Pale Rider (1985)
There certainly aren’t any churches in the film Pale Rider, and I’m not sure if there are any clergy. But there is a character that everyone calls “Preacher” (Clint Eastwood), and everyone treats him like a clergyman, and he never objects. It does seem like he might be something else. There are scars on his back that look like they could be bullet holes. When a lawman, or maybe just a gunman, named Stockburn (played by John Russell, a star of TV westerns) comes to town and hears a description of Preacher, he thinks he might know the man. But then he says, “The man I’m thinking about is dead.”
So maybe he’s a ghost. (Which doesn’t fit my theology, but can work in a film.) Maybe. Or maybe he’s an angel. Especially if you think angels are just people who died and went to heaven and got wings (eventually) like in It’s a Wonderful Life. (Again, not my theology, but whatever.) Or maybe he’s something else altogether; a miracle, an answer to prayer, who is also a killing machine.
The film opens with poor prospectors who’ve formed a small community to legally work their claims (immediately winning my sympathy, as I went to Piner High School and our mascot was The Prospector). Then horsemen working for a wealthy landowner, Coy Lahood, attack the camp, killing a young woman named Megan’s dog.
Megan goes off to bury her dog and seems to believe she knows the Scripture to recite for the situation, the 23rd Psalm. But she can’t stick to the text.
“‘I shall not want’...But I do want.
“‘He leads me beside still waters’...But they killed my dog.
“‘I will fear no evil’...But I am afraid. We need a miracle.
“‘I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.’ If you exist. But I want to experience this life first. But if you don’t help, we’re all going to die. Please? Amen.”
Overall, not a bad prayer for the situation.
A bit later we see Megan reading the Bible to her mother -- specifically Revelation 6:8: “And I looked, and behold a pale horse;” (partial title drop) “and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.” And as that’s when Megan first sees the Preacher ride up on a pale horse.
It is not the first time the audience has seen Preacher. Shortly before, Hull Barrett, one of the poor prospectors, went to town to get supplies. He’s harassed by LaHood’s men but rescued by the Preacher. Hull doesn’t think of him at the time as a preacher, but as a probable gunman.
Still, Hull invites the stranger back to the mining camp. While the stranger freshens up for dinner, Hull sees what look like bullet scars on the man’s bare back. Then he sees something even more odd: the man puts on a clerical collar.
They dine with Megan and her mother Sarah. Hull awkwardly offers the Preacher (as they begin to call him) whiskey. “Nothing like a shot of whiskey to whet a man’s appetite,” the Preacher replies. Megan asks the Preacher to say grace and he offers a short prayer, “For what we are about to receive, may we be truly thankful.”
After dinner, Hull explains his relationship with Sarah. Her husband left her, and he’s tried to help her and her daughter. “It ain’t I’m living in sin.” But he soon adds, “If I get hitched, can you do the hitching?”
Hull responds, “I couldn’t. Well, if there was something spiritual.”
To which the Preacher replies, “The spirit ain’t worth spit without a little exercise.”
Hull and the Preacher set about picking a large rock out of the river. LaHood’s son and a monster of a man, Club (Richard Kiel, who played Jaws in the Bond films), ride up to them. Hull introduces the new man, “He’s our new preacher.”
LaHood’s son (Christopher Penn) tells the Preacher he probably shouldn’t be staying around. The Preacher responds, “There’s a lot of sinners hereabouts, you wouldn’t want me to leave before I finish my work.”
To show his strength, Club breaks the great rock with one blow. “The Lord certainly works in mysterious ways,” the Preacher comments. He then proceeds to beat up Club.
“Preacher my a#%” comments the young LaHood.
The senior LaHood (Richard Dysart) is not happy to hear there is a preacher with the miners. “You let a preacher into Carbon Canyon? When I left for Sacramento, their spirit was nearly broken. A man without spirit is whipped. But a preacher? He could give them faith. #*@$! One ounce of faith and they’ll be dug in deeper than ticks on a hound.”
So LaHood tries another method of dealing with the Preacher, not unlike the method Satan used on Jesus in the wilderness. He invites the Preacher to his office.
LaHood: “Do you imbibe, Reverend?”
Preacher: “Only after 9 in the morning.”
LaHood: “When I heard a parson had come to town, I had an image of a pale, scrawny, Bible-thumping Easterner with a linen handkerchief and bad lungs.”
Preacher: “That’s me.”
Lahood “Hardly. When I heard you were here I thought, why not invite this devout and humble man to preach in town, let the town be his parish? In fact, why not offer to build him a brand new church?”
Preacher: “I can see where a preacher would be mighty tempted by an offer like that.”
Preacher: “First thing he’d think about is getting a batch of new clothes.”
LaHood: “We’d have them tailor-made.”
Preacher: “Then he’d start thinking about those Sunday collections.”
LaHood: “Hell, in a town as rich as LaHood, that preacher’d be a wealthy man.”
Preacher: “That’s why it wouldn't work. Can’t serve God and Mammon both. Mammon being money.” (Glad you explained that, Preach.)
So the Preacher sticks with the miners, even when LaHood threatens with Sheriff Stockburn and his “deputies.”
The Preacher faces another temptation back at camp when Megan tells him, “I think I love you.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” the Preacher answers, ”If there was more love in the world, there’d probably be a lot less dying.”
“Can’t be anything wrong with making love either,” Megan adds.
Preacher answers, “I think it’s best to practice one for a while before you do the other… Most folks around would associate that with marriage.” He then makes it clear to Megan he isn’t the marrying kind, quite upsetting the girl.
But when the badmen come, the Preacher takes them on in a gun battle, killing all.
So is he a ghost? Or an angel? Or death itself? Or just a preacher who is really good with a gun?
I’m really not sure, but I’m giving him three steeples, because I’m afraid of what he might do if I gave less.