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The Ending Of High Plains Drifter Explained

The Old West was an era of lawlessness and brutality for many. In the uncivilized frontier, the complete lack of infrastructure and the uncaring lethality of both men and nature spelled certain death for many and a hard life for all. But as America stretched itself across the broad scope of its territories, a story began to unfold. The name they gave it was Manifest Destiny, and though the reality of America's movement was less heroic than many tales might tell, there is truth in the idea that Americans set out to tame difficult lands unknown to them. Thus, the Western genre was born from these labors, quickly becoming one of America's most popular settings. And throughout the years, few names in Westerns have meant as much as that of Clint Eastwood.

But while Eastwood stood as an icon of Western storytelling, his most famous work was neither American nor adhered to the heroic perspectives of Manifest Destiny. As a Western movie star, his characters were anti-heroes, not white-dudded cowboys posing as knights in shining armor. He wasn't there to tame the land and make a new home for America. It's funny, then, that one of his earliest works as a director focuses almost entirely on bringing a kind of law and order to an uncivilized town. 1973's "High Plains Drifter," which also stars Eastwood, tells a story about revenge and retribution for a man who was wronged by the people he was sworn to protect.

High Plains Drifter is a high-concept revenge story

Like many other Eastwood heroes, the nameless cowboy of "High Plains Drifter” plays fast and loose with morality. Soon after coming to the town of Lago, he proves himself a bully, a killer, and a rapist. That's not exactly protagonist material. But as the story unfolds, we learn more about Lago, how it's illegally settled on land that is technically government-owned, how it's terrorized by a gang of outlaws, and how they whipped the town Marshal (Buddy Van Horn) to death without the townspeople so much as raising a finger for him.

Somehow, Eastwood's character is acutely aware of all this, and the scene of the Marshal's vicious death even appears in his dreams. So when Eastwood's character dispatches the outlaws in the film's climax, he is dispensing due retribution rather than saving the "innocent" townspeople. According to the book "The Philosophy of Clint Eastwood," "the Stranger exposes the corruption that flowed from the town's lack of moral courage when it acquiesced to Duncan's [the Marshal] murder."

So, when all is said and done, everyone gets theirs in "High Plains Drifter." However, this also includes positive repercussions. Mordecai (Billy Curtis), the town's disrespected dwarf, is elevated to becoming Lago's sheriff and mayor and even saves Eastwood's character in the final act. And, while Lago ends up half-destroyed, the people and their town all come out not too worse for wear.

Supernatural conflict or family feud?

The ending of "High Plains Drifter" is steeped in ambiguity. After nearly destroying the town, literally painting it red, and avenging Marshal Duncan by killing the outlaws, Eastwood's Stranger departs back into the desert heat from whence he came. When Mordecai asks him his name, he replies simply that they already know and leaves as Mordecai marks the Marshal's so-far unmarked grave. At the very least, this scene tells us that the Marshal's soul has been truly put to rest. However, it's also meant to imply some connection between the Stranger and Marshal Duncan.

This isn't a new connection the film makes, either. The Stranger's knowledge of the towns' sins and dreams depicting the Marshal's death clearly point to something. To some, these scenes imply that the Stranger is a literal spirit of vengeance. He's the ghost of the fallen Marshal returned in a new form to take his just revenge. Others read it as the Stranger simply having a relationship to the Marshal. Is he a brother, a cousin, a friend? Nobody can be sure, but the possibilities leave both the viewer and the townspeople scratching their chins, truly wondering just who the mysterious stranger that came and left so quickly was.