A small down-and-out mining settlement is being attacked by a group, which leads to Hull Barret going into town for supplies. When he arrives in town, he goes to the local supply store where he and the other miners are keeping tabs until they "strike it rich". After being harassed about the tabs not being paid, Hull leaves and places some supplies in his cart. He is met by four members of an opposing mining company, and before he has a chance to leave, the fellows begin to beat Hull with hickory axe handles. As this is occurring, one of the men notice someone on a horse in the distance, and after doing a double take, he notices the man on the horse has disappeared. As the beating ensues, another of the men decides he is going to light all the supplies on fire with a match. A splash of water comes from off-screen, which covers the man and the match. The man who was on the horse is behind all the men, and says "you shouldn't play with matches". He then picks up one of the hickory axe handles, proceeds to beat up the four men, offers up the one-liner "nothing like a fine piece of hickory", then gets on his horse and rides away. Hull catches up to the stranger and offers him room and board for saving him, and the stranger obliges.
Nothing like a fine piece of hickory.
Riding into the settlement, Hull and the stranger notice a man leaving the settlement because of the attack. The man tells Hull that he would be smart to do the same. Back at the settlement, we see Sarah and Megan Wheeler, a mother and daughter whom Hull takes care of. Megan is reading from the Bible, and as the stranger comes into frame, she recites a line about Death riding in on a pale horse. Sarah is preparing dinner while arguing with Hull about the stranger staying with them for the night. Hull believes he owes the man the hospitality, but Sarah does not trust him. In the middle of the argument, the stranger comments as a way of interrupting. Hull, Sarah, and Megan are flabbergasted when they see that the stranger is wearing a preacher's collar. Megan leads him to the dinner table and asks him to say grace. From this point out, everyone in the settlement refers to him as simply Preacher.
The next morning, Preacher offers his help in the mining settlement, and Hull tells him about a rock that he's been unable to break for some time in the nearby creek. Preacher begins hammering at the rock, and Hull quickly joins in. This inspires many of the men to start working in the creek again rather than packing up to leave. While they are hammering at the rock, two men ride into the settlement: Josh LaHood, the son of the opposing mining company's boss, and Club, a large man used as muscle to intimidate. Josh states that he isn't pleased with the fact that Preacher beat up four of his men in town, to which Club dismounts his horse and grabs one of the hammers. He breaks the rock that Hull and Preacher were working on in half, then tries to swing at Preacher. As he swings, Preacher hits him in the nose with the handle of his hammer, then immediately follows with a nut shot. He helps Club back onto his horse and tells Josh "thanks for stopping by". Josh then pulls up his shirt to reveal his gun, but he and Club instead ride away. The men of the settlement are more inspired than ever, and they start working diligently in the creekbed.
No rock gets the best of ol' Preacher!
The morning after the scuffle, a train comes in to the mining town. A man gets off the train, who we find out is Coy LaHood, the boss of the opposing mining company and father of Josh. Josh and his associate explain the situations over the past few days to Coy, which angers him greatly. They ride off towards their own settlement while talking about how they need the carbon field that Hull's settlement is mining because their cobalt fields are almost depleted. Meanwhile, Hull, Preacher, Sarah, and Megan all ride into town after Hull finds a 4 oz. nugget of gold. Hull goes to the supply store in order to pay off his tab, and while he's inside, Coy's crew come over to the wagon and tell Preacher that Coy would like a word with him. Preacher leaves the wagon and steps inside Coy's office. Coy explains to him that he wants that carbon field, even going so far as to show Preacher a supposedly-legit document of claim to the land. Preacher calls his bluff, and then asks how much each claim would be worth to Coy. Coy offers $100 a head, but Preacher tells him it would have to be $1,000 a head minimum. Coy agrees to these terms, but tells Preacher that he will kill everyone in the settlement if they say no, that he will "do what's necessary". He mentions that he knows a marshal by the name of Stockburn, which catches the ear of Preacher as if the name is familiar. Stockburn is a corrupt marshal with six deputies who will sell their services of "justice" to the highest bidder. Hull gets back to the wagon to find out that Preacher was taken in by Coy, and as Hull moves towards Coy's office, Preacher comes out. They all leave back for the settlement on the wagon.
The miners are all gathered around a fire, pondering whether they should give up their claims for $1,000 a head. Many believe it's a good idea, as they've never even seen $1,000 worth of gold for any one individual out of the land. Hull gives a speech about how this land is their home and that giving up their claims is not just about the land, but how it is about their dreams and their hopes, as well as striking it rich and raising their families. The miners unanimously agree that they will not sell their claims. Preacher makes sure that the miners understand how dangerous Stockburn and the deputies are, and the miners say they are willing to take the chances of 20 against 7.
Coy LaHood makes an offer...they might could refuse?
Preacher wanders out in the woods, where he finds Megan. Megan explains that she buried her dog here, who was killed in the attack at the beginning of the movie. She then confesses that she is in love with Preacher. Preacher replies that he loves her too, but Megan tells him that she wants to make love to him. Preacher points out that she is too young for that, and he does not love her in that way. Megan becomes angered by the idea and begins yelling at him that she has seen the way Preacher looks at Sarah - that Sarah loves Preacher and Preacher loves Sarah. After cursing at him to go to Hell, she runs off.
The next day, Preacher packs his things and apparently leaves the settlement, which leads to many of the miners (as well as Sarah) freaking out about their chances. Eventually, things cool down a little bit. Preacher stops by Coy's mining site to inform them that Hull and the others have said no to Coy's offer. Shortly afterwards, an explosion goes off outside of Hull's settlement, and we find out that they have dammed the creek that Hull and the other miners have been working. After some minor hysteria about the situation, they decide to work the bed dry. In the process of this, Spider Conway ends up finding a gold nugget the size of his own head, which leads to Spider and his boys making a trip into town. As Spider goes into town, it inspires Hull to ask Sarah about the chances of them being together and possibly getting married. Sarah says that there is a chance, but she is in love with Preacher.
Spider and his boys are in town, and while the boys are at the supply store picking up necessities and luxuries, Spider is outside with a bottle of booze, obviously drunk. He's yelling and cursing at Coy's office...and to Coy specifically. As he continues this, we see that Coy has the marshal and his deputies inside the office. Coy is asking Stockburn if he knows anything about a preacher, and Stockburn says that the man sounds familiar, but it could not be the man he is thinking of because that man is dead. He sends the deputies outside, who line up in a row in front of Spider. Stockburn then comes outside, and he orders Spider to dance. Spider tells him he doesn't know how to dance, and Stockburn tells him it's easy as he begins shooting at Spider's feet. The rest of the deputies start to join in. Spider eventually becomes upset with the shame, and he goes to draw his pistol, at which point the marshal and his deputies begin to shoot Spider to death in a barrage of bullets. Stockburn lays a final shot in Spider's forehead, and they all walk back inside. The boys make their way back to the settlement, telling everyone about what happened to Spider. When the miners say that they should find out what Preacher would do in this situation, Hull informs them that Preacher has already left.
There's a long line of deputies...and they're trying to kill you.
Preacher is at a Wells Fargo bank collecting a safety deposit box. He steps into the secure room, opens the box, and inside is a pistol belt and guns. He takes them out and puts the preacher's collar into the box instead.
Megan asks Hull if she can borrow his horse to go riding. She rides out to Coy's hydraulic mining site and sees Josh LaHood. They begin talking, and Josh tells Megan that he wants her. While Megan is about to comment, Josh forcibly takes her off the horse and lays her on the ground with the intentions of raping her. The other miners begin to gather around, and just as Josh begins ripping her clothes off, Club begins to run towards Josh in order to make him stop. Before Club gets to them, Preacher shoots off a round, which stops Josh from doing anything else. Megan gets on the horse with Preacher, and they ride off.
Preacher takes Megan back to the settlement, where she is obviously traumatized by what has happened. While Preacher is back in his room, Sarah comes in and begins to talk to him about a man she once loved but never had. She then confesses to Preacher that she loves him, but Preacher rejects her advances.
Preacher brings Megan back home after she is almost raped.
The next day, Preacher is given the message that he needs to ride into town to meet up with Stockburn. As he is leaving, Hull tells Preacher that he is going with him. Preacher points out that Hull is carrying a buffalo rifle, which will not do him much good. Hull says he knows, and Preacher accepts Hull's help. As they ride into town, many of the patrons are going inside to try and avoid the oncoming battle. Preacher rides into town alone, dismounts from his horse, and walks into the local cafe. He orders a cup of coffee, then informs the business owners that they may want to leave. As he drinks his cup of coffee, some of Coy's regular henchmen think they can go inside and take Preacher out, thus eliminating the need for Stockburn and his deputies. The henchmen barge into the shop, guns blazing, but once they empty their guns, they find that Preacher is not sitting at his chair. As they are reloading, Preacher comes out from behind a wall to their side and opens fire, killing all the men.
He steps outside as a callout to Stockburn and his men. As the deputies search the town, they are eliminated one by one by Preacher and his stealthy tactics. Eventually, all the deputies are dead, leaving only Stockburn. The marshal walks out of Coy's office to face-off against Preacher, and Preacher quickly puts Stockburn to his knees. As Preacher moves toward Stockburn, he lifts his head up, revealing his face to the marshal. The marshal exclaims "it's you...NOOOO", to which Preacher kills him. Coy is about to run out of the office to shoot down Preacher when he is met by Hull, who shoots down Coy with his buffalo rifle. Preacher gets on his horse and leaves. Hull's wagon pulls into town, manned by Megan and Sarah. Megan begins running out towards the direction Preacher left, yelling out that she loves him, that the whole settlement loves him. Preacher continues to ride off into the mountains.
General Production Notes Pale Rider was the first western directed by and starring Clint Eastwood since The Outlaw Josey Wales, making the movie something of an event. While joking that he was going through a mid-life allergy to horses, he was coming off the Dirty Harry franchise film Sudden Impact and wanted to do a story with more spirituality. Eastwood has said that it's one of the few times that he had the idea for a movie before commissioning a script for it. The film has drawn many comparisons to Shane, which Eastwood was aware of. He has stated in whimsy retort that critics never seemed to notice the similarities in Play Misty For Me and Fatal Attraction. When asked why he wanted to explore this idea of spirtuality with another "ghost" type of character like he did in High Plains Drifter, he states that he doesn't know why, but he guesses he didn't explore it as well as he wanted to in Drifter.
The majority of Pale Rider was filmed in Boulder Mountains and SNRA in central Idaho during the fall of 1984, with the opening scene being filmed along the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho. All train station and town scenes were filmed in Tuolomne County, specifically in and around Jamestown and Columbia. Much like High Plains Drifter, however, the mining set consisted of interior stage sets as well as exterior on-location sets.
LegacyPale Rider came at a time when most studios were completely done with western films. Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, a 1980 movie starring Kris Kristofferson, had inflated far beyond its budget, leading to the studio taking control of the reins to try and salvage the film. Upon release, the film was seen as an outright and widespread disaster, with audiences leaving theatres by the time its intermission hit. Clint felt that this could not be the end of westerns, going so far as to liken Star Wars to being a "western transposed into space". He was determined to see the western continue to thrive. He worked closely with writers Michael Butler and Dennis Shryack (whom he worked with on The Gauntlet) to tell a classic story: the little guys versus the big guys. The film would be made on a reported $6.9 million budget, and in its first ten days of release, the film pulled in $20 million at the box office as well as a landslide of critical acclaim, securing its right to be green-lit and allowing the westerns to continue having a chance at the theatres.
Religious Overtones The name Pale Rider is a reference to Death, one of the Biblical Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Upon Preacher's arrival at the settlement, Megan reads the line from Revelations 6:8 that speaks about Death:
"And I looked, and behold a pale horse, and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him."
The end of the verse, "...and Hell followed with him" was used as the tagline for the movie posters.
Megan speaks a verse from Psalms 23 as she buries her dog in the woods, which she believes leads to the "miracle" of Preacher showing up.
It has been speculated by many that Pale Rider, as a film, is a reflection of Paul's teachings on divine retribution.
Supernatural Clint Eastwood has gone on record as saying the character of Preacher is a ghost, much like his character in High Plains Drifter. There is a moment in the film when Stockburn states that "man is dead", as well as another moment where Eastwood shows multiple bullet scars on his back while undressing.
Environmental Pale Rider addresses the ideas of industrialization hurting the Earth, specifically by using the juxtaposition of Hull's naturalistic means of mining in comparison to Coy's hydraulic mining outfit. Direct dialogue in the film has characters pointing out that Coy is "raping" the land. Many critics, as well as environmentalists, have looked at Pale Rider as an example of environmental awareness being used in cinematic storytelling.
Critical ReceptionPale Rider was favorably reviewed, considered one of Clint Eastwood's finest westerns as well as one of the best movies he has directed. It was praised for its subtle use of religious themes as well as its portrayal of characters. Michael Moriarty was specifically singled out for his natural performance as Hull Barret, and Clint Eastwood was praised for offering a character in Preacher that held a certain level of ambiguity for people to discern whether the character's past was as a good guy or a bad guy.
The film was pushed as "For Your Consideration" during awards season, but unfortunately, the film was only nominated for three awards: the Golden Palm for Clint Eastwood at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival (which is did not win), as well as the Spur Award for writers Michael Butler and Dennis Shryack from the Western Writers of America (which it won) and the Young Artist Award for Sydney Penny at the Young Artists' Awards (which also won).
Career LaunchesPale Rider helped to launch and relaunch a number of careers. Chris Penn, most notably known as the brother of actor Sean Penn, played the role of Josh LaHood. Many consider Pale Rider to be the launching post for his own career, as it led to him obtaining a role alongside his brother and Christopher Walken in At Close Range. He would be typecast for many years as a general wisecracker and lug until 1992, when Quentin Tarantino would cast him in Reservoir Dogs.
Sydney Penny, who played Megan Wheeler, would later find her way into television. Thanks to Pale Rider, she was noticed by Harry Ackerman, who cast her in the role of Dani on The New Gidget. The show only lasted for a year, but her name continued to pop up in small mentions until she took on the role of B.J. Walker in Santa Barbara. This job would then land her the recurring role of Julia Santos Keefer on All My Children, as well as Samantha Kelly on The Bold and The Beautiful.