The Western has always been a means for Americans to see morality played out on the screen—good versus evil, the downtrodden saved by a person who nobly sacrifices in order to make sure that justice is done. Shane and Pale Rider, two movies separated by 32 years and a revolution in cinema, don’t deviate from this formula.
It’s not fair to call Shane and Pale Rider two sides of the same coin, because to do so would imply that one’s the opposite of the other. Instead, they’re neighboring houses on the same block, each built at a different time and with the techniques and materials available to the builders, but at their bones, they perform the same function—that of telling the story of the stranger who comes to town to help the innocent and punish the guilty.
Shane is a Western movie in the classic style—expansive shots of the Wyoming landscape, a good guy who wears white, a bad guy who wears black, a group of farmers trying to raise crops and families on their homesteads, and the evil ranchers who want that land for their own herds of cattle. Pale Rider is essentially the same story, only with the farmers and ranchers replaced by a group of miners and the giant mining company (who use hydraulic hoses to blast the mountains apart—“raping the land,” one character calls it). Alan Ladd’s Shane might wear an pale leather jacket while the starched white collar of Clint Eastwood’s Preacher character the only spotless thing about him, but they’re both very much the Hero to the little people just trying to make an honest living
But if so much of these movies—even this genre as a whole—is playing through the same archetypes and ideas, then why spend money on two tickets to see both Shane and Pale Rider? If the two movies are so alike, plot-wise, that they both feature a) an immovable object that the protagonist helps move, thereby demonstrating his willingness to help (a trunk in Shane, a boulder in Pale Rider); b) a black-clad hired gun who menaces the protagonists (Jack Palance and Richard Kiel, respective; and c) even a Scandinavian minor character, one of the farmers/miners who isn’t quite sure about this whole thing—well, what’s the point in seeing both?
The answer might be that Shane and Pale Rider are two movies that show their viewers how much the shifts in both culture and film that happened in the 1960s and 70s affected the Western. Shane, released in 1953, shows us one of the best examples of the Western as it was. Alan Ladd’s Shane shows up at Joe Starrett’s (Van Heflin) ranch without any explanation as to why he’s there. He helps Starrett remove said trunk, and stays for dinner, where he meets both Starett’s wife Marian (Jean Arthur) and his son Joey (Brandon deWilde) and learns of their troubles with the cattlemen. Here’s where the heroics begin; instead of heading out to the next ranch over, Shane stays to work on Starrett’s ranch, where he wins over the entire family with his quiet charm and willingness to work hard.
There’s a past, though, with Shane (there’s always a past with these quiet guys in Westerns, isn’t there? You’ll see the same thing happen in Pale Rider when Eastwood’s Preacher takes off his shirt for a bath and reveals six round scars tightly clustered on his back). Loud noises cause Shane to start for his gun, which lets Joey fix him for a gunfighter early on in the movie. And when Shane goes to the general store to swap out his riding clothes (fringe and all) for the clothes of a hired farmhand, he meets Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) and his crew of bullies, who throw a drink on his shirt and tell him he smells better (farmers smell bad, you see, unlike, apparently, ranchers—if there was ever a gap in the film’s logic, it’s that). They insult Shane’s manliness and his potency, and well, you know how these things go—Shane doesn’t want to fight but he will if he must, and he’ll defend the downtrodden from those who would encroach on their rights. The movie doesn’t label the characters with the Stars and Stripes and the Hammer and Sickle, but it certainly could and not feel like too much of a stretch.
Shane works just as easily on the repressed sexual dynamics of the era, too. Pretty much everyone admires Shane. There are lots of looks between him and Marian (but he’s too good to act on them!), and Joe’s admiration for him borders on the fanatical. Joey also sees Shane as a second father figure, and begs him to show him how to shoot a gun. The scene toward the end when Shane does so, only to be interrupted by Joe, speaks volumes about the dynamics at work within the Starrett family.
All this political, social, sexual, and whatever else we might dig up in an English major sort of way about the film lies under the surface, though—it is Dwight Eisenhower’s America, after all. But these undercurrents are what Roger Ebert said made Shane one of his Great Movies, a film that is full of what he called “intriguing mysteries.” Of no mystery, though, are the genre-specific reasons why you should see Shane: the astonishingly beautiful Grand Teton backdrop of northwestern Wyoming, which manage to make the 4:3 film ration feel like 70mm grandeur; Jack Palance’s spectacularly cruel hired gun (maybe a dozen lines in total, and all menacing); and, best of all, the two set pieces in which Shane lays down the law, once with his fists and the help of Joe, and the second time with his gun and a well-timed warning from Joey.
The movie’s final line, shouted by Joey, is so iconic (#47 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Movie Quotes of All Time list) that to discuss it doesn’t feel like it requires a spoiler alert, but it’s still the emotional heart of the film, so we’ll tread lightly. Suffice to say that Shane’s departure feels both as heartrending and inevitable as anything can, and the viewer understands that while order has been restored, nothing, especially Joey, will be the same after Alan Ladd heads out.
In the 32 years between Shane and Pale Rider, well, America goes through some stuff. Their dynamic young president gets killed in broad daylight in Dallas, they have a Civil Rights movement and a war in Vietnam that goes on forever, they have one President resign and an actor take office while promising that “it’s morning in America” (which implies that it’s been night for a while). The movies, too, have changed—violence and sex have arrived at the silver screen, and what would have gotten a movie banned in Boston now gets it an Academy Award—in 1969, the X-rated Midnight Cowboy wins Best Picture (it’s now an R-rated movie, but still).
It’s probably telling the that one of the most notable scenes of Pale Rider is the equivalent of the bar fistfight of Shane, but this time with axe handles. Attempting to intimidate the small-time miner Hull (Michael Moriarty), a group of thugs beat him outside the general store with hickory axe handles. Eastwood’s Preacher character arrives, takes the last remaining handle from the barrel, and proceeds to neatly dispatch the gang (it’s scenes like this that show Eastwood’s deep appreciation of, and debt to, Toshiro Mifune in movies like Yojimbo and Seven Samurai—the steady cool of the two actors is impressive to compare). The crucial difference is that Preacher doesn’t enter the fray because he’s threatened, the way that Shane is; instead, he enters an existing conflict and proceeds to finish the job. This will not be the only time that Eastwood acts instead of reacts.
Much of what was buried in Shane works at the surface in Pale Rider. The sexual dynamics between the protagonist and the female family members—in this case, Megan (Sydney Penny) the fifteen-year old daughter of Hull’s love interest Sarah (Carrie Snodgrass)—play out much more obviously, with Megan demanding that Preacher promise her that he’ll make love to her some day (Eastwood, both a man of God and not a creep, even by 19th century standards, refuses). Sexual assault, unthinkable in 1953, plays a major role in the violence that the industrial miners (led by a fantastically creepy Chris Penn) perpetrate upon the mining village. Overall, the movie’s approach to violence and the role that it plays in the opening of the American West feels both more brutal and more honest than it does in Shane; we’ve moved away from the good guy-bad guy dynamic of that film and into a more morally complicated universe, one that feels more familiar to our 21st century selves.
As many years separate 2017 from Pale Rider as that movie is from Shane, and to watch both back-to-back as the Byrd makes possible this week is to experience a seismic shift in America and American cinema. Together, the two films tell a familiar and fascinating story, exploring good and evil, pale riders and black hats and the gray areas in between.