John Wayne hates High Plains Drifter (1973)
High Plains Drifter (1973) is one of my favorite films, but John Wayne wrote a pointed letter to Clint Eastwood after he saw it, explaining that it was crap. Wayne said that The West (in caps) was not a cesspool for murderers and immoral jerks, but full of honest people struggling to settle a wide open country. In response, director Clint Eastwood told Wayne to lighten up, because High Plains Drifter was really just an allegory.
Do movie Westerns have a responsibility to the historical West? Do Westerns owe us something correct in tone too? High Plains Drifter is no doubt the most amoral and bleak Western I’ve ever seen, depicting three murders and a rape within ten minutes of the opening. The West has somehow collided with the morality of modern society, and the allegory of retribution and revenge fits this conflict very well. John Wayne’s West is clean and bright, full of hope and freedom. Clint Eastwood’s West is dirty and filthy, even more untamed than the New Frontier ever was. Is Eastwood’s amoral Stranger trying to upend the clean image of Wayne’s westerns? Perhaps he is a representative of our conscience, no matter what the time period.
“High Plains Drifter isn’t what the West was all about. That isn’t the American people who settled this country.” –John Wayne
To this, my response is: Duh. Clint Eastwood echoes this sentiment when he spoke about the film in 1993, saying: “It’s just an allegory…a speculation on what happens when they go ahead and kill the sheriff and somebody comes back and calls the town’s conscience to bear. There’s always retribution for your deeds.”
I don’t think High Plains Drifter was intentionally created as an antithesis to Wayne’s romantic Westerns, but I can see why he was upset. All the people living in the mining town are paranoid, eaten up by guilt and fear, until nothing is left. You can see it all over their faces right from the beginning. As The Stranger rides in, the townsfolk seem to be wondering what’s next. All their courage, all their contempt and their spirit resides only in The Stranger. None of the people seem even close to being good or wholesome, and in fact, the whole movie doesn’t have any real “good guys”. Society itself has stamped out the good guys, just like the citizens of Lago stood by while their hero was killed. There are no heroes anymore, is a statement indicative of the modern-day and this movie.
There is a midget in the film called Mordecai, who may represent innocence or outsiders. He may stand for beleaguered Native Americans, who also had their spirit crushed. Mordecai is the weakest and the most helpless of the townspeople, so much so that one of the outlaws takes him out with one punch. However, he becomes The Stranger’s favorite and it is he who is nominated to lead the ambush on the outlaws, as they return to Lago. After the ambush fails miserably, I can only assume that this means that leadership and pure innocence can’t walk hand-in-hand.
This is a great movie, albeit not the most pleasant one. It is strange and eerie. I love the music, or at least the sounds, because none of the tunes seem very musical. Clint Eastwood is even more stone-faced and stoic than usual, which means the supporting cast has to take up the reigns to make the dialogue believable. I don’t think it’s bad. Overall, this movie has dozens of symbols and weird things hidden in the script, so you can look at it that way, or as a story about our modern society’s attack on the Western.