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.