As Pale Rider opens, Allan Hunter traces the western’s return.
In Pale Rider, his first western since the memorable Outlaw Josey Wales was released in 1976, Clint Eastwood‘s companion is a Biblical text: ‘. . . and I looked, and beheld a pale horse; and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.‘ The film is clearly within a classic mould of good versus evil as Eastwood portrays an enigmatic preacher who rides to the rescue of a beleagured mining community in answer to a young girl‘s prayers.
Many have seen the film as symbolic in some way of Eastwood riding to the rescue of the western itself. It‘s a responsibility he shirks with disarming modesty, claiming in one recent interview, ‘I feel very close to the western. That‘s where my roots are. It certainly was a big factor in the early part of my career, both in television and the Italian-made westerns. In recent years, they‘ve been out quite a bit. I‘d hate to see the genre completely disappear, though that‘s not really whyl made Pale Rider. When I’m asked why I decided to do a western at this time I have to explain that there really isn‘t any correlation to time or place. It‘s not like I‘m trying to ride to the rescue of any genre. I just liked the story and wanted to tell it. Maybe there were other motivating factors in me, but at the onset I liked the script and felt moved to do it. I don‘t believe in market research or popular wisdom. I trust my instinct.‘
With a few minor aberrations Eastwood‘s instinct has been unerringly accurate in hitting the bullseye of public taste over the many years that he has controlled his own destiny. He is currently rated the number one box-office star in the world. In America each year Quigley Publications ask film exhibitors to name the year‘s top box-office stars; Eastwood has made eighteen consecutive appearances in the top ten, a record only broken by John Wayne. Popular wisdom has labelled the western box-office poison yet Pale Rider has grossed $42 million in America this past summer proving that there is an audience for a western or at least one that stars Eastwood.
Once upon a time cinema screens
were littered with cowboy films; The Great Train Robbery (1903), which is often cited as a factor in encouraging film‘s progression from nickelodeon novelty to simple story-telling, was a western. The western prospered in the early years of Hollywood with the California climate and landscapes offering numerous advantages to the cost-conscious producers of shoot-‘em-ups. Plots and characterisation grew more sophisticated during the 19205 and Tom Mix emerged as one of the silent screen‘s major stars. Eventually directors and stars saw the western as a way of celebrating traditional American values. Eastwood himself believes, ‘We don‘t have the historical background that Europe has. There are not too many American art forms that are original. Other than the western and jazz or blues, that‘s all that‘s really original.‘
Any roll call of western greats would have to include the names of John Wayne, Gary Cooper and James Stewart, directors like John Ford, Anthony Mann and Howard Hawks and classic films like Stagecoach , Shane and The Searchers. Eastwood was born in 1930 and grew up when the western was at its peak yet he has named his favourite shooting star as James Cagney, more renowned on screen as a hoodlum or song-and-dance man although even he rode the range on the odd occasion. Eastwood was a western fan but so was everyone else in those days and he certainly wasn‘t taking notes in preparation for his own work as a director. ‘I liked them a lot but I wasn‘t totally obsessed by them,‘ he comments today. ‘I don’t really recall one particular director that stood out. In those days ﬁlmgoers weren‘t very conscious. You went to the movies because you wanted to see John Wayne or Gary Cooper. You didn‘t know who directed the picture. Maybe there were some ﬁlm buffs but I didn‘t know too many people who were really educated as to the whole background of films. Maybe Hawks and Ford were the ones who got most recognition as directors, the name above the title sort of thing.’
It seemed that the western would
always survive and endure, finding new ways to present basic stories whilst accommodating the prevailing audience mood. In 1950 Broken Arrow appeared and began a period of atonement for the hitherto inexcusable treatment of the Red Indian. Westerns could also encompass political content with High Noon viewed as a parable on the Cold War and throughout the 19505 psychological undertones coursed through the veins of most westerns as the genre discovered Freud. Then realism became the order of the day with everyone intent on ﬁnding the bloodiest bullet holes and muddiest streets in an effort to tell it as it was and capture the poetic savagery of the old West. Eastwood’s involvement with the
western began in the 19505 when he appeared in the long-running television series Rawhide which led to an offer of work in Italy on a feature ﬁlm called A Fistful of Dollars. He had not been the first choice for the role of The Man With No Name but his fee was less than that ofCharles Bronson or James Coburn. With the barest of props, poncho and cheroot to the fore, and the minimum of expression he shot to stardom in a trio of Sergio Leone productions that were baroque and operatic in style, giving renewed impetus to the genre and creating the term ‘spaghetti western‘. From stardom in Europe Eastwood returned home in triumph and has never looked back since. ‘The westerns I did with Sergio Leone
6 The List 4- 1 7 October