It’s hard to watch High Plains Drifter, and not think of Clint Eastwood, the film’s star and director, forty years later, speaking to an empty chair at the Republican National Convention. The movie is full of twisted American right-wing ideology that wasn’t apparent to me the first time I saw the film on the late, late show, when I was in high school. Back then I just thought it was a trip, full of spaghetti western spaciness: long, well composed shots of sweaty, road-worn men riding across the windswept desert, an eerie soundtrack a la Ennio Morricone, and the surreality of the low budget sound effects, the boots of the swaggering gunslingers scratching out a hypnotic rhythm across the dirt of Main Street, the ever howling wind. In the end Eastwood has a whole town painted red and writes hell across the welcome sign, which is one of the best plot twists in the history of the genre. It’s still all that when I watch it now, but it’s also a glimpse into the still-forming psyche of a GOP nut.
The whole sociopolitical head-trip begins early in the film when Eastwood’s character, a nameless stranger and ostensibly the protagonist, rapes a woman in a horse stable. It’s clearly a rape. She’s screaming and slapping at him as he drags her through the dirt, throws her into a pile of hay, and mounts her, but after a while she seems to be enjoying it. Throughout the movie the woman reappears several times, and in each instance she’s enraged at having been raped, shouting and begging the townspeople to punish the man, but they shrug her off, say she wanted it, that she’s only mad because he didn’t come back and give it to her again. Of course all this brought to mind those two recent Republican Senate candidates who lost because they said a pregnancy caused by rape is god’s will, which isn’t exactly a Republican ideal, but still. No, the right-wing themes become more apparent in the way the townspeople react to him and how he reacts to them. Instead of throwing Eastwood in jail or driving him out of town, they enlist him as their protector against three violent bad guys who are about to get out of jail who will certainly come and destroy the town. At first, Eastwood turns them down, but they offer him anything and everything he wants, so he promptly promotes a midget to sheriff and mayor, and goes around redistributing all the wealth, making the bar owner provide free liquor to everyone, the cobbler give away free boots, and so on. In other words, he’s a Communist dictator, albeit an ironic one. In truth he’s a true American, a rugged individualist; he just steps into the role of a Lenin or a Stalin to teach them all a lesson, because in the end they’re just namby-pamby liberals, too weak and fearful and corrupt to take matters into their own hands. Communism-by-way-of-rapist-tyrant is what they deserve.
The movie came out to strong reviews, and it maintains a high rating at Rotten Tomatoes, but not everyone is a fan, not even all those who lean to the right. Upon its release, John Wayne, an outspoken SoCal Reaganite, groused, “That isn't what the West was all about. That isn't the American people who settled this country.” And while the same could be said of every one of Wayne’s films, it’s beside the point: Westerns aren’t about the time of the Great West, they’re about the time in which they were made, and this came out in the summer of 1973, when the world was closing in on Nixon and his 18 minutes of missing tape. It’s a peculiar time for Hollywood. Anti-heroes and unhappy endings were very much in vogue, and while this reflects a very real feeling that American society was falling apart, it also shows a time when Americans’ distrust of government was nearing its peak. Eastwood stepped into this climate and delivered a tour de force of macho bleakness, which might well have been what he intended to recapture when he stepped out on the stage in Tampa and, after declaring himself a “conservative” and not a “left winger… left of Lenin,” says, to a chair, “We own this country. We -- we own it. It is not you owning it, and not politicians owning it. Politicians are employees of ours.”
- Joe Miller