High Plains Drifter

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For the Beastie Boys song, see High Plains Drifter (song).
High Plains Drifter
High Plains Drifter poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Produced by Robert Daley
Written by Ernest Tidyman
Starring Clint Eastwood
Verna Bloom
Marianna Hill
Music by Dee Barton
Cinematography Bruce Surtees
Edited by Ferris Webster
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release dates
  • August 22, 1973 (1973-08-22)
Running time
105 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $5.5 million[1]
Box office $15,700,000[2]

High Plains Drifter is a 1973 American supernatural western film directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, written by Ernest Tidyman (who also wrote the novelization), and produced by Robert Daley for Malpaso Company and Universal Pictures. Eastwood plays a mysterious, prepotent stranger, meting out justice in a corrupt frontier mining town.[3] The film was influenced by the work of Eastwood's two major collaborators, film directors Sergio Leone and Don Siegel.[4]

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.


An enigmatic stranger (Eastwood) rides into the isolated desert mining town of Lago, on the shore of a small lake in an unnamed western territory. Three men follow him into the saloon with one verbally taunting him, then all three follow him to the barbershop. When they make an aggressive move on him, he kills all three with little effort. Attractive townswoman Callie Travers (Mariana Hill) deliberately bumps into him in the street, knocks his cigar from his mouth, and loudly insults him. He drags her into the livery stable and rapes her,[5] "[beginning] with Callie's furious resistance but [ending] with her obvious sexual satisfaction."[6]

That night, in his hotel room, the Stranger dreams of a man being brutally whipped. In the morning, while he's having a bath at the barbershop, Callie inaccurately shoots at him as he ducks underwater. He casually resurfaces, cigar still in mouth, and says to the diminutive barbershop employee Mordecai (Billy Curtis), “I wonder what took her so long to get mad?”

A flashback reveals that Jim Duncan (Buddy Van Horn), a federal marshal who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Stranger, was whipped to death by outlaws Stacey Bridges (Geoffrey Lewis) and brothers Dan and Cole Carlin (Dan Vadis and Anthony James) as the people of Lago looked on. The murderers were arrested and convicted, but are now about to be released from prison, and the townspeople are terrified.

Sheriff Sam Shaw (Walter Barnes) approaches the Stranger and offers him a job defending the town from the newly released outlaws. He declines—but Shaw, in desperation, says he can have anything he wants. Eventually, the Stranger learns why they are so frightened: Not only did the townspeople do nothing to prevent Duncan's murder, but some were complicit in it; they hired the outlaws to kill him after he discovered that the town's only source of income, the mine, was on government land, and therefore illegal. They then double-crossed the murderers and turned them in.

After hotelier Lewis Belding (Ted Hartley) inadvertently admits this, the Stranger accepts the job and takes full advantage of the deal. He demands that all other guests be evicted from Belding's hotel, leaving him the sole tenant. He then orders Belding's barn dismantled, and the lumber used to build picnic tables. Later, he appoints Mordecai sheriff and mayor, and provides a Native American and his children with a large cache of supplies, compliments of the shopkeeper (Richard Bull) who insulted them and tried to eject them from his store.

When Belding’s wife, Sarah (Verna Bloom), objects to all of this, he drags her, kicking and screaming, into her bedroom. The next morning, a post-coital Sarah tells the Stranger that she was the only one in town who made any effort to stop Duncan's murder—and that Duncan cannot rest in peace, because he is buried in an unmarked grave outside of town.

The Stranger instructs the townspeople in defensive tactics, but they clearly lack the skills or courage for the job. He also orders that every building in town be painted blood red. “Surely you don’t mean the church too!” exclaims the preacher (Robert Donner). “I mean especially the church,” the Stranger replies. Then, without explanation, he mounts his horse and rides out of town, pausing to replace “Lago” on the town sign with “Hell”.

Meanwhile, Bridges and his gang have been wreaking havoc on their way to Lago. The Stranger harasses them with dynamite and long-range rifle fire, leaving them to ponder the identity of their mysterious attacker. Returning to Lago, the Stranger inspects the preparations—town painted red, townsmen with rifles stationed on rooftops, picnic tables laden with food and drink, and a big "WELCOME" banner overhead—then, to everyone’s consternation, he remounts and departs again.

The Bridges gang arrives and easily overcomes the inept resistance of the townspeople. Bridges shoots several of the corrupt civic leaders who double-crossed him. By nightfall the town is in flames, and the terrified townspeople are huddled in the saloon. A mysterious sound is heard in the street; when Cole Carlin walks outside to investigate, the criminals and townspeople listen in horror as he is whipped to death. Dan Carlin is found dead too, hanging from another whip. At last the Stranger reveals himself, beats Bridges to the draw, and shoots him dead. When Belding sneaks behind the Stranger, intending to shoot him in the back, Mordecai kills him.

On his way out of town the following morning, the Stranger pauses at the cemetery as Mordecai is finishing a new grave marker. “I never did know your name,” Mordecai says. "Yes, you do," the Stranger replies. As he rides past a bewildered Mordecai, the camera, in a reverse angle, comes around to reveal the new headstone: Marshal Jim Duncan—Rest in Peace.



Lago (Mono Lake)

The nine-page proposal for the screenplay of High Plains Drifter came to Clint Eastwood's attention at Universal. Eastwood liked the story's offbeat quality, and approached Universal with the idea of directing it. Under a joint production between Malpaso and Universal, the original High Plains Drifter screenplay was written by Ernest Tidyman, an acclaimed writer who had won a Best Screenplay Oscar for The French Connection.[7] Tidyman's screenplay was inspired by reports of the real-life murder of Kitty Genovese, where people ignored the killing of a young woman in Queens in 1964. Holes in the plot were filled in with black humor and allegory, influenced by Sergio Leone.[7] An uncredited rewrite of the script was provided by Dean Riesner, screenwriter of other Eastwood projects.

Universal wanted Eastwood to shoot the feature on their own back lot, but Eastwood opted instead to film on location. Eastwood scouted locations for filming in a pickup truck while driving alone through Oregon, Nevada and California.[8] 300 miles from Hollywood, Eastwood had an entire town built on the shores of Mono Lake for the project, as he considered the area "highly photogenic".[9] Over 40 technicians and 10 construction workers built the town in 18 days using 150,000 feet of timber.[9] The town of Lago comprised fourteen houses and one two-story hotel. Complete buildings, rather than facades, were built, so that Eastwood could shoot interior scenes on the site. Additional scenes were filmed at Reno, Nevada's Winnemucca Lake and California's Inyo National Forest.[9] Eastwood filmed High Plains Drifter in sequence.[10] Filming was completed in only six weeks, two days ahead of schedule, and under budget.

Eastwood has noted that the graveyard set featured in the film's finale had tombstones reading "Sergio Leone" and "Don Siegel", intended as a humorous tribute to the two directors.[4] The character of Marshal Duncan was played by the stuntman Buddy Van Horn, a long-time stunt coordinator for Clint Eastwood, in order to create some ambiguity as to whether he and the Stranger are one and the same. During an interview on Inside the Actors Studio, Eastwood commented that earlier versions of the script made the Stranger the dead marshal's brother. He favored a less explicit and more supernatural interpretation, however, and excised the reference,[citation needed] although the Italian, Spanish, French and German dubbings restore it.


Universal released the R-rated High Plains Drifter in the US in April 1973, and the film eventually grossed $15.7 million domestically,[2] ultimately making it the sixth-highest grossing Western in North America in the decade of the 1970s and the 20th highest grossing film released in 1973. John Wayne, however, disdained High Plains Drifter and its iconoclastic approach, writing Eastwood a letter declaring, "That isn't what the West was all about. That isn't the American people who settled this country."[11] The film received positive reception from critics, and has 96% on Rotten Tomatoes. However, they did have some criticisms. A number of critics thought Eastwood's directing derivative; Arthur Knight in Saturday Review remarked that Eastwood had "absorbed the approaches of Siegel and Leone and fused them with his own paranoid vision of society".[12] Jon Landau of Rolling Stone concurred, remarking that it is his thematic shallowness and verbal archness which is where the film fell apart, yet he expressed approval of the dramatic scenery and cinematography.[12]

Eastwood reflected on the film's meaning, indicating "it's just an allegory ... a speculation on what happens when they go ahead and kill the sheriff and somebody comes back and calls the town's conscience to bear. There's always retribution for your deeds." [13]

The New York Times described the movie as part ghost story in 1973.[14]

In Pop Culture[edit]

The Beastie Boys song "High Plains Drifter" appears on their second studio album, Paul's Boutique.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Box Office Information for High Plains Drifter. The Wrap. Retrieved April 4, 2013.
  2. ^ a b Box Office Information for High Plains Drifter. Box Office Mojo. Retrieved April 4, 2013.
  3. ^ The Representation of Justice in Eastwood's High Plains Drifter Flynn, Erin E. Presented in The Philosophy of Clint Eastwood, edited by Richard T. McClelland and Brian B. Clayton, University Press of Kentucky, 2014.
  4. ^ a b Kaminsky, Stuart. Clint Eastwood, Signet Books, 1975. ISBN 978-0-451-06159-1
  5. ^ Heller-Nicholas 2011, p. 70; Cornell 2009, p. 10; Green 1998, p. 183; Girgus 2014; Ruffles 2004, p. 90; White 2013, p. 78; Hughes 2009, p. 28.
  6. ^ Girgus (2014)
  7. ^ a b McGilligan (1999), p. 221
  8. ^ Gentry, p. 63
  9. ^ a b c Hughes, p. 28
  10. ^ Eliot (2009), p. 144
  11. ^ Peter Biskind, "Any Which Way He Can", Premiere, April 1993.
  12. ^ a b McGilligan, p. 223
  13. ^ Hughes, pp. 30–31
  14. ^ "High Plains Drifter (1973)". 


  • Cornell, Drucilla (2009). Clint Eastwood and Issues of American Masculinity. New York: Fordham University Press. ISBN 0823230147. 
  • Eliot, Marc (2009). American Rebel: The Life of Clint Eastwood. Harmony Books. ISBN 978-0-307-33688-0. 
  • Gentry, Ric (1999). "Director Clint Eastwood: Attention to Detail and Involvement for the Audience". In Robert E., Kapsis; Coblentz, Kathie. Clint Eastwood: Interviews. University Press of Mississippi. pp. 62–75. ISBN 1-57806-070-2. 
  • Girgus, Sam (2014). "An American Journey: Issues and Themes". Clint Eastwood's America. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 074565648X. 
  • Green, Philip (1998). Cracks in the Pedestal Ideology and Gender in Hollywood. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. ISBN 1558491201. 
  • Heller-Nicholas, Alexandra (2011). Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland. ISBN 0786449616. 
  • Hughes, Howard (2009). Aim for the Heart. I.B. Tauris. ISBN 978-1-84511-902-7. 
  • McGilligan, Patrick (1999). Clint: The Life and Legend. Harper Collins. ISBN 0-00-638354-8. 
  • Ruffles, Tom (2004). Ghost Images: Cinema of the Afterlife. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Co. ISBN 0786484217. 
  • White, FirstName (2013). Cinema Detours. Morrisville: Lulu.com. ISBN 1300981172. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Guérif, François (1986). Clint Eastwood, p. 94. St Martins Pr. ISB

External links[edit]