An Allegory of the Avenging Angel, in Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter (1973)

This most interesting film is a story of the avenging angel, who comes to the town of Lago (‘lake’), which is indeed on the shore of a lake, and proceeds to mete out brutal retribution. Revelation 21:8 reads: “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

The inclusion of the sexually immoral, who, in the film, consort with the murderer, would explain the rape scene that occurs so suddenly after the beginning of the story. The scene disturbs more than the death by gun fire, only momentarily earlier, of three men by the same stranger who rapes the woman.

Dynamite, used in the narrative to kill the cowardly and stone the murderers is the sulfur that presages the second death. Portions of the town aflame in the night produce the backdrop of the lake of fire.

A dwarf, named Mordecai, becomes, through the stranger, the titular mayor and sheriff of the town. In Biblical accounts, Mordecai “sat in the king’s gate” to signify his intimacy to the ruler, or, in the film, the stranger. The historicity of the name, in Persian, suggests the meaning ‘little boy;’ in Aramaic, follower or servant, or follower and servant of God.

In Rabbinical literature, the angel of death, a creation of God on the first day, exacts slaughter, in the manner ordained by God, to restore the honour of mankind. Slaughter may be by burning, beheading, or throttling. All the major series of deaths in the film are in threes: of the hired men at the beginning of the film, of the men murdered for their horses by the three murderers of the town marshall (which had set the retribution in motion), and of the three murderers themselves—one by throttling, another by scourging by lash, the last by death before the burning flames.

Gustave Doré, Depiction of Satan, the antagoni...

Gustave Doré, Depiction of Satan, the antagonist of John Milton’s Paradise Lost c. 1866 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The angel of death, who is the Satan depicted in Paradise Lost, is not inherently evil, being created by God, but is that creation of God who Himself contends with evil, and, indeed, tempts it. In this, then, is also created the possibility of free will.

Rob Ager, in a detailed and wordy interpretation of the film, and also argues that the avenging angel is the ghost of the murdered marshall. I myself prefer to think that the angel carries the ghost, or, perhaps better, the soul of the man who was, with or before him, as that seems a more satisfactory, and more universal, allegory.

2 thoughts on “An Allegory of the Avenging Angel, in Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter (1973)

  1. Clint ‘s character was such a bastard in the film. I loved it ! Don’t forget he also raped the hotel managers wife as well. It’s possibly the darkest film eastwoods ever done.


  2. Pingback: Cinema – 52 Films Recently Watched | CulturalRites

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