‘High Plains Drifter’: The Ultimate Anti-Hero

Clint Eastwood's character is a reprehensible man who saves the day.

by Kali Tuttle
High Plains Drifter

You’ll never feel more confused about a hero than you will about the Stranger of High Plains DrifterHe’s a vile man who rapes women, kills men, and sneers at everyone he sees. He’d be the villain of any other movie. Yet, Clint Eastwood forces us to support this man in a desperate attempt to save a small town. We aren’t given anyone better to rally behind.

The Stranger is the definition of an anti-hero. He’s our main character, whether we like it or not. We want to see this villainous character win, despite our moral objections. It’s a delightful contradiction that makes cinema great.


The Stranger of High Plains Drifter is a criminal, there is no doubt about that. He rapes the first woman he sees when he reaches the town of Lago. We’re supposed to brush this off because she “enjoyed it.” None of the other men in the town make a move to stop this attack despite all of them seeing it happen. The incident is just chalked up to another one of those things that happens in the Wild West.

While never outright spoken, it’s implied that the Stranger has killed many men with his gunfighting skills before entering Lago. Whether the victims of these shootings were shot justly or not is never discussed. We are supposed to believe that because the three men he shot in Lago were shot justly, that all other kills the Stranger has are just as well.

The Stranger is much like Alex from A Clockwork OrangeBoth characters are reprehensible criminals who rape and murder. We don’t want to root for them, but the film forces us to through a series of events. The Stranger becomes the reluctant hero while still retaining his vile habits the same way that Alex eventually becomes a stand-in for a hero due to the events he’s placed in. To get the happy(ish) ending, we have to root for the bad guy.

No Charm

The Stranger has no charm, despite how much he seems to think he has. He can woo women his way, but it’s not because of his charm; rather, his manipulation tactics are well-honed. This is how he’s able to get the town to agree to give him anything he wants for free, including the entire hotel and all the goods and services the town provides. It’s just a matter of trickery and lies.

In regular conversation, the Stranger is a miserable old cuss. He doesn’t have a kind word to speak to anyone and his default expression is a sneer. It’s possible that under that exterior is a kind person, as evidenced by the goods he gives the Native Americans, but it is deeply buried beneath crudeness and anger. It only softens slightly when he’s around women, but the hardened look is set in stone.

In this way, the Stranger is most like Tyler Durden of Fight ClubBoth men are generally pretty rude to whoever they meet but they can still get people to follow and love them because they are so convincing and good at manipulation. The Stranger can convince a whole town to do his bidding. Tyler Durden can convince a whole nation to do his bidding as well as a woman to love him despite how cruel he is to her.

Did He Really Help?

One of the most intellectually stimulating shows out there is Spongebob, obviously. I’m reminded of an episode where Patrick and Spongebob fail to save Bikini Bottom from a butterfly rampage. Thus, a legendary meme was born.

This is almost exactly what happens in High Plains DrifterThe Stranger agrees to protect the town from three outlaws out for revenge. When he finally steps in though, several people are dead and half the town has burned down. The Stranger’s “help” wasn’t much help in the end.

Clint Eastwood’s character is a lot like Walter White from Breaking Bad. They’re both terrible people, honestly. If you knew this person in real life, you would hate them. They also agree to help, but they really only make things worse. White’s decision to get involved in drugs didn’t improve his life like he promised it would. It made it worse.


The Stranger is the only person who knows what’s going to come next. There doesn’t seem to be a rhyme or reason to his methods. Sometimes he’s exceptionally kind, like when he used his unlimited credit in the town to provide a Native American family with blankets and candy. Other times he is nothing more than a vile snake, such as when he rapes Callie Travers (Marianna Hill).

That unpredictability is a big part of what makes The Stranger one of the best anti-heroes in cinema. He keeps the audience on their toes with his continual changes in behavior. Once we think we have him pinned, he switches it up again. He’s a loose cannon.

He is similar to Alonzo Harris in Training DayDenzel Washington’s hardcore character is also hard to pin. Sometimes he cracks down hard on criminals and other times he shows some restraint. Both characters seem to do whatever they need to do to benefit themselves at that moment in time. The only thing they care about is themselves and what they can do to further themselves in their lives.

Follow MovieBabble on Twitter @MovieBabble_ and Kali Tuttle @tuttle_kali2.

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DanielRobichaud August 29, 2023 - 1:06 pm

I like the ambiguity of just who this person is. We are never explicitly told if he’s a relative of the dead man. One read even suggests he’s a vengeful revenant who will only be content once he drags the entire town to Hell.

Uri August 27, 2023 - 11:43 am

You made me think about the status of rape in the Wild West. I’d have to do some research but it feels at least that during that time and place it was frowned upon at best, not being a crime or uncommon at all. Which of course is another rabbit hole about history of rape and definition of it that for sure has drastically changed in the last 1000 years.
Anyway I have to give this one a rewatch. I grew up with westerns that were always part savage history and part fantasy.

Nick Kush August 27, 2023 - 11:23 am

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