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High Plains Drifter: The Key Clue No One Saw


by Tony Nash

(Major Spoilers ahead, so for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, watch it and then comeback)

(all opinions are of the author alone)

Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter (1973)

High Plains Drifter (1973) ****1/2 R

Clint Eastwood: The Stranger

Verna Bloom: Sarah Belding

Mitchell Ryan: Dave Drake

Billy Curtis: Mordecai

Ted Hartley: Lewis Belding

Geoffrey Lewis: Stacey Bridges

Dan Vadis: Dan Carlin

Anthony James: Cole Carlin

Walter Barnes: Sheriff Sam Shaw

Marianna Hill: Claire Trevors (as Mariana Hill)

Buddy Van Horn: Marshal Jim Duncan

Written by: Ernest Tidyman & Dean Riesner

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Synopsis: A mysterious stranger, for reasons of his own, aids a cowardly town against the three outlaws they sent to prison.

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Now High Plains Drifter doesn’t need an introduction, everybody is familiar in one way or another with this Western that blends in snippets of Gothic Horror. The main question that people find themselves asking when it comes to the film is who exactly is The Stranger. Clint Eastwood in his Inside the Actors Studio interview, as well as info from the IMDb and Wikipedia state that the original script had The Stranger be the dead Marshal’s brother out to avenge his murder, but later felt leaving it ambiguous as to who The Stranger really is was much more interesting.

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The most popular theory is that The Stranger is in fact the reincarnation of Marshal Jim Duncan, back from the dead to avenge his own murder, and humiliate the town that stood by and did nothing to save him. Initially fans stated it was highly plausible as there were certain things only the Marshal would know regarding his own death that his brother wouldn’t be privy to and that the actor who plays the Marshal bore a keen likeness to Clint Eastwood (he was also Eastwood’s regular stunt double and later stunt coordinator) but others have argued otherwise that this theory is too obvious. Others have said he is in fact a ghost allowed to function as a flesh and blood person, particularly in that he survives being shot point-blank range in a bath tub and his simply vanishing at the end of the film.

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I myself am certain that the theory of The Stranger being the Marshal’s reincarnation is in fact the undisputed answer to the question of the character’s identity. Now the evidence already given from the IMDb is a good enough indication to give it plenty of weight to be true, but there’s a brief scene that gives the theory its highest context. As The Stranger is riding into town, he passes by a wagon delivering goods, and as the wagon is about to take off, one of the riders snaps a whip to get the team of horses going. As The Stranger hears the whip, he head turns suddenly to the noise, and for the only time in the film his facial expression is one of unease, hesitation, and maybe even a little fear. This is a solid indication he’s a man spared the coldness of death, and allowed the opportunity to avenge himself. Only a man recently revived from the grave would have a reaction to the sound of a whip like The Stranger did, actually reliving his final moments in life.

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People will very well argue that The Stranger still could be the dead Marshal’s brother, automatically recognizing the sound of the weapon that killed his brother. Now while that’s true, the Marshal’s brother would display a reaction of anger or grief, remembering the pain of losing his brother, The Stranger reacts in a way of a man who felt the whip against his flesh, feeling his life slowly slipping from him, two totally different reactions. This reaction, as well as the scene where Eastwood dreams of how he died when he was still Marshal Jim Duncan, definitely does it for me that The Stranger and Marshal Duncan are one in the same. No one but the Marshal would know the exact circumstances of his own death, and how exactly to torment both his killers and the cowardly bystanders who let him die.

(I’m not normally a Clint Eastwood fan, save for Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo [The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly], but his first Western as both actor and director is quite intriguing and entertaining, and very much recommended for both Classic Western lovers and fans of Revisionist and Italian style Westerns.)

(Like with Clue, you can call me crazy if you want here, but please keep the comments fair and not mean.)

Here’s a compilation video of a cover version of the High Plains Drifter the as well as the original scene in full. that show the moment I spoke about. 1:03 is the start for the compilation video and 1:57 for the standard scene. I also highly recommend listening to the whole cover recording as its fairly well done, and keeps with the atmosphere of the film.

(all images are from Images and their respective owners, and the videos are from YouTube and their respective owners and licensing)

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Filed under: Film: Special Topics

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