High Plains Drifter

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High Plains Drifter
High Plains Drifter poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byClint Eastwood
Produced byRobert Daley
Written byErnest Tidyman
StarringClint Eastwood
Verna Bloom
Marianna Hill
Music byDee Barton
CinematographyBruce Surtees
Edited byFerris Webster
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
  • April 6, 1973 (1973-04-06) (Los Angeles)[1]
Running time
105 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$5.5 million[2]
Box office$15,700,000[3]

High Plains Drifter is a 1973 American Western film directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, written by Ernest Tidyman, and produced by Robert Daley for Malpaso Company and Universal Pictures. Eastwood plays a mysterious, prepotent stranger, meting out justice in a corrupt frontier mining town;[4] the film was influenced by the work of Eastwood's two major collaborators, film directors Sergio Leone and Don Siegel.[5]

The film was shot on location on the shores of Mono Lake, California. Dee Barton wrote the 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 mysterious stranger rides into the isolated mining town of Lago, hounded by three men who follow him into the saloon and then the barbershop before he effortlessly kills all three when they threaten him; the Stranger then rapes attractive townswoman Callie Travers in a livery stable for belittling him after deliberately bumping into him on the street, renting a room at the hotel run by Lewis Belding. The next day, after having a dream of a man brutally whipped to death, the Stranger is approached by Sheriff Sam Shaw with an offer to take the job previously held by the men he killed: defending the town from Stacey Bridges and the Carlin brothers Dan and Cole, the three killers from the Stranger's dream who murdered the town marshal Jim Duncan. Shaw explains they are about to be released from territorial jail where they carried out a year-long sentence for apparently stealing gold from the mining company, the gunfighters intending to exact revenge on the town; the Stranger declines the job until Shaw tells him he can have anything he wants, taking full advantage of the deal by indulging in the town's goods and services while appointing barbershop employee Mordecai as sheriff and mayor.

The Stranger then instructs the townspeople in defensive tactics despite their lack of skill or courage, all while having Belding's barn dismantled to make picnic benches and vacating the other guests while he remains the hotel's sole client. Morgan Allen feels they are being exploited and leads an ambush on the Stranger in the hotel, only for his group to be killed while he rides off after being mortally shot. With the hotel damaged in the scuffle, and Belding inadvertently divulging his complicity in the attack, the Stranger drags Belding's wife Sarah into the owner's bedroom and they sleep together. Despite her initial disdain, Sarah grew to care for the Stranger after willfully sleeping with him and tells him that Duncan could not rest as he is buried in an unmarked grave outside of town, it is ultimately revealed that Duncan's death was arranged by most of the townsfolk to conceal the truth of their mine being on federal property, double-crossing the outlaws they hired to murder the marshal.

Relaying orders to have the entire town painted red with "HELL" painted on the "LAGO" sign, the Stranger rides after Morgan as he was killed by Stacey and the Carlins; the Stranger harasses the outlaws with dynamite and long-range rifle fire, leaving them to ponder their attacker's identity. Returning to Lago, the Stranger inspects the preparations before riding off just as Bridges gang arrives and easily overwhelms the townsfolk's resistance. By night fall, the town is in flames with several civic leaders killed while the remaining citizens are huddled in the saloon; the Stranger then makes his move and kills the gunfighters one by one: Whipping Cole to death, hanging Dan with another whip, and shooting Bridges. Mordecai kills Belding before he can shoot the Stranger in the back immediately after. On his way out of town the following morning, the Stranger pauses at the cemetery as Mordecai is finishing a new grave marker. "I never did know your name", Mordecai says. "Yes, you do", the Stranger replies. As he rides past a bewildered Mordecai into the desert, the writing on the new headstone is revealed: Marshal Jim Duncan—Rest in Peace.



Mono Lake

Eastwood reportedly liked the offbeat quality of the film's original nine-page proposal, and approached Universal with the idea of directing it. Under a joint production between Malpaso and Universal, the original screenplay was written by Ernest Tidyman, who had won a Best Screenplay Oscar for The French Connection.[6] Tidyman's screenplay was inspired by the real-life murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens in 1964, which eyewitnesses reportedly stood by and watched. Holes in the plot were filled in with black humor and allegory, influenced by Sergio Leone.[6] An uncredited rewrite of the script was provided by Dean Riesner, screenwriter of other Eastwood projects.

Universal wanted Eastwood to shoot the feature on its back lot, but Eastwood opted instead to film on location. After scouting locations alone in a pickup truck in Oregon, Nevada and California,[7] he settled on the "highly photogenic" Mono Lake area.[8] Over 50 technicians and construction workers built an entire town—14 houses, a church, and a two-story hotel—in 18 days, using 150,000 feet of timber.[8] 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;[8] the film was completed in six weeks, two days ahead of schedule, and under budget.[9]

The character of Marshal Duncan was played by Buddy Van Horn, Eastwood's long-time stunt double, to suggest that he and the Stranger could be the same person. In an interview, Eastwood said that earlier versions of the script made the Stranger the dead marshal's brother, he favored a less explicit and more supernatural interpretation, and excised the reference.[10] The Italian, Spanish, French and German dubbings restored it.[11] "It's just an allegory," he said, "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."[10] The graveyard set featured in the film's final scene included tombstones inscribed "Sergio Leone" and "Don Siegel" as a humorous tribute to the two influential directors.[5]


Universal released the R-rated High Plains Drifter in the United States in April 1973, and the film eventually grossed $15.7 million domestically,[3] 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. The film was well received by many critics, and rates 96% positive on Rotten Tomatoes based on 26 reviews.[12]

Vincent Canby of The New York Times called the film "part ghost story, part revenge Western, more than a little silly, and often quite entertaining in a way that may make you wonder if you lost your good sense."[13] Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film 3 stars out of 4 and wrote, "What does work very well indeed is Eastwood's presence, personal style, and direction. Tho his laconic sense of humor often drags out the pacing of the movie, Eastwood uses his camera with intelligence and flair."[14] Arthur D. Murphy of Variety calld it "a nervously humorous, self-conscious near satire on the prototype Clint Eastwood formula of the avenging mysterious stranger. Ernest Tidyman's script has some raw violence for the kinks, some dumb humor for audience relief, and lots of arch characterizations befitting the serio-comic-strip nature of the plot."[15] Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times called it "a stylized, allegorical western of much chillingly paranoid atmosphere and considerable sardonic humor that confirms Eastwood's directorial flair. It's also a pretty violent business that won't disappoint the millions who flocked to the Leone westerns."[16] Tom Zito of The Washington Post called it "an enjoyable, well-constructed work that suffers only from a slightly tedious tone that makes the film seem longer than its 105 minutes."[17]

The film had its share of detractors. 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".[18] Jon Landau of Rolling Stone concurred, noting "thematic shallowness" and "verbal archness"; but he expressed approval of the dramatic scenery and cinematography.[18] Nigel Andrews of The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote that "after Play Misty For Me, High Plains Drifter emerges as a disappointingly sterile exercise in style, suggesting that the first thing Eastwood should do as a director is forget the lessons he has learned from other film-makers and start to forge a convincing style of his own."[19] John Wayne criticized the film's iconoclastic approach; in a letter to Eastwood, he wrote, "That isn't what the West was all about; that isn't the American people who settled this country."[20]

The film was recognized by American Film Institute in 2008 on AFI's 10 Top 10 in the category "Nominated Western Film".[21]

Home media[edit]

High Plains Drifter was released on DVD on February 24, 1998.[22] High Plains Drifter made its Blu-Ray debut on October 15, 2013.[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "High Plains Drifter - Details". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. American Film Institute. Retrieved May 12, 2019.
  2. ^ Box Office Information for High Plains Drifter. The Wrap. Retrieved April 4, 2013.
  3. ^ a b Box Office Information for High Plains Drifter. Box Office Mojo. Retrieved April 4, 2013.
  4. ^ Flynn, Erin E. (2014). "The Representation of Justice in Eastwood's High Plains Drifter". In McClelland, Richard T.; Clayton, Brian B. (eds.). The Philosophy of Clint Eastwood. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 978-081314264-7. Retrieved 9 June 2019.
  5. ^ a b Kaminsky, Stuart (1975). Clint Eastwood. Signet Books. ISBN 978-0-451-06159-1.
  6. ^ a b McGilligan (1999), p. 221
  7. ^ Gentry, p. 63
  8. ^ a b c Hughes, p. 28
  9. ^ Eliot (2009), p. 144
  10. ^ a b Hughes, pp. 30–31
  11. ^ Clint Eastwood. Guardian interviews, retrieved August 8, 2016.
  12. ^ "High Plains Drifter". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved May 12, 2019.
  13. ^ Canby, Vincent (April 20, 1973). "'High Plains Drifter' Opens on Screen". The New York Times. 21.
  14. ^ Siskel, Gene (April 20, 1973). "Mortal combat, East and West..." Chicago Tribune. Section 2, p. 3.
  15. ^ Murphy, Arthur D. (March 28, 1973). "Film Reviews: High Plains Drifter". Variety. 24.
  16. ^ Thomas, Kevin (April 6, 1973). "Clint Back in Saddle in 'Drifter'". Los Angeles Times. Part IV, p. 17.
  17. ^ Zito, Tom (May 29, 1973). "Eastwood Again". The Washington Post. B9.
  18. ^ a b McGilligan, p. 223
  19. ^ Andrews, Nigel (August 1973). "High Plains Drifter". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 40 (475): 170.
  20. ^ Peter Biskind, "Any Which Way He Can", Premiere, April 1993.
  21. ^ "AFI's 10 Top 10 Nominees" (PDF). Archived from the original on 2011-07-16. Retrieved 2016-08-19.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  22. ^ Eastwood, Clint (1998-02-24), High Plains Drifter, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, retrieved 2018-05-21
  23. ^ Eastwood, Clint (2013-10-15), High Plains Drifter, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, retrieved 2018-05-21


  • 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 (ed.). 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, Mike (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]