I watched High Plains Drifter as one of the very first movies I saw when I was newly moved out of my parent’s house. I rented it because of the cover art on the VHS tape, Clint Eastwood holding a gun and a bullwhip. I had seen at that time most of Eastwood’s movies, so I wanted to see them all and this one was on the list. I didn’t expect much, but was very surprised to see that the film was a masterpiece—a sheer work of unapologetic authenticity. It may very well be my favorite western of all time and is the summation of a span of westerns by Clint Eastwood starting with A Fistful of Dollars and ending with Pale Rider that defined the genre forever. Eastwood’s westerns were Ayn Rand tales set on the frontier of America and were very much a part of my childhood. I loved westerns, all westerns, but Clint Eastwood westerns were uniquely special to me. I could identify with them immensely. At the time that I first saw High Plains Drifter I was living a very similar life and I didn’t feel a bit of guilt about it. The established order of things said that I should. Until I saw that director Clint Eastwood understood my vantage point in High Plains Drifter, I had nothing but gut instinct to tell me I was on the right path.
I will never forget the Friday before I saw High Plains Drifter. I drove my friends to Miami University for a bit of ruckus activity which ended up in a bar and a fight with the first stringers of the football team. The fight evolved into the back alley where I and one other friend literally took on the football team until the police came and arrested everyone—but me. The reason the police left me alone was strange. I was so mad at the time that I would have punched anybody who came near me, and they seemed to understand that. Instead of feeding their aggression, they backed off and arrested everyone else starting with the outside of the pile working inward. When it was just me and the rest of the police left with blood and pieces of clothing all over the place, I spoke calmly to them realizing and feeling quite satisfied that I had just done something that seemed impossible. My friends were arrested and carted off to jail and I had to find a way to get them out. But otherwise, I was the last one standing even though I was one of the first in the fray. It was a good feeling.
I managed to work things out with the police which ended up at the jail eventually and I had my friends released. I spoke to everyone in charge intelligently, which gained respect and leverage allowing me to get my friends out without a court appearance, which I didn’t think would be possible. My friends were baffled as to how I walked away from the incident without being arrested, and how I managed to get them out of jail. I didn’t know how to explain it myself. But on the next evening we decided to stay home and rent a movie, and that movie was High Plains Drifter. I had my answer at the start of the third act when a woman who Clint Eastwood had just slept with told him to be careful because he was a man who made other people afraid. From that Eastwood explained, “People are only afraid of what they know about themselves inside.” I knew somewhere in that exchange of dialogue was an answer that I would carry with me for the rest of my life. And the woman was right. Confident people—excessively confident people—scare the meager types like those who were in the fictional western town of Lago—from the film. And those meager types were easy to control once you looked them in the eye. That is what many of Eastwood’s westerns from that period were about—but specifically High Plains Drifter.
The film was shot on location on the shores of Mono Lake, California. Dee Barton wrote the eerie film score. The film was critically acclaimed at the time of its initial release and remains popular today, holding a score of 96% at the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes.
As I have been thinking about the significance of American gunfighters of late, this film keeps returning to me in a revelatory way. It is important, and specific to the American experience. I didn’t know it when I first watched it, but it is clearly in hindsight a masterpiece. It has within it an element that Ayn Rand brought out in her novels—an overman quality that is so needed. There was an evolution of human thinking that was occurring in that movie that as inescapable. There was honesty to the type of independence specific to American culture that Eastwood had tapped in to.