Preacher in nature
Preacher, the angel, comes from nature...
... and allies himself with Barret...
... until he achieves his vengeance.
Corporate interests clash with...
... the domestic world of Megan’s family...
... and with the small miners and the natural world. That community and its harmony are represented by the mountains, stream, and villagers and their animals.
Megan and her dog before LaHood’s raid on the village.
Megan summons an avenging angel.
Megan surveys the hydraulic cannons...
... and the damage they cause.
Community solidarity among the small miners
Miners discuss LaHood’s buyout offer.
It’s his turn. Spider finds his gold nugget.
The gold nugget inspires a family celebration and...
.... communal responsibility in the form of debt paying, and continued work, not greedy arguments and bloodshed.
Barret accompanies Preacher to deal with LaHood and the hydraulic cannons. This duo in action represent a communal spirit which Preacher forged.
Such an attitude about nature, and about the environmental costs of mining, is also reflected by films of the Western genre where mining, especially mining by individuals, is romanticized and corporate mining like hydraulic mining is denigrated only if it interferes with the economic progress of the individual miner. Westerns like Badlanders (1958),The Far Country (1955) and The Bend of the River (1952), however, fail to examine environmental degradation accompanying corporate mining. Only the corporate barons’ impact on the individual is called into question. Pale Rider places environmental concerns at the forefront, with a corporate baron agreeing with Buffum’s argument about hydraulic mining’s potential and an avenging angel agreeing with the park ranger’s. The binary is established between the evil LaHood and the good Preacher, but Hull Barret and his community complicate and, perhaps, deconstruct the binary established between LaHood and Preacher by offering an alternative to both.
The opening to Pale Rider immediately establishes a classic binary between good and evil found in Westerns like Shane, where cattle barons resist the inclusion of small farmers into their open range, by contrasting the pristine forested Sawtooth Mountains with the thunderous riders, who disrupt the peace nature represents. Lennie Niehaus’s score heightens the threatening effect of what we discover are LaHood’s men, who aim to invade the small miners’ village and drive them out.
The pounding of these riders is also contrasted with the laughter of the families in the village where small miners carefully pan for gold in the clear water of a stream. LaHood’s riders disturb the tranquility of the small miners’ village, destroying homes as they tear through, even going so far as to kill a cow and Megan’s pet dog. LaHood’s riders clash with the small miners and the natural world represented by the mountains, the stream and the village animals. But nature also serves as the space in which the avenging Preacher is summoned, when Megan Wheeler prays for a miracle over her dog’s grave. The first few minutes of the film, then, set up good and evil elements in the film: the good stewards of nature — Preacher and the small miners — stand out against nature’s destroyers — LaHood and his men.
Images of the clear stream nurturing the small miners are reinforced by the quiet tranquility, both visual and aural, of Carbon Canyon and by Hull Barret’s attitude toward a large rock in the creek bed that he believes holds gold. According to Barret, “If I could split that rock there, there’d be gold underneath.” But in spite of his faith in the rock’s holdings, Barret chooses not to blow up the rock because of the degradation it would cause to the stream: “Well, I thought of drilling and blasting the son of a gun, but you know, uh, that would…,” Barret begins. And Preacher finishes his thought, “That would wreck the stream, wouldn’t it.” Barret agrees, saying, “Yea, the stream would be dammed up….be the end of everything.” Even though these small miners dig for gold, they refuse to destroy the stream in order to attain it, choosing instead to sustain nature so it can sustain them. In fact, the small miners continue gold panning instead of evolving to more “productive” but destructive techniques common in the 1850s like the two-man rocker, the two-man Long Tom or the sluice box (“Hydraulic Mining in California”). According to Richard Schickel,
Coy LaHood and his men, on the other hand, strip the earth of all of its wealth. Juxtaposed with scenes of Barret and Preacher hammering communally on the rock are images of a train bringing LaHood back from Sacramento, where he had sought to obtain control of the small miners’ claims. The discussion Coy LaHood has with his son, Josh, and one of his gunmen, McGill, emphasizes their destructive mining techniques and their greed for gold at any cost. The corporate miners led by LaHood “play out” vein after vein of gold, in the “number five shaft” and “down in Cobalt Canyon” (Pale Rider). And, according to Josh LaHood, they “went another 20 foot down twelve shaft and pulled out nothin’ but magnetite and shut her down.” After excavating almost all of the gold on his own property, LaHood only wants more.
In a desperate search for more gold, wealth, and complete control, LaHood not only sends riders to intimidate the small miners and take over Carbon Canyon. He also tries (and fails) to intimidate legislators in Sacramento to sign over the small miners’ claims. According to Coy LaHood, “Sacramento ain’t worth moose piss” because, legislators there “didn’t sign the writ.” The scene does not stop with this blow to “the big guys.” It also makes a blatant environmental statement when Coy LaHood exclaims, “Some of those bastard politicians want to do away with hydraulic mining altogether. Raping the land, they call it.” (See Annette Kolodny’s The Lay of the Land for further such examples.) Even LaHood realizes the consequences of governmental intervention in his mining business, but he responds from his own avaricious perspective:
LaHood’s greedy proclamations are contrasted with the small miners’ cooperative stewardship of nature. After Preacher runs off Josh LaHood and his oversized lackey, Club, Barret and Preacher, with the help of other community members, finish splitting the big boulder on which they had been hammering, and later on Barret discovers a large gold nugget beneath it. Such a scene in most Westerns would provide the motivation for at least a spark of greed in the other miners, so they would invade Barret’s rock in search for more gold. Instead, Barret shows his nugget to Preacher, to Sarah, his fiancée, and to Megan, her daughter and the four go to town to pay the community’s debts. The other miners go on with their own mining efforts without much comment. Only Spider’s sons respond, chasing the wagon and wishing they too could go to town. The four ounce gold nugget inspires a family outing, communal responsibility in the form of debt paying, and continued work, not greedy arguments and bloodshed. Later in the film, Spider’s “payday come” (Barret). He finds a gold-filled stone as big as his head. But the community again shows no real emotional response, maintaining their labors but demonstrating no feelings of greed. As Sarah puts it, it’s “his turn.” Spider and his sons, just like Barret, celebrate by going to town, even though their stone appears after LaHood dynamited the river and dammed up the communal stream.
The communal trust the small miners have established becomes most evident when they’re discussing the $1000.00 a claim LaHood offers them after a negotiation in his office with Preacher, as a last effort to legally seize Carbon Canyon before bringing in a gun-slinging mercenary and his deputies to kill Preacher and run the small miners out. Hull Barret intervenes when it sounds like the rest of the small miners wish to take the offer and avoid trouble:
Barret and the other small miners have built a community in Canyon Creek that they wish to maintain, so they need to sustain the creek and canyon that nourish. Barret sees small mining as a means to an end—building a family and a community with schools and churches—not as a quest for gold, money, and the power it represents.
Coy LaHood, on the other hand, hauls out as much gold as possible as quickly as he can for the money and power it provides. After failing to bribe Preacher with a town church and a full collection plate, LaHood defines his own mission, owning and controlling everything rather than joining a community of individuals with agency:
For LaHood, the land is meant to own and exploit, not to sustain for future family members:
Coy LaHood sees himself as representing progress, but it’s a destructive progress meant only for LaHood and his followers. Individual miners who sustain the environment are standing in the way of progress, are squatters who should be “run out” or paid off, so the canyon can be stripped of all of its wealth without delay. In fact, they must be destroyed, as Marshall Stockburn and his deputies destroy Spider and his gold stone when Spider and his sons come to town to celebrate their good luck.
Barret and the small miners, then, are clearly established as law-abiding, ethical, and community-minded (good) “little guys,” and Coy LaHood and his followers counter them as evil corporate “big guys,” who take what they want at any cost. This story, as Eastwood suggests, is nothing new for Westerns. The environmental message the film nearly shouts out, however, sets Pale Rider apart from all Eastwood directed films.
The film, then, endorses both community values associated with the small miners and sustainable development illustrated by their less invasive mining techniques. To do this, it first argues strongly against extreme mining techniques associated with a “fair use” philosophy that justifies exploiting all natural resources on one’s own property. LaHood and his men follow a fair use philosophy, taking extreme measures to extract minerals quickly and without thought to maintaining the land for future generations. As a testament against extreme environmental exploitation, the film highlights the degradation caused by LaHood’s hydraulic mining techniques with three focused scenes and two explanations of the process and its results: one from Hull Barret and one already mentioned from Josh LaHood, the mining baron’s son.