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Reflections on "High Plains Drifter"

Welcome to my page of reflections on "High Plains Drifter" directed by and starring Clint Eastwood.

 

A tall bearded stranger rides into the mining town of Lago and almost immediately provokes strong and violent reactions from nearly every member of the township through his uncompromising "eye for an eye" brand of justice. That is until the townspeople hire him to protect them from three gunmen formerly employed by them and who are newly released from prison and about to wreak vengeance on the town of Lago.

The inhabitants of Lago, however, will pay dearly for the privilege of the stranger's protection.

 

Fairly familiar western fodder for Eastwood fans you might think, but anyone expecting the usual heroics of an Eastwood spaghetti western is in for a rude shock, for this is an Eastwood-directed spaghetti-style western of considerable depth.

When the stranger arrives in town he is mocked and threatened by three gunmen, but proves he is more than capable of looking after himself by coldly shooting them dead within seconds of a fight erupting. He leaves the scene and is almost immediately accosted by an attractive young lady whose sole aim in bumping into the stranger (as he is quick to point out to her) is to become better acquainted with him. Faced with and offended by this truth, she insults the stranger who promptly drags her off into a nearby barn and teaches her a somewhat harsh lesson in manners by raping her (an experience, it should be pointed out, she does not find altogether unpleasant).

Rough justice indeed, but then justice is what this film is largely about. In the opening sequence the stranger is subjected to the gunmen's own brand of morality and justice. We (the audience) see very little of them, but we see enough to be able to form our own opinion of their bullying and threatening ways, and are sympathetic towards the stranger. So, when he shoots them we accept that he has simply turned their own standard of morality on them, carrying it to its logical conclusion. Nevertheless we are somewhat shocked at how easily and coldly he resorts to his extreme retaliation.

In the same way, when he is accosted by the girl and he treats her so savagely, we are stunned by his extreme form of retaliation.

Having just witnessed two crimes committed by this stranger with whom we at first sympathised, we are no longer sure of just where our sympathy should lie. To add to our confusion, or perhaps to resolve it, we next witness, in the course of a dream, the brutal whipping to death of a young Marshal in the streets of Lago while the townspeople look on and do nothing to help. The Marshal is none other than the stranger himself, a revelation that leads us to treat with suspicion the motives and actions of both the stranger and the people of Lago.

Eastwood the director has cleverly woven a tale of morality, or rather amorality and justice, and asks the audience to act as the jury. The film is constructed in much the way that a jury might hear arguments in a court case, with one party appearing guilty at first but gradually, as more facts emerge, we come to understand and even endorse the actions of the defendant.

We discover that the girl the stranger raped is in the habit of sleeping with whoever will help her achieve her immediate aims. The gunmen he shot were hired to kill anyone who posed a threat to the Lago mining company, and everyone in Lago played a part (albeit indirectly) in the death of Marshal Duncan.

Marshal Duncan represented an "outside" force of law, an independent, disinterested party interested only in equality and justice. The town of Lago, however, took upon itself the mantle of justice and rejected the independent authority of law. The people did not wish to share their wealth from the mines with the government, and they went to extreme lengths to protect it and themselves, including the murder of Marshall Duncan. Thus they established their own "amoral" form of justice where their own continued wellbeing and wealth are taken as the only valid criteria of "justice". This goes a long way to explaining the weakness of the citizens of Lago in the face of the ruthless stranger. His strength stems from his total faith in his judgement and conduct, while their weakness stems from their amorality or lack of principles - except one, that of self-interest. To stand up to the stranger or the gunfighters would pose a threat to their own wellbeing.

As the stranger, Duncan represents no particular moral viewpoint, but instead reacts to the conduct and morality of others, taking their sense of morality as his own. He is a sort of "moral mirror" where people are judged by their own standards.

In order to protect themselves, the townspeople hire a small group of gunfighters to perform their "immoral" acts. The problems arise when the people decide to rid themselves of the by now arrogant and bullying gunmen by, naturally enough, amoral means. They are framed for theft and are sent to prison, but are due to be released and avenge themselves on Lago.

With their "new" gunfighters gone, the people ask the stranger to help them. He reluctantly agrees, but only in return for a free rein.

At this, the stranger proceeds to make everyone pay for their protection - everyone must pay something for their freedom and the stranger makes them pay in kind, through loss of public office, esteem or wealth. In short they must pay with that which they gained through the death of Marshal Duncan.

The stranger humiliates the inhabitants of Lago and makes them suffer - all in the name of protection, protection he would have provided, at a much lower cost, as Marshal Duncan. However, because they abandoned principle and chose instead the path of amorality where worth and value are measured solely in financial terms, the people of Lago must now face the practical consequences of their amorality.

The stranger does very little to help them, except show them how to defend themselves, and with great irony rides off at the last moment to let them face their gunmen alone. He never actually agreed to any "deal", and besides, any such deal would require a sense of morality to be valid, morality the people of Lago have long since rejected.

He only returns to Lago once much harm and suffering have been done - to avenge himself on those who killed him.

Eastwood here plays one of his most interesting roles, the spirit of justice. Each member of the community is made to face himself, and is faced with the kind of treatment he has meted out to others in the past. The stranger provides them with a practical lesson in morality, turning their own amorality on them so they will FEEL the reasons for respecting the principles of justice.

The film is extremely well directed, combining the gritty action we have come to expect from Eastwood, and a content of considerable depth. By swinging our sympathies from one side to the other, Eastwood makes us doubt everything and causes us to suspend our judgement until the final thought-provoking scene when we are in possession of all the facts and evidence.

Altogether it is a stimulating film well worth watching and represents one of the artistic peaks in Eastwood's career.

 

My thanks for taking the time to read this page. I hope you found it of some value.

 

I would, of course, be delighted to hear from anyone wishing to discuss the film itself or these notes about it. I can be contacted at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk

 

Stuart Fernie

 

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