Is This Clint Eastwood Western Character Really A Ghost? (The Script Gave An Answer)


This Clint Eastwood Western character is borderline supernatural in his shooting skills, but is he actually a ghost? Eastwood is one of the last major stars who made their name appearing in Westerns. After spending years on the TV series Rawhide, Sergio Leone cast the young Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars, a low-budget Italian Western. The movie itself proved groundbreaking and is credited with creating the “Spaghetti Western” subgenre. The star returned for two more Leone films, with Eastwood’s first American Western lead being Hang ‘Em High in 1968.

During the ’70s, Eastwood became an in-demand director too, following his debut Play Misty for Me. Eastwood’s first Western as director was High Plains Drifter, which was shot in California and was released in 1973. This cast him as (what else?) a mysterious gunslinger who rides into an isolated town called Lago and is hired to defend it. This Clint Eastwood Western setup may sound very original, but the story functions as an extended allegory, where the townspeople are made to pay for their sins. More than a mere man, Eastwood’s Stranger is the instrument of that justice.

Clint Eastwood’s The Stranger Was The Marshal’s Brother In High Plains Drifter’s Screenplay
Eastwood didn’t like High Plains Drifter’s original twist

The big sin High Plains Drifter’s townsfolk committed was ordering the death of a Marshal named Duncan (Buddy Van Horn), who discovered an illegal mining operation in Lago. The town stood by as Duncan was mercilessly whipped to death by three hired killers, with Duncan cursing them to Hell with his dying breath. The Stranger seems somehow tied to the late Marshal, though the story never explains how. In the original script for High Plains Drifter (via Inside the Actor’s Studio), The Stranger was confirmed to be Duncan’s brother, but Eastwood himself ordered this changed.

The star/director felt this was too familiar, and decided to make The Stranger and his mission more ambiguous. It should be noted the film itself doesn’t completely rule out the brother reading. Eastwood’s character could have heard about what happened to his brother and decided to head to Lago for retribution – and to play mind games with the people who ordered Duncan’s death. Lago later hires The Stranger to protect them, as they also framed the outlaws who killed Duncan for theft; once these killers are released, they’ll ride straight to Lago to burn it down.

Eastwood Added The Supernatural Elements To High Plains Drifter
Eastwood made High Plains Drifter an allegory

High Plains Drifter is about the closest Eastwood came to directing a horror movie, and while it may lack jumpscares or gore, it has a sinister atmosphere. Eastwood’s Stranger is introduced emerging from the vastness of the desert on horseback, almost like he appeared out of thin air. Despite being a supposed stranger in town, he has a keen insight into the weaknesses and faults of the locals and holds the majority of them in silent contempt. Again, this makes him feel like an avenging spirit.

In the aforementioned Actor’s Studio conversion, Eastwood referred to High Plains Drifter as an allegory; greed made the people of Lago turn their backs on the law and their morals, and they are punished accordingly. As if to underline this, once they hire Eastwood’s Stranger, he sets about tormenting and humiliating them. He literally paints their town red and renames it “Hell” in preparation for the arrival of the outlaws. When a local shopkeeper refuses to sell to a Native American family, The Stranger forces him to give them the supplies for free and so on.


The Stranger also tries to teach the local men to shoot, though none of them have any real talent. When the killers finally arrive, The Stranger rides off, letting them wreak havoc and kill anyone who tries to stop them. When most of the damage is done, this is when Eastwood’s character finally returns, killing the trio – including whipping one of them to death – before returning to the desert he emerged from.

All The Clues High Plains Drifter’s Stranger Is A Ghost
Is Eastwood’s character the reincarnated Marshal?

Eastwood’s The Stranger brought Hell to the town that murdered Duncan, and he wasn’t subtle about it. The film leaves it up to viewers to decide if The Stranger is Duncan’s spirit avenging himself, but it leaves plenty of clues that lean toward this reading. The Stranger enters and exits the film by emerging from and then disappearing back into the desert. Eastwood’s Stranger has a vivid dream about the Marshal’s death, which he wasn’t present for and when he’s first riding into Lago, he’s briefly startled when a local loudly whips their horse.

Marshal Duncan curses the cowardly townspeople “… to Hell!” for standing by as he’s murdered; later, the local hotel owner Verna (Sarah Belding) tells The Stranger Duncan’s spirit can’t rest because he was buried in an unmarked grave. Verna is the only one to object to Duncan’s attack but is prevented from helping, and she’s one of the few townspeople The Stranger forms a connection with. In High Plains Drifter’s final scene, it’s revealed that Duncan’s name has finally been painted on his unmarked grave, suggesting his spirit is finally at rest.

What’s notable about this is when The Stranger bids goodbye to Sheriff Mordecai (Billy Curtis), who is writing on Duncan’s gravestone. The latter states “I never did get your name,” to which Eastwood’s gunslinger plainly states “Yes, you do,” before riding off. This is when the camera pans to Marshal Duncan’s name on the gravestone. Again, this could mean The Stranger is Duncan’s brother or relative – but the ghost reading is more fun.

Clint Definitely Played A Vengeful Spirit In Pale Rider
Eastwood dropped any ambiguity for this 1985 Western

Eastwood returned to Westerns once again for 1985’s Pale Rider, where he plays another mysterious killer dubbed Preacher. From the movie’s title to Eastwood’s character punishing Pale Rider’s villains for their sins, the director isn’t hiding the biblical allusions of the text. In fact, Pale Rider is Eastwood’s only supernatural character, with the star confirming (via that Preacher is an “out and out ghost.”

Preacher is seen with many faded bullet wounds on his back during one scene, while one of the main villains claims to have killed him in the past. Pale Rider feels like Eastwood is remixing themes he explored in High Plains Drifter, but Preacher is also a gentler character. Unlike The Stranger, there’s something almost impersonal to the vengeance he’s meting out, and he doesn’t seem to take any particular enjoyment from it.