High Plains Drifter, Clint Eastwood’s second movie as a director, was one of quite a number of revisionist westerns, such as Little Big Man, made at about that time. High Plains Drifter is in some ways the ultimate revisionist western, since it parodies everything that traditional westerns believe in and mocks every cliché of the genre. In a traditional western the townspeople who are threatened by a gang of desperadoes are always decent honest god-fearing people. When the people of Lago in High Plains Drifter are described in those terms, it’s a joke. The townspeople of Lago are greedy, grasping, cowardly and vicious. The gunslinger they hire to protect them should be, according to the conventions of the genre, a fundamentally just man who protects the innocent. In fact the stranger who rides in to Lago turns out to be their worst nightmare. But then these townspeople aren’t innocent anyway.
High Plains Drifter is actually as much a horror movie as a western. It has some absolutely stunning cinematography. The stark beauty of the country where it was filmed, along with the town (which Eastwood insisted on having built in its entirely on location) and the lake behind it provide a magnificently eerie and at times dreamlike backdrop to the movie.
While the Sergio Leone influence is obvious Eastwood seems to have been influenced by Italian cinema in general, and Fellini in particular. This film feels (to me at least) much more European than American. It has a quality of the surreal and the grotesque you don’t really respect in an American movie. Although it’s a violent movie it shows violence as something that breeds more violence. You don’t get that feeling you get in a traditional western that Justice Has Been Done and that all the bloodshed has been in the cause of Law and Order and Truth and Justice. There’s a good deal of unpleasantness in this film, quite apart from the actual violence, but again it serves the purpose of deriding the values of the genre.
i>High Plains Drifter is Eastwood’s masterpiece, and one of the great American movies.