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.

  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"