This Clint Eastwood Western Is A Dark Twist On A Cowboy Classic


Every genre births stories that either blatantly rip off or reinterpret the material of a prior picture without being considered a traditional remake. No matter which fantasy worlds, sci-fi adventures, or action movies you’re stepping into, more than likely, you’ve already seen something similar before. This is maybe especially true in the Western, a genre that thrives on either staying true to or subverting its own genre tropes to tell an impactful frontier tale. Not even Clint Eastwood is immune to this type of imitating, as his 1985 Western Pale Rider feels suspiciously similar to another film that hit theaters a few decades prior: the 1953 Oscar-winner Shane. But while these films share similar plots, the details are different enough to make each of them stand apart on their own.

How Is ‘Pale Rider’ Similar to ‘Shane’?

It’s not uncommon for Westerns to share a similar, or in some cases the exact same, basic story with other pictures. John Wayne films did this all the time, perhaps most notably with El Dorado and Rio Bravo. In the 1990s, two Wyatt Earp biopics centered on the gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, with Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell each playing the character. In the case of Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider, the filmmaker’s only Western of the 1980s, the plot derives directly from the George Stevens-directed classic from the early ’50s. Shane is an incredible Western. It pulls from just about every traditional Western idea we’ve seen before yet without feeling too clichéd. The tortured gunslinger with a heart of gold, the corrupt cattleman hoping to rule the town, and the smiling black hat with a penchant for violence. It’s all here.

But Shane and Pale Rider only really intersect in the basic plot itself. Both films follow a lone stranger who wanders into town on unfinished business only to find himself working for a local family struggling to make a living off the land they’ve settled on. These struggles have been made harder by a ruthless land baron who hopes to either drive the pioneers off the land completely or pay them to work for him instead. In either case, the locals refuse, and another man who “takes care of things” is called in to stir up more trouble and end the conflict. Our wandering hero has it out with this man, comes out on top, and rides off into the mountains — presumably to die. While audiences and critics have connected the dots between these two pictures, there is no official confirmation that Pale Rider is indeed a remake of Shane — and maybe that’s for the best.

The clear threads between these films make it obvious that Clint Eastwood likely intended Pale Rider to at least be an homage to Shane. When speaking about the 1953 flick, Eastwood emphasized his impressions of the titular character in an interview with the American Film Institute. “Alan Ladd, who was a very small man in stature, but he seemed much, much larger than life in this particular film,” the filmmaker noted in a clip juxtaposed with Shane’s final shoot-out. On another occasion, Eastwood told AFI that what makes a good Western is ultimately a good story. “I think that the story is the king,” he explained, “and that everything else is interpretive art around it…” If you’re going to pull from any traditional Western plot, Shane is one of the best you could steal from.

Shane and the Preacher Have Different Outlooks on Violence (And Love)

If you’re tempted to think that Pale Rider and Shane are just the exact same movies, think again. Eastwood’s Western takes a different approach to the issues of love and violence that make the 1953 film feel so timeless, and that’s to Pale Rider’s benefit. In Shane, there is no mistaking that the titular hero is a genuine gunslinger with a rough-and-ready past. Alan Ladd’s Shane is a tortured individual who hopes to escape his violent past and yet springs into action at the sound of a gun and doesn’t think twice about taking on a half dozen men on his own to prove he’s worth his mettle. When it comes down to the final confrontation between Shane and Jack Palance’s smiley-but-deadly Jack Wilson, our hero walks right into the bar knowing that he’s going to kill these men and walk away. If not for the surprise attacker from above, Shane would’ve walked out without a scratch.

But in Pale Rider, the mysterious Preacher (Eastwood) is never presented as a gunslinger or any type of fighter. For most of the film, he doesn’t even carry a firearm. When he first meets Hull Barret (Michael Moriarty), he saves him with a simple bucket of water and a wooden beam. After that, he’s just a hardworking man of the cloth. It’s not until he decides to confront Marshal Stockburn (John Russell) himself that he retrieves his guns from safekeeping while leaving his clerical collar behind. Contrary to Shane, the Preacher doesn’t initially shy away from violence; instead, it’s his main approach. He tries, at first, to broker peace between the independent miners and Coy LaHood (Richard Dysart), but when that doesn’t work, violence inevitably ensues. Unlike Shane, the Preacher is saved by Hull in the end.

As far as love is concerned, these movies take vastly different approaches to romance. From the get-go, there’s a clear subtext between Shane and Joe Starrett’s (Van Heflin) wife Marian (Jean Arthur), but it’s never played on in practice. Shane understands that he’s not the type of man right for a woman, and he respects Joe enough not to jeopardize his marriage. He’s even willing to beat up Joe if it means that he won’t follow Shane to kill Wilson and Ryker (Emile Meyer), which would likely have left Marian a widow. The Preacher, on the other hand, is willing to partake in this forbidden fruit. Eastwood’s character holds affection for Sarah Wheeler (Carrie Snodgress) and even spends the night with her (despite her commitment to marry Hull), but he’s also loved by her daughter Megan (Sydney Penny), who still carries a torch for him in the end. “We love you, I love you,” she calls out as he rides away, leaving behind any chance at mortal happiness. Both their love affairs end the same, but Shane takes the more honorable approach.


There’s Another Major Difference Between ‘Pale Rider’ and ‘Shane’

Shane is your traditional, technicolor Western that appeals to the genre’s most basic sensibilities. There’s nothing here you won’t expect, and that’s to the film’s benefit. In some ways, Shane is the archetypal Western from which all others ultimately derive. Despite no appearances from John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart, it’s about as classic a Western as you can get, and that’s part of why it remains one of the genre’s most influential tales. You just can’t beat it, and it’s no wonder then that modern pictures such as James Mangold’s Logan still call back to it over sixty years later. But while Pale Rider certainly echoes Shane’s classical ideals, it factors in a spiritual component that the original lacked. The Preacher is, well, a preacher, sure, but that’s not the only detail added in. Pale Rider quickly becomes a supernatural Western, albeit not in the traditionally demonic sense.

As is the case with most Western heroes, the Preacher arrives in Carbon Canyon from out of nowhere and later leaves without us knowing where he’s going. Like a ghost, he wanders in and out of the lives of the local miners without hardly any fuss at all. Only this time, the Preacher actually is a spirit, one called from the great beyond by Megan’s prayers. Though Pale Rider doesn’t confirm this in the narrative, it masterfully clues us in throughout. For starters, when the Preacher confronts Stockburn at the end of the film, the marshal compares him to a man he knows is dead. This comes after the revelation that Eastwood’s character has six bullet wounds in his back (wounds he likewise inflicts on Stockburn). To make things even clearer, the moment the Preacher rides into the camp is juxtaposed with Megan’s reading from the biblical Book of Revelation, specifically Revelation 6:8, which says, “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.”

It can be presumed that the Preacher was brought to Carbon Canyon as an “avenging angel” in response to Megan’s initial prayers. He arrives to “make things right” for the mistreated settlers, not unlike Shane’s relationship with the homesteaders. The film’s very title echoes the idea that he might not be as human now as he once was, and the fact that he ends up walking away from every fight without so much of a scratch all but confirms this. Shane ends with its hero wounded and riding toward the Grand Tetons to die away from prying eyes, while Pale Rider concludes with the Preacher’s return to the mountains from whence he came — returning to the afterlife, now at peace. The ending alone echoes Eastwood’s 1973 Western, High Plains Drifter, though Shane remains this picture’s clearest source of inspiration.

Clint Eastwood’s ‘Pale Rider’ Honors ‘Shane’ as an Unofficial “Soft Remake”

For the most part, critics received Pale Rider well, with many obvious comparisons drawn to Shane. But while some considered Pale Rider to be an impressive entry in Eastwood’s filmography — Roger Ebert called it “a considerable achievement, a classic Western of style and excitement” — not everyone was overly impressed. “Pale Rider does nothing to disprove the wisdom that this genre is best left to the revival houses,” Richard Corliss wrote for TIME Magazine. “A double feature of Shane and Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter will do just fine, thanks.” But Pale Rider is more than just a riff on Shane or Eastwood’s previous outing, it takes concepts from both films and weaves them seamlessly together in a way that honors the original material. More than that, Pale Rider stands out as unique.

Pale Rider is different enough from Shane that it can’t be considered a direct remake. If it was, no doubt folks would be disappointed in all the changes. No longer does the stranger help a band of honest homesteaders, but now a band of starving gold miners. The hero isn’t a gunslinger with a troubled past, but rather a mysterious, ghostly preacher. Even the romance and violence hold different significance here in Eastwood’s film than they do in George Stevens’ film. And yet, even in all of this, Pale Rider manages to honor the original material, playing more as an homage to the 1953 film rather than an uninspired plagiarization. If you haven’t seen this Clint Eastwood picture, it’s well worth your time, but just be sure to start with Shane, the original Western classic.