When I first read that Warner Bros. were about to release "Pale Rider" in high definition Blu-ray, I was a little disappointed. If they were going to release another of Clint Eastwood's old Westerns in high-def, why didn't they pick "The Outlaw Josey Wales" before this one? I mean, "Josey Wales" is one of my favorite Westerns, not "Pale Rider." Oh, well.... All things in time, I suppose, and "Pale Rider" isn't a bad Western, just not one of the very best.
Eastwood made "Pale Rider" in 1985, the first traditional Western he had directed and starred in since making "Josey Wales" in 1976. There was "Bronco Billy" in between, but that doesn't exactly count as a customary entry in the Western genre. Basically, "Pale Rider" is an extension of Eastwood's "Man With No Name" character in a slightly new guise, that of a fellow known only as the "Preacher," with a ton of religious significance.
"And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth." --Revelation 6:8
If that weren't enough, "Pale Rider" shows similarities to the 1953 Western gunslinger classic "Shane" that a viewer cannot ignore, and it features a final showdown not only reminiscent of "Shane" but of "High Noon." So Eastwood was working in familiar territory here, and, indeed, the movie breaks no new ground. It just does a commendably proficient job tending to the fields it's got.
The place is California, the Sierra-Nevada foothills; the time is a few years after the discovery of gold in the mid-nineteenth century. The conflict is between a group of small-time miners who have laid claim to a canyon and creek and a big-time mining operation that wants their land. As the movie begins, we see the corporation's goons terrorizing the independent miners, shooting up their camp, and tearing down their shacks. The no-good scoundrels even shoot the Wheeler family dog.
When teenager Megan Wheeler buries the animal, she prays for a miracle, and it's answered by the arrival of a mysterious stranger riding a pale horse, the man an emblem of a supernatural force that will rid the hills of no-gooders.
We come to know the man simply as the "Preacher" (Eastwood), a person with little background save the six bullet-wound scars on his back. He comes from nowhere and he eventually returns to nowhere. I like that.
The Preacher's first fight is using an ax handle to disable four baddies, while helping out one of the harassed miners, Hull Barret (Michael Moriarty). Barret invites the Preacher home, where he puts him up for the duration of the story.
Barret lives with his fiancée, Sarah (Carrie Snodgrass), and her daughter, the aforementioned Megan (Sydney Penny). On schedule, both the younger and older women fall in love the Preacher, making for some wholly unnecessary complications, unless you want to count the various Mary's in the Bible, with whom we may loosely associate these women.
As usual, it is the villains who are most interesting. Richard Dysart plays Coy LaHood, the owner of the big mining operation. He can't get the property rights to the small miners' claims unless he runs them out of the hills. Meanwhile, he's raping the landscape, washing down the mountainsides with high-powered water cannons. Christopher Penn plays Josh LaHood, Coy's varmint of son, who's as bad as his father. I like their names, too: LaHood. Hoods from the hood. Then there's John Russell (he of the square jaw and the old "Lawman" TV series) as Stockburn, a crooked Marshal who, with his six deputies, sells himself and his men to the highest bidder, in this case the LaHoods. Marshal Stockburn and the Preacher have met before. Finally, there's Richard "Jaws" Kiel as Club, LaHood's 7'2" henchman. Kiel gets one of the best scenes in the picture.
Much of "Pale Rider" is slow-moving, with Eastwood his usual deliberate, determined, laconic self. He generally lets his eyes and his flinty snarl do his talking. The parts in between the slow-going sections are well worth the wait, though, so, yeah, this is a film that any Western fan might enjoy. Besides, the scenery is gorgeous, with big panoramic shots worthy of a John Ford epic. Can't beat that.
The picture quality varies in this 2.40:1 ratio, BD50, VC-1 transfer. Sometimes the colors are bright and vivid; other times they look a tad faded. Sometimes the definition is sharp and precise; other times it's slightly soft and blurred. Sometimes the screen is perfectly clean, free of noise, flecks, or age; other times the screen shows a good deal of normal film grain. Yet one thing is consistent: the overall image is fairly dark, even in brightest daylight. In fact, the darkness occasionally hides faces, and indoor scenes are so dark, the filmmakers appear to have shot them entirely in natural light. In any case, most of what we see looks realistic, and the photography places the viewer well into milieu of the story.
The closing credits say the sound is available in "Dolby Stereo where available." I assume what we have here is a 5.1 studio remix, available in English in either regular Dolby Digital or Dolby TrueHD. In TrueHD it's good but, not unexpectedly, a bit short of state-of-the-art. For instance, the audio engineers hardly use the surround channels until late in the picture, where they kick in from time to time with musical ambiance, the ricochet of bullets, and the occasional explosion. The front stereo spread works fine, though, gunshots ring with authority, and those explosions I alluded to make a mighty noise.
There's very little in the way of extras on the disc. A "Pale Rider" and an "Unforgiven" theatrical trailer are about all there is. We do, however, get a generous twenty-eight scene selections; English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Japanese spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese, Swedish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
In "Pale Rider" Eastwood clearly liked the idea of paying homage to a pair of cinema's greatest Westerns, "Shane" and "High Noon," and he liked playing the Avenging Spirit, the Angel of Death. For him, he makes it look easy. After all, who else would you want coming to your rescue than the Preacher Man With No Name? The problem is, after Eastwood replaced John Wayne in the 1960's/70's as the iconic Western hero, who's now going to replace Eastwood? He won't be around forever, and so far nobody's stepped up. We'll see.