CLINT EASTWOOD shoots himself in the foot with "Pale Rider," a hidebound story of persecuted squatters, hired guns and a horseman who just sort of happens along. The trail is all too familiar and pretty soon we recollect why westerns lost their appeal.
Let's face it, western victims are wimps. Here they all sit around and wait till the local bullies ransack the houses, burn down the clotheslines, shoot up the dinnerware, rape the women and then warn everybody to get out of town. They don't get mad. They just cower some.
In the heyday of anti-wimpery and muscle- pumpery, full-grown helpless men (or women) just don't cut it. And heroes come Rambo-sized and bristling with guns. While Eastwood is still some terrific hero, he's hampered by the rules here: No jumbo tommyguns allowed in westerns. Worse yet, he plays a preacher who's hung up his six- shooters.
Eastwood revives his squinty-eyed stranger from the Sergio Leone days. But Eastwood, the director, can't recreate the style of Leone. His movie is real pretty, full of little gold aspens and snow-capped mountains, but it is slow, dark and badly timed.
Eastwood rides into a gold miner's camp in answer to a young girl's prayer. Sydney Penny, who has modeled herself after Pia Zadora, costars as the 14-year-old frontier brat.
Bad as Penny's delivery is, her lines are worse. When her puppy is shot, she buries it: " 'Thou leadest me beside the still waters.' But they killed my dog," she gulps. Later when her mom (Carrie Snodgress) and foster dad (Michael Moriarty) consider selling their gold claim to the villains, she vows to stay: "They killed my dog (long pause) and my grandpa."
Still the writers can't let sleeping dogs lie. When a love scene threatens between Eastwood and the girl, she whispers, "I buried my dog over there. I think I love you."
To make matters worse, mother falls in love with the Stranger, too, and a schism develops between the hysterical, nagging wretch and her horrid daughter who rides off on a mare to the opposing camp, giving the hooligans a chance at the customary rape scene.
Meanwhile, the miners decide to stand up for their rights. Moriarty, as their goofy leader, gives what he hopes is a rousing speech, rather in the style of Walter Mondale.
Now they're really in a frenzy.
Seven hired guns, all in matching trenchcoats, stand between good and evil in the final reckoning. As fight scenes go, I've seen better ones over the tongs at Roy Roger's salad bar.