The traditional Western is perhaps not known for subtlety, nor for its interpretive qualities, nor for self-awareness, and yet Pale Rider has all of those things and is very much a late-game classic of the genre. “Classic,” here, should indicate that this is not a revisionist Western, despite being released long after the genre had been declared dead. The plot concerns a fledgling California village under the thumb of a ruthless mining corporation, and Clint Eastwood’s mysterious loner rides into town and kicks ass in the name of the little guy. This, as you may have heard, is about as classic as the plot of Western gets (see also: Shane, Django, A Fistful of Dollars, Eastwood’s own High Plains Drifter, etcetera).
Of course, none of those frontier tales double as a ghost story. By the end of Pale Rider, the implication is that Eastwood’s nomadic preacher is in fact not of this Earth (Higher Plane Drifter, maybe? Sorry). In the context of pretty much any other genre, such a twist would play out as little else: a twist, a cheat that we might have seen coming. Heck, the title signals in no uncertain terms that we’re about to behold a figure of otherworldly nature. If Pale Rider were a cop drama, or a crime noir, or a war film, we’d spot Preacher’s true colors from the start, spoiling that tantalizing ambiguity along the way.
But in a Western — and specifically a Western made after the genre’s heyday — that man-of-few-words drifter protagonist is already deeply mythologized in our cultural consciousness. An early scene shows a local getting harassed by a group of mercenaries working for the mining corporation, and one of the hooligans glances over to see the now-indelible silhouette of Eastwood on horseback. When the man glances back a second time, Eastwood’s gone. Vanished, as if into thin air. But such a sequence feels at home in the Western without the ghostly angle. We’ve seen the exact same thing in reverse in a great scene from The Shooting (1966), when Warren Oates’s gunslinger looks away for an instant, only to have Millie Perkins’s character appear from seemingly nowhere. Our brain doesn’t translate this to ghost! at all, because the shared mythology of the film Western has long communicated the ethereality of such characters.
Eastwood himself played a part in creating this image through his Man With No Name, the protagonist of Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy. He’s definitely a man, but there’s still a lurking sense of immortality about him. That Eastwood character could effectively be the same as the one appearing in Pale Rider, and so when we see the bullet holes in Preacher’s back we don’t think ghost! so much as…well, yeah, of course he got shot and survived. He’s Clint Eastwood.
Rider leans just far enough into the possibility of Preacher being a literal ghost to rise above the established mythology of the classic Western hero, but not so far that it ever states this explicitly (although Eastwood would assert his character as “an out-and-out ghost” in a later interview). The resulting Preacher could therefore be read either way, although it’s a lot more fun to consider all of the supernatural angles. When Preacher declines the temptation of wealth from the mining baron Coy LaHood (Richard Dysart), he notes simply that “You can’t serve God and Mammon — Mammon being money.” As a flesh-and-blood man of the cloth, this remark passes without raising an eyebrow. But Mammon in the Biblical sense refers to any material wealth, which of course carries a slightly different ring if you’re not actually from the material plane.
Granted, if Pale Rider didn’t have this ambiguous subtext running through it, the film might not be considered a classic at all. Eastwood’s is by far the most famous face on display, and it’s somewhat remarkable how little screentime he actually has. But this leaves lesser actors carrying the brunt of the film, and certain stretches at the beginning already start to sag. And again, the plot is not particularly revelatory. “The trail is all too familiar,” reads an original review from the Washington Post, “and pretty soon we recollect why Westerns lost their appeal.” Shorn of the supernatural, Pale Rider doesn’t bring nearly as much to the table.
The 1970s were still an exciting time for the Western, with stylish, revisionist takes like Skin Game, McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Blazing Saddles alongside genuine classics like Buck and the Preacher and Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales. The 1990s even had some solid offerings between Tombstone, Dances with Wolves, Dead Man and Eastwood’s Unforgiven. But the 1980s arguably saw a drought in good Westerns unlike any since the birth of film, and Pale Rider stands out largely because it understands itself. It’s cast in both the traditional mold and yet peppered with forward-thinking subtext that had never been realized so successfully in the Western, and while the former reading might leave something to be desired, the true Pale Rider — like the Preacher himself — just might be immortal.