possibility is that the Stranger’s rape of Callie Travers may have been in response to some involvement she had with Marshall Duncan. Did she use him sexually as she has the other man of the town? The possibility isn’t directly explored, but being that everything else the Stranger has done operated on the level of karma, perhaps it applies with Callie Travers too. Another possibility is that the Mayor's offer of a Mexican woman to "keep your bed warm" (effectively permission for the Stranger to rape) is a reflection that rape is not such an alien concept to the townspeople.
The fate of Stacey Bridges and the Carlin brothers manifests with some interesting symbolism. We see them murder three random men in a forest. The first two are shot while unarmed and the third is shot in the back. Stacey then decides to take their clothes. So by the time they reach Lago, all three men are riding on dead men’s horses and at least one of them is wearing the clothes of a dead man. Their fate is sealed.
The Stranger not only punishes the living. He destroys the institutions through which these selfish men express their sinful natures. In particular, the church and the mining company are burned to the ground.
Everything the Stranger inflicts upon the people of Lago stems from one simple concept – karma. He hands out carefully crafted punishments upon each member of the community by doing to them exactly as they have done to others. He is karma personified.
TALL IN CHARACTER
Not everyone in Lago has it coming when the Stranger strolls in. We’ve already noted the examples of the Indians and Mexicans being treated with dignity by the Stranger, but the really prominent example is the midget, Mordicai.
Mordicai gets preferential treatment from the Stranger right from the start. We first see him the bar, observing the trade of insults between the Stranger and the lead gunfighter of the town. Mordicai is seen smirking, as if he knows that the Stranger is about to get the upper hand. He’s also the first on the scene after the Stranger kills the three men in the barber shop. Unafraid, he lights the Stranger’s cigar and asks his name. Everyone else hesitates until the Stranger walks away to the stables. They also are unresponsive as they see Callie being dragged into the stable, but again Mordicai is the one who unafraid. He sneaks a peak and finds out what is really going on between Callie and the Stranger.
When the Stranger later returns to the barber shop, again Mordicai is the one who is unafraid. He throws a bucket of water over Callie when she comes in firing – it’s the kind of insult the Stranger himself to dish out.
Once the Stranger has been given free reign in town, Mordicai is at his side. Stranger lifts him onto the bar for his free glass of beer then proceeds to make him the Sheriff and the Mayor. Mordicai is far from afraid of his new responsibilities. He relishes them and demands to wear a gun. Stranger takes him shopping and he unashamedly picks one that looks way too big for him and dons a plentiful supply of bullets.
When it comes time to train the men of the town for the ambush, Mordicai takes the lead, cheering them on as they fire at the dummies on the wagon. “Fire! Fire!”
When the Stranger orders the Mexicans to tear down Belding’s barn to make picnic tables we’re presented with a visual parallel between Mordicai and the Stranger. The two are sat side by side, dishing out orders. Mordicai has the list of items needed and is smoking a cigar, just like the Stranger does. And furthering this parallel Mordicai later roams around town drinking a bottle of whisky.
He gets knocked out by Morgan prior to the failed attempt to kill the Stranger, but the next morning he is back barking orders alongside the Stranger, unphased.
When the Stranger tells Mordicai to give the attack signal during the ambush, Mordicai laughs nervously, but he still gives the order anyway.
He’s also the only one to smile after Cole Carlin is bullwhipped by the Stranger outside the saloon. Everyone else is petrified.
And as the Stranger leaves town Mordicai, while marking up Marshall Duncan’s gravestone, is the only one who comes to the realization of who the Stranger is.
So why does Mordicai get preferential treatment and why the glaring parallels between himself and the character of the Stranger? One factor is that Mordicai has a flashback to Marshall Duncan’s murder as he hides under the hotel porch. He also cries at the memory of Duncan’s death. Unlike the rest of the town, he felt genuine grief for what happened. It seems to be these factors of acknowledgement of Lago’s dark past that separate Mordicai from the rest of the town, making him the Stranger’s only friend.
A question worth asking here is “What was Mordicai doing sleeping under the porch when Duncan was bullwhipped?” Surely he had a room somewhere to sleep in town, even if it was in the barber shop where he worked. Perhaps his intention was to warn Marshall Duncan of the plot to kill him, but he fell asleep and was stricken with fear once he saw the murder taking place. The fact that Mordicai shoots Lewis Belding before he can shoot the Stranger is another of the film’s history reversals, possibly a parallel of his attempt to save Marshall Duncan. After all, the Stranger does seem to give the people of Lago the opportunity to redeem themselves. He helps them set up an ambush, which if they had the guts to carry it off may have worked without the Stranger’s help. Of all the men in town, Mordicai is the one who redeems himself by showing courage regarding the ambush and by saving the Stranger in the finale. The comparison between he and the other men of the town is most prominent prior to the ambush. The men are downing stiff drinks in the saloon as Mordicai charges in “Wait’ll we gun ‘em down. Bang! Bang! … what’s the matter with everybody?”
Another important motif here may be a personal one coming from Clint Eastwood. Clint has, several times in his career, chosen film projects that tear apart the myth of the “man with no name” character whom he was famous for playing early in his career. In Unforgiven, the gunfighter myth was transformed into a more honest depiction of a drunken criminal, and in Gran Torino, Clint allows himself to be gunned down to defeat his enemies rather then gunning them down the way he did in the old spaghetti westerns. Here in High Plains Drifter, the tearing apart of the “man with no name” myth comes in the form of Mordicai. The metaphor being that it’s not a man’s physical appearance and stature that makes him a man. It’s his character. The midget Mordicai personifies this. He is small in stature, but tall in character.
THE AVENGING CONSCIENCE
There is one other character in the town of Lago whom the Stranger has a more sympathetic attitude towards, Sarah Belding. Aside from Mordicai, she’s the only character who expresses regret regarding Marshall Duncan’s death. She was also the only one who tried to stop the murder, but she herself was stopped by her husband.
Sarah has a strange habit of staring at the Stranger at various points in the film, as if pondering over his identify. For the most part she disapproves of his presence and behaviour, but the big switch comes after she sleeps with him. Personally I found her quick transformation in composure from angry woman attacking the Stranger with a pair of scissors to sexual arousal unconvincing – not in the acting sense, but in terms of basic scriptwriting. This is odd being that the rest of the story and its character interactions are so well thought out. Perhaps I’ve missed something, such as her seeing her husband turn his back as she is dragged away by the Stranger as a psychological breaking point. Or maybe she was surprised to be treated intimately instead of like a piece of meat.
After Sarah’s night with the Stranger she comes to a full realization about the town she lives in. She brings up the subject of Marshall Duncan’s death and decides to leave both her husband and Lago itself, “Yes, they’re my neighbours and they make me sick. Hiding behind words like faith, peace and trust.” This last conversation with her husband verbalizes another of the film’s themes. Lewis Belding (incidentally, a funny pun being that he works in a hotel where visitors “ding” a “bell” for service), “Your damn conscience. I’ll say it’s sure taken a hell of a while to bother you.” The word conscience was also spoken during the first town meeting during which the decision is made to hire the Stranger. Dave Drake scorning the Preacher, “Why don’t you take your conscience elsewhere while we think about saving your ass!” And it pops up again during one of the mild mannered spats between the Stranger and Mrs Belding, “Two adjoining rooms … one for sleeping and one for entertaining your many new friends in town. If your conscience let’s you sleep that is.” Stranger, “Oh I sleep just fine Ma’m.”
Aside from Mordicai, Sarah Belding is the only person in town who is greeted with a farewell by the Stranger.
The people of Lago have blocked out their memories of the past so thoroughly that they can’t make any kind of conscious connection between the Stranger and Marshall Duncan. Instead they are haunted by ghost-like impression of the things they are in denial of. Stacey Bridges, “One way or another they’ll remember.” One of the marketing posters also carries the tagline, “They’d never forget the day he drifted into town.” The closest they come to a realization is when they hear Cole Carlin being bullwhipped to death, their faces frozen with fear. When Stacey orders them out in the street they are forced to take a close look at Cole’s body. If this doesn’t remind them of Duncan’s death then what would? Stacey, even in the final moments of his death can’t acknowledge the karma of his situation, “Who are you!" Nor can Cole, even as he is bullwhipped to death in the same way as Duncan.
The fat Sheriff verbalizes Lago’s habit of wiful denial while talking to the Stranger in the barber shop, “Forgive and forget, that’s out motto”. Note the smirk reaction from the Stranger.
Underlying the supernatural overtones and karma themes, High Plains Drifter is about the personal hell in which people must live when they have purposefully and knowingly betrayed, lied to, cheated, hurt or otherwise sinned against other human beings without receiving due punishment. The price they pay is guilt, self-loathing, and fear of retribution. Sarah Belding, “You’re a man who makes people afraid and that’s dangerous.” Stranger, “It’s what people know about themselves inside that makes them afraid.” In these respects the film High Plains Drifter embodies a level of maturity and philosophical honesty that sets it way above just about every other western film ever made.
PRAISE FOR CLINT / MAKING FILMS THE RIGHT WAY
High Plains Drifter was only Clint Eastwood’s second outing as a feature director, yet he delivered like a seasoned veteran. He demonstrates an amazing ability to direct himself in a lead role, this is virtually unheard of in film, and he’s achieved similar results many times since. He also produced the film. According to the DVD production notes the project was shot in just six weeks, was brought in two days ahead of schedule and under-budget. He’s not only arguably the greatest film star in history, but a true professional both technically and artistically. In his choice of film projects he’s kept a balance between commercial entertainment and artistic expression, producing for the most part consistently good films for four decades – this year’s Gran Torino shows he’s still got what it takes in front and behind the camera. And to top it all off he’s never let it go to his head.
With High Plains Drifter, Eastwood wisely chose a location shoot instead of a studio backlot shoot. The town of Lago was built for real so that all scenes could be shot both in and outside the buildings, giving it a more natural look than other westerns. Being away from the studios may also have given Clint more creative freedom rather than being directly under the noses of prying executives.