Monday, August 6, 2012

High Plains Drifter as Social Commentary

While it has long been hailed as one of Clint Eastwood's best films, High Plains Drifter is much more than a Revisionist Western with supernatural elements.  It is an example of social commentary at its finest.

Eastwood's character is not the typical Western hero.  He rides into town from nowhere and his first course of action is to rape a woman in broad daylight.  Yet, no one stops him.  Why?

While some critics don't like this scene, it draws into sharp focus the theme of the entire movie.  As the plot unfolds, it develops through a series of flashbacks that his character is a former marshal who was bull-whipped while the entire town watched and did nothing to stop it.

The townspeople represent everything that is wrong with society.  They are cowards, they are bigots and they are hypocrites, even to the point that they plot to kill Eastwood's character, the man they hired for protection because they are too afraid to even defend themselves. 

The theme of High Plains Drifter can best be summarized by this quote from Albert Einstein.

"The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing."

His character proceeds to run roughshod over the town, upsetting the entire social order and ruining the lives of prominent townspeople whose inaction led to the former marshal's demise.  He seeks retribution against the three men responsible for the bullwhipping.

At the end of the movie, the town is destroyed and it is revealed as Eastwood rides past a grave that his character is former Marshal Jim Duncan who was killed by that bullwhipping.  The eerie music plays and the marshal disappears into the shimmering heat waves. 

High Plains Drifter illustrates nothing new.  People have looked at evil and done nothing since the beginning of time and are still doing the same thing today. 

However, the film offers several lessons.  Eastwood's character forces the townspeople to paint all the buildings red and changes the name of the town from Lago to Hell.  According to High Plains Drifter, Hell isn't any specific place, it is moral cowardice.

While ignoring evil may be the easier course of action, eventually there will be a reckoning.  Looking on and doing nothing is not the same as committing the evil itself, but it will ultimately lead to the same place – Hell.

If this movie is any indication, this world doesn't have to go far to get to Hell; we are already there.


  1. Albert Einstein was absolutely correct. This is the reason our world is as it is. Frightening. Even though I thought I'd watched every Western ever made, I do not remember watching this one. Frightening, eerie, very sad.
    Thank you for the review. If I ever see it being shown on AMC or anyplace, I intend to watch it.
    Celia Yeary
    Romance...and a little bit of Texas

  2. Thanks, Matthew. To me this movie has long been a revenge film, pure and simple. Your analysis gives it more of a moral twist. You might well extend your argument to include the audience, which has paid to sit and passively watch all this graphic violence.

  3. Sharp insight, Matthew. HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER remains one of the best westerns.

  4. High Plains Drifter is one of my favorite westerns. I had a short story published by Ethos magazine entitled "High Plains Drifter". Here is my commentary on the film:

    "Clint Eastwood's film High Plains Drifter (1973)"

  5. I like the Albert Eisntein quote and this one: "According to High Plains Drifter, Hell isn't any specific place, it is moral cowardice." Nice review of the movie.

  6. I own a condo in which there is a sordid history with its Boards of Directors and management; at present it is exceptionally bad. After soliciting perhaps 17 pleas for change to owners (112 units total) and a recall election for an ignorant and self-serving Board, I had zero replies for potential candidates. Owners continue to get ripped off while the condition of their property erodes away, but still they don't budge. Although on a different scale, I immediately thought of High Plains Drifter and the cowards in the town of Lago. Googling those key words brought me to this site.

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  7. A fitting movie for the world today. Like the lyrics from a country song "if you stand for nothing, you'll fall for anything"

  8. The first time I saw High Plains Drifter was probably in the late 1970s. Clint Eastwood stars in and directs the film. Most westerns are either about cattle drives or cowboys and Indians. High Plains Drifter is different: this is a God's-Judgment-on-the-wicked western.

    Clint Eastwood plays a stranger who rides into the town of Lago--and he has a really bad attitude. This stranger is also very good with a side arm. During the course of the film, the stranger ends up killing some bad guys and burning the town of Lago to the ground. There are a couple of flashbacks of one Marshall Jim Duncan being whipped to death. At the end of the film, the audience can see that the stranger was the Second Coming of Marshall Duncan:

    The stranger rides out of the town of Lago past the cemetery. This little guy named Mordecai is writing something on a grave marker.

    The stranger looks at Mordecai and Mordecai looks up and says, "I'm almost done here."

    Then Mordecai asks the stranger, "I never did know your name."

    And the stranger replies, "Yes, you do."

    As the stranger rides off, the camera shows the grave marker: "Marshall Jim Duncan."

    I have a short story entitled "High Plains Drifter" (Ethos, March & May 1995); I have a book entitled High Plains Drifter: A Hitchhiking Journey Across America (PublishAmerica, December 2008); I have a blog called "High Plains Drifter." So is this some sort of gunslinger fixation or is there method to my madness? The clue is in one Scripture: "In the mouth of two or three witnesses let every word be established."

    There is a lot of sin (unrepented sin) in the United States and in the world. When people continue to live in sin, eventually God's Judgment falls. The more people try to hide their sin, the greater God's Judgment. The people of Lago tried to hide the murder of Marshall Duncan, but their sin was found out. You can't hide from God.

    There is a scene in High Plains Drifter where this lady tells the stranger, "Ever since Marshall Duncan's death, the people in this town are afraid of strangers."

    There is another scene in High Plains Drifter where the people of Lago [the town of Lago reminds me of Algona, Iowa] are meeting at the church. One of the guys is speaking in the front of the church. The camera then pans to the right and shows a bulletin board with this Scripture:

    Isaiah 53: 3-4: "Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed."

    Marshall Jim Duncan was whipped to death; Jesus Christ was at least nine-tenths whipped to death. The stranger riding into Lago (the first scene of the film) is a symbol of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ: not as the Lamb of God, but as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.

    Isaiah 63: 1-6: "Who is this that cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah? this that is glorious in his apparel, travelling in the greatness of his strength? I that speak in righteousness, mighty to save. Wherefore art thou red in thine apparel, and thy garments like him that treadeth in the winefat? I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment. For the day of vengeance is in mine heart, and the year of my redeemed is come. And I looked, and there was none to help; and I wondered that there was none to uphold: therefore mine own arm brought salvation unto me; and my fury, it upheld me. And I will tread down the people in mine anger, and make them drunk in my fury, and I will bring down their strength to the earth."