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 Studios
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 produced by Robert Daley for Malpaso Company and Universal Studios, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, and written by Ernest Tidyman (who also wrote the novelization). Eastwood plays an enigmatic wraith, who metes out justice in a corrupt frontier mining town, where he arrives as a stranger.[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.


A stranger on horseback rides into the isolated mining town of Lago. Three gun-toting men follow him into the saloon, taunting him to fight. When they follow him to the barbershop and begin threatening him, the Stranger quickly dispatches the three with little effort. Impressed with this performance, a dwarf named Mordecai, who works in the barbershop, befriends the Stranger. A woman named Callie Travers arranges to bump into the Stranger in the street, claiming loudly it was his fault. When she slaps the cigar from his mouth while insulting him, he drags her into the livery stable and rapes her.[5] The rape, "which begins with Callie's furious resistance but ends with her obvious sexual satisfaction,"[6] is secretly witnessed by Mordecai. Next, the Stranger rents a room at the hotel but declines to give a name to the hotelier. That night, he dreams about a man being brutally whipped. In the morning he returns to the barbershop for a bath. Callie Travers shoots at him after he is in the tub; inexplicably, he remains uninjured.

Sheriff Sam Shaw tells the Stranger he will not be charged for killing the three gunfighters. Meanwhile, the townsmen discuss a trio of feared outlaws, Stacey Bridges and the brothers Dan and Cole Carlin, who are due to be released from prison that day.

It is later revealed that some time before that, the town Marshal, Jim Duncan, the man who appears to the Stranger in his dream, had been whipped to death by Bridges and the Carlin brothers, while the people of Lago looked on. Only Sarah Belding, wife of hotelier Lewis Belding, made any attempt to rescue him. A corrupt faction in Lago wanted Duncan dead because the Marshal had discovered that the town's mine is on government ground. The townsfolk feared that his discovery would result in the mine's being closed, threatening the town's livelihood. The townspeople then double-crossed the three gunfighters after they killed Duncan, leading to the trio's imprisonment; with their release, the town expects them to seek vengeance.

Since the men slain by the Stranger at the barber shop were the mining company's new protectors, the townsmen decide to hire the Stranger as their replacement. The Stranger declines the job until Shaw tells him he can have anything he wants. Accepting these terms, the Stranger indulges in the town's goods and services, including giving away goods to a Native American and his children who had been verbally abused in a racist manner by the owner of the general store (one of the town elders). He then makes Mordecai both sheriff and mayor. He also has Belding's customers move out of the hotel, while he has Belding's barn dismantled in order to make picnic benches. He then has the entire town repainted red, while painting the word "HELL" on the "LAGO" sign just outside town.

While the Stranger trains the townspeople to defend themselves, Bridges and the Carlin brothers are released from prison and make their way to Lago. They kill three men and then steal their horses.

A group of townsfolk tries to ambush the Stranger in the hotel, but he kills all but one. After Belding inadvertently divulges his complicity in the attack (which left his hotel destroyed), the Stranger drags Sarah Belding into her bedroom. Believing that he intends to rape her, she retreats into a corner, defending herself with a pair of scissors. He mocks her, implying she is the one who wants to have him. Outraged, she attacks him with the scissors but he overpowers her and the struggle transforms into a mutual passionate embrace. The next morning, Sarah tells the Stranger about Duncan's murder and that he is buried in an unmarked grave. She remarks that the dead don't rest without a marker.

The Stranger rides out the next morning, finds the gunfighters, and has a shootout with them before returning to Lago. With the town now painted red, townsmen with rifles stationed on rooftops, and a picnic and welcoming banner set up for the gunfighters, the Stranger mounts his horse and rides away. When the gunfighters arrive, however, they easily overcome the inept resistance of the townspeople, killing several corrupt civic leaders. By nightfall, they have the townspeople collected in the saloon while other buildings burn. The Stranger returns, killing the gunfighters one by one, whipping Cole Carlin to death, hanging Dan Carlin with another whip, and shooting Stacey Bridges. Belding attempts to shoot the Stranger in the back, but the dwarf Mordecai shoots Belding first.

The next day, the Stranger departs in the same manner he arrived, slowly riding through the now ruined town. At the cemetery, he passes Mordecai carving a fresh grave marker. Mordecai comments to the departing Stranger that he never did know his name, to which the Stranger answers cryptically, "Yes, you do." A look of astonishment crosses the little man's face, and he enigmatically replies "yes, sir, captain" and salutes. The camera pulls back to reveal that the wooden marker carved by Mordecai reads, "MARSHAL JIM DUNCAN. REST IN PEACE." The Stranger then rides out, fading away as he enters the heat waves radiating up from the desert floor.


  • William O'Connell as the Barber
  • Scott Walker as Bill Borders, outlaw


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]

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]