Starring: Clint Eastwood, Michael Moriarty, Chris Penn

Director: Clint Eastwood
Released: 1985

Mood: If you want to watch a good ol’ action-packed Western but you’ve had a bad week and secretly want to see a reasonably happy ending too


I’ve been in a serious Western slump. I haven’t watched one that made me truly excited in MONTHS. I’d reached the point where I was dreading even trying another movie, and facing another disappointment.


I put on Pale Rider because it has universally great reviews, it was the highest-grossing Westerns of the 1980s, and it’s heralded as the movie that revived the genre when everyone thought it was done and dusted.


Pale Rider didn’t totally make up for everything I’ve been lacking in the genre, and it’s not my favourite Clint Eastwood Western – I mean, nothing can compete with Unforgiven. But it has such a great supporting cast, and the production quality is up there with the best Westerns of the decade.


Which, for the record, are Silverado, The Shadow Riders, and Young Guns. I will fight anyone who says otherwise.


If you enjoy Clint Eastwood in his nameless, squinting drifter mode, this will be right up your alley.


a promo photo for Pale Rider showing Clint Eastwood pointing a gun, in sepia colours


Pale Rider begins with gorgeous wide shots of a posse galloping across a mountainous landscape, spliced with close shots of sweet, innocent pioneer families doing family things by a creek. You just know the peace is about to get ruined.


Mining baron Coy LaHood (Richard Dysart) is the classic rich, powerful villain who wants to run everyone off their claims so he can take their land and make more money. His men keep attacking the miners in Carbon Canyon, trying to scare them away. Teenager Megan (Sydney Penny) prays for a miracle.


A mysterious man in black (Clint Eastwood) appears in town, and single-handedly stops LaHood’s thugs from beating one of the miners (Michael Moriarty as Hull) by thrashing all of them with a stick. They return to the mining camp, and it’s revealed that this drifter is both a preacher AND a man with six scarred bullet holes in his back. How intriguing!


Preacher’s presence quickly makes the men braver, and the women lusty. Can the little mining community withstand the bigger badder boss that LaHood calls in? Can the women control their raging desires?


illustration of a moustache that is curled at the ends


There’s a lot to praise about Pale Rider.


The cinematography is absolutely outstanding. This ain’t Eastwood’s first rodeo. In fact, it’s the eleventh movie he directed, and the fifth Western, and it really shows. There’s a level of polish and style here that you just don’t expect from ‘80s movies. And the ending is exquisite storytelling symmetry in so many ways.


The role is exactly what you want from Eastwood, too. Megan reads from her Bible, “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and hell followed with him,” and Eastwood appears outside the window on his pale grey horse. He’s basically everything you could want in the personification of Death.


If I could cast Clint Eastwood in D&D, you bet I would.


His performance is also solid. You get a lot of ruggedness, but a few moments of surprising tenderness. And of course, the squinting. There’s one scene where he squints so hard it looks like his eye might burst. My husband said Eastwood is even squintier than he was in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.


The supporting cast gives you all of the levels and layers to balance the stoic lead:


  • Michael Moriarty feels like he actually WAS a mild-mannered miner who was plucked right out of the Old West for this movie
  • Doug McGrath is a vibrant supporting character as the grumpy miner Spider, whose unfortunate demise is one hell of a memorable scene
  • John Russell is strong as the sinister Stockburn, if he was in more of the movie he’d probably make my best villains list
  • Chris Penn is immediately that obnoxious, entitled rich man’s son, he plays it well
  • Richard Kiel is in two scenes and both are oddly sweet and funny

illustration of a moustache that is curled at the ends


As I mentioned, Pale Rider wasn’t QUITE as flawlessly amazing as I’d hoped. Here’s why.


  • Some of the dialogue is not great, especially for the women
  • Sydney Penny isn’t particularly convincing as Megan, although that could also be the dialogue
  • The mother-daughter-Preacher love triangle is gross to watch and distracts from the otherwise strong pacing and plot
  • Seriously, the story did NOT need Preacher and Sarah to boink, it’s such a slap in the face to Hull!
  • Megan’s ‘80s tidal wave bangs drove me nuts
  • Her whole character was also kind of useless and drove me nuts
  • The fearsome deputies wear the loudest spurs of all time, telegraphing their locations to Preacher
  • They also walk quickly and directly into open areas where a man would obviously be hiding, making them way too easy to shoot and the ending less thrilling than it could have been with at least SOME doubt about Preacher’s success

But with all of that said, I will totally watch Pale Rider again. It’s got a lighter vibe than Eastwood’s later movies, and he is really damn good at playing this type of character.