`Pale Rider': black hats against white hats, and no shades of gray

Clint Eastwood is not a modest actor. He gallops into ``Pale Rider'' as a young girl prays for a miracle to save her threatened community. His character is a godsend -- a preacher and a fighter, lending moral strength to the good folks while winning every battle with the bad guys. Men gaze in wonder, women fall battily in love, and the camera worships him.

We're meant to worship him, too. The hero of ``Pale Rider'' isn't just a man, he's a symbol of strength. Eastwood plays his perfection with calm authority and -- as director of the film -- shapes each battle as a stark confrontation of good and evil. We always know who'll win.

The story takes place in a small mining camp, where would-be millionaires pan for gold, dreaming of a stable community and a decent life for their families. Their enemy is a decadent capitalist who ``rapes the land'' with a type of strip mining and harasses his peaceful competitors with fear and violence. The heroic Man With No Name shows up just in time to vanquish the magnate and his hired guns.

This sounds like familiar stuff, and it is. ``Pale Rider'' is a classical western in every sense. This makes it something of an avant-garde event, since westerns are supposed to have died about a dozen years ago. They've tried a comeback once or twice, as with the superflop ``Heaven's Gate,'' but with no success. For some time now, the conventions of the genre have been taken over by ``Star Wars'' science fiction and ``Indiana Jones'' fantasy, which serve the same function of playing white hats against black hats in a nonrealistic setting.

Eastwood has always been a classicist, though, and if anyone can revive the western, he's the person for the job. He has never shown much patience with the shades of gray that crept into oaters during the 1950s and ate away the archetypes of the genre. ``Pale Rider'' doesn't just employ the ritualized action and moral certainties of the old-fashioned horse opera -- it celebrates them in scene after scene.

If it turns into a hit, as I think it will, ``Pale Rider'' will tell a good deal about today's moviegoing mentality. Like some other recent films, it represents a return to ``traditional values'' in both good and bad ways. Its clear definitions of virtue and evil are refreshing; it cares about community; and it minces no words about the importance of spiritual strength: The villain fears the hero's preaching more than his guns, and admits that his wicked designs will fail if the victims arm themselves with faith instead of weapons.

Like many an action picture, though, ``Pale Rider'' forgets its own sermon when the climax rolls around. The preacher takes off his collar and straps on his six-shooters, resolving the story in an explosion of shooting and killing. Good triumphs over bad, but the means are disappointingly primitive. For all the talk we've heard, might means right after all. It's like watching Rambo in the Old West.

The acting in ``Pale Rider'' is first rate, beginning with Eastwood's patented performance in the leading role. As the leader of the good miners, Michael Moriarty is vulnerable but not wimpy. Carrie Snodgress and Sydney Penny are strong as the women in his life, and Richard Dysart has the right fiendish touch as the blackhearted businessman.

The technical work is equally professional. Joel Cox's editing is tight, and Bruce Surtees's cinematography makes expressive use of moody darkness, brightening up for the fiery finale. And the director rarely falters. The time has come for Eastwood to be hailed as one of our leading classical filmmakers.

``Pale Rider'' is rated R, reflecting a few scenes of graphic violence in the explicit mode of the '60s rather than the stylized form of the '50s and before. St. Elmo's Fire

``St. Elmo's Fire'' is a little brighter and deeper than most of the youth movies that have flooded from Hollywood lately.

But not much. Straining to be grown up, it hovers between ``The Breakfast Club'' and ``The Big Chill'' -- too ambitious for teen-comedy formulas, too frivolous for a meaningful look at its own issues.

The main characters are seven young men and women, all just out of college. They seem pretty smart, but each has doubts about how to approach the future.

The choices they face are standard movie stuff. Should idealistic Wendy join her rich daddy's business or stay in social work? Should impetuous Kirbo remain in law school or chase romance? Is sensual Jules living too wildly for her own good? Will ambitious Alec stick to his convictions -- or switch jobs and turn Republican?

A couple of the characters are mildly interesting and lend ``St. Elmo's Fire'' an occasional spark. Andrew McCarthy gives a convincing touch of eccentricity to Kevin, a would-be writer with a repressed love life. As the young social worker, Mare Winningham avoids the cute stereotypes built into her part. Demi Moore is a bundle of energy as the aspiring jet-setter of the group.

But the screenplay, by Joel Schumacher and Carl Kurlander, doesn't match these strong performances. Curiously, at one time or another the writers take care to expose just about every character as a self-centered twerp, willing to trample on friendship or dignity for the sake of ego. While this may be intended as realism, it undercuts the tone of breezy, youthful charm that could have been the film's best selling point. It's an odd device to find in a movie that depends on our concern and compassion for the folks on the screen.

Liabilities also include flat performances by Ally Sheedy (who was good in ``The Breakfast Club'') and Andie MacDowell, among others. The directing style of Joel Schumacher is undistinguished, although he makes good use of some atmospheric locations in the Washington, D.C., area.

``St. Elmo's Fire'' is supposed to be about young people living ``on the edge,'' in the words of one character. On the edge of what, though? Ordinary life, that's all -- and we're meant to be on tenterhooks wondering just which branch of everyday, middle-class society these kids will eventually fall into. That isn't a big enough question to keep me interested for long. I commend the filmmakers' urge to deal with a slightly more mature and complex group of characters than many recent films have treated. But the aspiration outstrips the result.

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