JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Rape of Megan

Megan rides to Josh LaHood’s camp to defy Preacher (who has rejected her love) and her mother.

The audience watches hydraulic mining from Megan’s POV.

As she surveys the process and its results, she says, “It looks like hell.”

Josh LaHood drags Megan to his camp.

"Raping the land,” as they call it in Sacramento, is narratively aligned with raping a woman.

LaHood’s men leave their water cannons to watch the rape and cheer it on.

While the land is being “raped” ...

... miners watch ...

... as Josh LaHood...

... attacks Megan...

... and pins her to the ground.

Taking out the LaHood camp

Preacher is loaded down with dynamite ....

... but he does not act alone.

He and Barret blow up LaHood’s camp, including the hydraulic mining cannons.

They destroy the large scale corporate mining operation without killing anyone.

The final shoot out

Preacher shoots the marshal in the same six places in which he’d been shot—and then one more time in the head.

After Preacher shoots the marshal, LaHood appears in his office window with a Winchester rifle. We see LaHood from Barret’s POV before Barret kills him.

Images of hydraulic mining:
a contemporary environmental message

The film’s introduction to LaHood’s mining camp provides the first demonstration of the consequences of hydraulic mining techniques. This scene shows viewers the procedure without explanation, emphasizing the power of water pressure coming from the hydraulic cannons (monitors). The scene begins with a long shot of these powerful streams of water and then, a few shots later, shows these torrents stripping the hillside of all life, with the blare of the rushing water reverberating everywhere. The scene establishes a new setting — LaHood’s camp — but it also illustrates both the amount of water pressure the procedure creates and the environmental devastation this shooting water produces.

The visual introduction to hydraulic mining is followed by the film’s first explanation of the process, this time from the perspective of a small miner, Hull Barret in a discussion with Preacher. According to Barret, “Coy LaHood came up here in ’54 or ’55… [and was] the first man to strike it rich.” Barret seems to have no objection to LaHood’s luck, but Barret’s tone changes when he talks about LaHood’s current methods:

“Last couple of years he’s been using them hydraulic monitors….blasts the place to hell.”

Barret’s description of the results of hydraulic mining are juxtaposed with images of the clear stream where the small miners work less intrusively, a stark contrast to the lifeless shots of the stripped hills in the previous scene. Barret’s conversation with Preacher also reveals the small miners’ legal right to Carbon Canyon, not LaHood’s. Barret makes clear,

“The only way he can take this land legally is if we leave it.”

The destruction caused by LaHood’s mining methods is introduced and explained thoroughly enough to reveal the film’s not so subtle environmental message against extreme environmental exploitation, a message heightened by LaHood’s greed for more land to exploit, ownership of Carbon Canyon.

The second scene showing viewers the effects of hydraulic mining occurs after the small miners have voted to reject LaHood’s offer of $1000.00 per claim. When Preacher rides into the hydraulic mining camp to pass the vote results on to LaHood, the film shows even more of the destruction caused by pressurized water shooting out of monitors. Instead of showing only soil stream off of the hillsides, after a long shot of the water shooting cannons similar to those in the introductory scene, the film lets us see trees falling off of the hillside along with the eroding earth. The scene also reveals the first clear sign LaHood receives from the small miners that his methods are failing. They reject his offer. Environmental degradation in LaHood’s camp parallels the destruction he causes after he learns about the small miners’ vote and blasts the creek, damming it up. The film here shows us immediately how devastating one blast can be, as the rippling creek dries up and narrows to one small stream of water.

Figurative and literal rape

The third and arguably most powerful scene set in LaHood’s hydraulic mining camp provides us with images of the shooting monitors and their devastating consequences as well as a detailed explanation of the process, an engineering feat highlighted by the noise of the pressurized water in the background, a noise so loud Megan declares, “It hurts my ears.” Here the audience watches the monitors from Megan’s point of view, since she has ridden into camp and toward Josh LaHood to defy Preacher (who has rejected her love) and her mother. Megan’s gaze aligns with her words: “It looks like hell.” We have already recorded Josh’s description of the hydraulic mining process, a description that highlights only the wealth it provides him and his father.

But “raping the land,” as they called it in Sacramento, is lined up with raping a woman — Megan — in this scene. The parallels between the two “rapes” are underlined because LaHood’s men leave their water cannons to watch the rape and cheer it on, just as they watched the rape of the landscape caused by those same cannons. So when Preacher rescues Megan by shooting first Josh’s gun and then his hand, the film shows us what methods are needed to stop both the literal and the figurative rapes.

A solution to “fair use”:
sustainable development and “monkey wrench” violence

The small miners’ community and the environment it sustains cannot survive unless Preacher and the small miners resort to force. These scenes, then, demonstrate the film’s first environmental argument—that extreme methods like hydraulic mining are too devastating to the environment and should be replaced by the more gentle methods of the small miners, who seek to sustain their canyon for future generations. But the film highlights the strength of the myth of sustainable development as an alternative to fair use techniques like hydraulic mining not only by illustrating the more positive results of panning in an undammed stream; it also offers a viable (if violent) way to eliminate corporate mining and the greedy baron controlling it.

Here the film complicates the simple binary between good and evil prevalent in contemporary Westerns: In order to save the land and their community, Eastwood and the small miners’ representative, Hull Barret, must visit on the corporation the same destruction as LaHood inflicted on the small miners and the environment a difference from Shane, where Shane eliminates Joe’s participation in a fistfight. After LaHood’s marshal and his deputies mutilate Spider (who had gone to town only with his sons), Preacher clarifies the small miners’ mission:

“A man alone is easy prey... Only by standing together will you beat the LaHoods of the world.”

The next morning when Preacher rides off to take on LaHood and his men alone, it seems that he’s negating his claim about the need for community, but Barret accompanies him, representing the communal spirit Preacher had forged. As stewards, the small miners learn that they must protect themselves, their families, and the environment using any means possible, including violence. Preacher is loaded down with dynamite, so he and Barret are able to blow up LaHood’s mining camp, the hydraulic mine’s cannons, and its infrastructure, returning water to its source.

This last scene of LaHood’s camp occurs at sunrise, before the workers have risen, so the cannons lie dormant, and the remaining hillside is uninjured. In this scene, no men are killed. They all escape from the blasted tents and out-buildings, but the mining operation is destroyed when Preacher and Barret finish their work. Since Preacher does not work alone, it seems that the small miners and Preacher stand together to beat LaHood until Barret picks up a stick of dynamite that Preacher drops, and Preacher chases Barret’s horse away. Preacher explains,

“You’re a good man, Barret. You take care of Sarah and the girl.”

The suggestion here is that Preacher will destroy the marshal, his deputies, and LaHood without assistance, extracting the personal revenge to which the film has alluded since Preacher’s arrival. Preacher has prepared for his confrontation with Marshal Stockburn. When Preacher arrives in town, his image seems to be superimposed on that of LaHood, since he is reflected in the window out of which LaHood peers. And the marshal seems stunned when he first recognizes Preacher and exclaims, “You!” It seems, then, that Preacher will kill off LaHood and his men as a sole gunman, an avenging angel seeking retribution for the wrongs Marshal Stockburn had committed.

Preacher easily kills Stockburn’s deputies one by one in ghost style, able to appear and disappear at will—demonstrating his supernatural status. And he faces Marshal Stockburn in the street, in a showdown scene as old as western films. It appears, then, that Preacher has taken on LaHood and his gang without Barret and the community he represents. But after Preacher shoots the marshal in the same six places in which he’d been shot—and then one more time in the head—LaHood appears by his office window, this time with a Winchester rifle in hand. We see him from Barret’s point of view. Barret has arrived on foot, and he kills LaHood. In this way, LaHood is killed by a human agent, Barret, the nominal leader of the sustainable community who represents its values: the community can’t wait for the law to stop something this destructive. The Preacher is now on his horse and, looking at Barret, simply says with a smile, “Long walk.” Barret replies with his own smile and a laconic, “Yep.”

Pale Rider, then, argues for sustainable development as an alternative to extreme fair use methods like hydraulic mining in several ways. It demonstrates that hydraulic mining is wrong, moving beyond mere historical accuracy. It even shows us that the government in Sacramento is against it, so that when Coy LaHood tries to sway legislators and fails, he recognizes that he’ll have to shut down his corporate mines in a couple of years. But when LaHood’s reaction is to extract as much wealth as possible before he’s put out of business, without thought to the environmental consequences, the film combines the elements of Eastwood’s other Westerns with an environmental message. A Preacher, called from nature, must implement vigilante justice to stop LaHood’s desperate devastation of the environment. Such a clear and strong environmental message deserves serious examination, especially since Eastwood “made a point of discussing the environmental subtext of Pale Rider with Todd McCarthy of Variety” ( McGilligan 377) at the Cannes Film Festival where it was screened in 1985.

Thus like other western films, Pale Rider deals with a contemporary set of political problems by placing it into a particular past. In this case, Eastwood interrogates ecological devastation caused by fair use politics by placing a symbol of the problem, hydraulic mining, in its contemporary setting, the mid-1800s. And the film feeds off of the Man With No Name persona and employs the revenge theme from other Eastwood Westerns. A gun is also the best way to deal with political problems. Since the environment will be destroyed before politics can legally stop it—there is no functioning legal system in the town—it must be dealt with extra-legally through an avenging spirit who comes literally from nature to protect the community and the environment while gaining revenge on his murderers. Ultimately, Pale Rider makes a contemporary environmental argument against fair use and for sustainable development, an argument with continuing relevance in light of lawsuits in Montana over open-pit mining and the aftereffects of hydraulic mining and other destructive mining techniques like those using cyanide and arsenic to better extract minerals. (2)

The end of Pale Rider reinforces this argument. After Preacher and Barret destroy the corporate mining camp and kill off all its leaders, unlike High Plains Drifter or Unforgiven, the Eastwood films to which Pale Rider is most often compared, the focus is placed not only on Eastwood’s Man With No Name — Preacher — but also on the representatives of the small miners’ community — Barret and Megan. Preacher does not ride off into a desolate desert after looking back on a town he had destroyed. Instead, Preacher, a representative of the natural world, rides off into the Sawtooth Mountains on his pale horse and disappears into the snow, a sign that he has returned to the natural world from which he had been summoned. Barret and Megan, on the other hand, ride back to their village, presumably prepared to build the school and church for which they strive.

The last message of the film centers on love and community, with Megan’s declaration of love for Preacher and her proclamation that the whole community loves him, too. The revenge cycle has been completed, and vigilante justice has been achieved. Yet something new emerges in Pale Rider: a call to action that serves not only violent ends but also environmental conservation. When Barret kills LaHood, he also eradicates LaHood’s fair use politics that destroy the environment that Barret and his community wish to sustain.

Continued: Notes and works cited


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