Monday 22 July 2013

When Your Hero Isn't Actually Your Hero

'And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him'.
Revelation 6:8, King James Bible.

I watched Pale Rider (1985) for the first time yesterday, and I have to say that I was impressed. It might be a slow burner in places, but I'd expect nothing else from Clint Eastwood. Yet despite its similarities to the earlier High Plains Drifter (1973), I think there's a lot to learn from the film's use of character, particularly regarding antagonists and protagonists.

The plot, in a nutshell, is fairly simple. Set sometime in 1880s California, a small mining camp has grown up alongside a stream believed to contain gold. Local mine owner Coy Lahood (Richard Dysart) sends his thugs to vandalise the camp in an effort to force the people to leave. The thugs shoot a small dog belonging to a teenaged girl, Megan (Sydney Penny), who prays for a miracle while burying her pet. Lo and behold, a man known only as Preacher (Clint Eastwood) turns up, and manages to galvanise the camp into staying put, and fighting for their claims. Lahood calls in a corrupt marshal, named Stockburn (John Russell), and the stage is set for the final showdown. Spoilers ahead, if you haven't seen it, though in all honesty, you'd probably be able to guess the ending anyway!

The notion of an outsider coming in to help a group of people against a violent threat sounds similar to High Plains Drifter, but Preacher is a more positive figure than that of the Drifter. In addition, while the townsfolk of High Plains Drifter were guilty of earlier crimes, the campfolk of Pale Rider have committed no crime, and are therefore innocent, making Preacher a protector. Yet he isn't actually the hero - he's a facillitator.

It's important to establish in any story who your protagonist and antagonist are. In Pale Rider, Coy Lahood is clearly the antagonist. He wants the camp gone, and he'll do anything to get his way. You might initially think the protagonist is Preacher, but you'd be wrong. The real protagonist is miner Hull Barrett (Michael Moriarty), who we see demonstrating both bravery and determination early on in the film.
  • Once the initial raid is over, it is Hull who ventures into town, despite a beating on an earlier visit. He refuses to be cowed by Lahood and his men. 

  • It is also Hull who repeatedly tries to break a massive boulder in a stream, a boulder he believes hides a gold vein. Hull's belief is proven true, and he finds gold, which he uses to pay the camp's debts in the nearby town. He tells Preacher that he won't blast the rock as it will destroy the course of the stream, which sets him in direct comparison with Lahood who blasts anything that gets in his way, regardless of what it does to the landscape. 

  • Hull has also taken in Megan and her mother Sarah (Carrie Snodgress) after Sarah's husband abandoned her, yet he doesn't force her into marriage until she's ready for it. 
Hull is not presented as a hero, but his actions betray him as such. Characters in the film refer to him as "decent" and "good", and he shows he is both of these. He isn't the same man of action and obvious hero as Preacher, but his stirring speech to the camp when they consider selling up also helps to cement him as a 'go to' guy.

Stockburn and his rogue deputies
Preacher is set up as being the character who must face down the bad guy, and through a vague reference to a history with Stockburn, we realise that the shoot out will be between this pair. It's difficult to consider Stockburn as an antagonist as he has simply been hired by Lahood, in the same way that Preacher cannot be the antagonist since he shows up later in the film than Hull. Hull initially attempts to accompany Preacher into town, but after destroying Lahood's mining operation, Preacher scares Hull's horse away so that he will be left behind - Preacher wants to keep him safe. He heads into town and has his shoot out with Stockburn, but Lahood remains alive, and attempts to shoot Preacher. Hull appears, having walked into town, and shoots Lahood. The protagonist has defeated the antagonist with the help of a facilitator - Preacher both awakens and illuminates heroic qualities within Hull to enable him to become the hero of the story, so that Hull can remain the hero even after Preacher leaves.

So what's my point? Well what I'm saying is that your protagonist needn't necessarily be the guy who comes in, all guns blazing. He should be the guy who develops and grows throughout the narrative, even if he needs help to do so. Don't be afraid to give your hero a helping hand.

If you like your Westerns gritty or pulpy, my novella, The Guns of Retribution, is available for Kindle through Amazon US (99c), and Amazon UK (77p).


Tony Noland said...

I saw Pale Rider in the theater when it first came out. Powerful, and a different kind of role for Eastwood.

Larry Kollar said...

This is really well-thought out, and thought provoking. I'd expect nothing less from a cinema doctoral candidate, though.

John Wiswell said...

That sounds like a fascinating wrinkle on the Yojimbo formula. You're getting me to add things to my Netflix queue.

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