Pale Rider is a 1985 American western film produced and directed by Clint Eastwood, who also stars in the lead role. The title is a reference to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, as the rider of a pale horse is Death. The film, which took in nearly $41 million at the box office, became the highest grossing Western of the 1980s.
Outside the snowy mountain town of Lahood, California, thugs working for big-time miner Coy LaHood ride in and destroy the camp of a group of prospectors and their families who have settled to pan for gold in nearby Carbon Canyon. While leaving, they shoot a dog belonging to fourteen-year-old Megan Wheeler. As Megan buries her dog in the woods and prays for a miracle, thunder rolls and a stranger rides down the slopes.
Megan’s mother, Sarah, is being courted by Hull Barret. When Hull heads to town to pick up supplies, four of the thugs begin to beat him with axe staves but he is rescued by the stranger. Hull invites him to dinner and while the stranger is washing, Hull notices what look like six bullet wounds in his back. Shortly after, he appears wearing a clerical collar and is thereafter called “Preacher”.
Coy LaHood’s son Josh attempts to scare the Preacher off with a show of strength from his giant work-hand, Club, who breaks a large rock in half with a single hammer blow. When Club attempts to attack the Preacher, he hits Club in the face with his hammer and delivers a blow to Club’s groin, then gently helps him onto his horse. The miners now team together to smash the rest of the boulder.
Meanwhile, Coy LaHood returns from Sacramento and is furious to learn about the Preacher’s arrival, saying that his presence would strengthen the resolve of the tin-panners. Failing to bribe the Preacher into settling in the town instead, LaHood is persuaded to offer the miners $1000 per claim provided they evacuate within 24 hours. LaHood threatens to hire a corrupt Marshal named Stockburn to clear them out if they refuse.
The miners initially consider accepting the offer but when Hull reminds them of their purpose and sacrifices, they decide to stay and fight. The next morning, however, the Preacher leaves without notice and retrieves his revolver from a bank box. Meanwhile the miners find that LaHood’s men have blown up the creek running through their camp, causing it to dam up. They have a brief discussion but agree to stay and continue mining the now drying creek bed. Megan, who has grown fond of the Preacher, goes looking for him and rides into the Lahood strip mining camp, where Josh attempts to rape her, while his cohorts look on and encourage him. At that moment, the Preacher arrives on horseback and rescues Megan, shooting Josh in the hand in the process.
Stockburn and his six deputies arrive at the town and LaHood describes the Preacher to Stockburn, who appears startled and says that he sounds like someone that he once knew, but it couldn’t be, since that man was dead. Spider Conway, a miner at the camp, recovers a large gold nugget and rides into town, where he yells drunken abuse at LaHood from the street. After gunning him down, Stockburn tells Spider’s sons to tell the Preacher to meet him in town the next morning.
The following morning, the Preacher and Hull blow up LaHood’s site with dynamite. To stop Hull from following him, the Preacher then scares off Hull’s horse and rides into town alone. In the gun fight that follows he kills all but two of LaHood’s men and then, one by one, all six of Stockburn’s deputies as they spread through the town searching for him. When he goes face-to-face with Stockburn, the latter recognizes him in disbelief and goes for his gun. The Preacher draws first and shoots him, sending six bullets out through his back, before shooting him in the head. LaHood, watching from his office, aims a rifle at the Preacher, only to be shot and killed by Hull, who enters through a back door.
The Preacher nods at Hull and remarks, “Long walk”, before galloping toward the snow-capped mountains. Megan now drives into town and shouts her love and thanks after the Preacher. Her words echo through the canyon as he rides off.
- Clint Eastwood as The Preacher
- Michael Moriarty as Hull Barret
- Carrie Snodgress as Sarah Wheeler
- Richard Dysart as Coy LaHood
- Chris Penn as Josh LaHood
- Sydney Penny as Megan Wheeler
- John Russell as Marshal Stockburn
- Richard Kiel as Club
- Doug McGrath as Spider Conway
- Chuck Lafont as Eddie Conway
- Jeffrey Weissman as Teddy Conway
- S. A. Griffin as Deputy Folke
- Jack Radosta as Deputy Grissom
- Robert Winley as Deputy Kobold
- Billy Drago as Deputy Mather
- Jeffrey Josephson as Deputy Sedge
- John Dennis Johnston as Deputy Tucker
- Charles Hallahan as McGill
- Marvin J. McIntyre as Jagou
- Fran Ryan as Ma Blankenship
- Richard Hamilton as Pa Blankenship
- Terrence Evans as Jake Henderson
Pale Rider was primarily filmed in the Boulder Mountains and the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in central Idaho, just north of Sun Valley in late 1984. The opening credits scene featured the jagged Sawtooth Mountains south of Stanley. Train-station scenes were filmed in Tuolumne County, California, near Jamestown. Scenes of a more established Gold Rush town (in which Eastwood’s character picks up his pistol at a Wells Fargo office) were filmed in the real Gold Rush town of Columbia, also in Tuolumne County.
In an audio interview, Clint Eastwood said that his character Preacher “is an out-and-out ghost”. However, whereas Eastwood’s 1973 western, High Plains Drifter resolves its storyline by means of a series of unfolding flashback narratives (although ambiguity still remains), Pale Rider does not include any such obvious clues to the nature and past of the ‘Preacher’ other than six bullet wound scars on his back. The viewer is left to draw different conclusions regarding the overall story line and its meaning.
The movie’s title is taken from the Book of Revelation, chapter 6, verse 8: “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.” The reading of the biblical passage describing this character is neatly choreographed to correspond with the sudden appearance of the Preacher, who arrived as a result of a prayer from Megan, in which she quoted Psalm 23. Preacher’s comment after beating one of the villains is, “Well, the Lord certainly does work in mysterious ways.” After the temptation to shift his ministry to the town, Preacher says, “You can’t serve God and Mammon, Mammon being money.” According to Robert Jewett the film’s dialogue parallels Paul the Apostle’s teaching on divine retribution (Romans 12:19–21).
Pale Rider was released in the United States in June, 1985, and became the highest grossing western of the 1980s. It was the first mainstream Hollywood western to be produced after the massive financial failure of Heaven’s Gate. Pale Rider received critical acclaim, and currently holds a 92% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert praised the film, giving it four out of four stars. Further he stated, “Pale Rider” is, over all, a considerable achievement, a classic Western of style and excitement.”
The movie was a success at the North American box office, grossing $41,410,568 against a $6,900,000 budget.
The film was entered into the 1985 Cannes Film Festival.
Pale Rider was included in the Western nominations for the American Film Institute’s 10 Top 10 lists.