In Outland (1981) and Pale Rider (1985), a hero enters a mining community and defends the terrified population from a criminal overlord. Outland takes place on a distant planet, sometime in the future; Pale Rider is set in late 19th century California. Regardless of the location, both follow the pattern of a classic Western such as High Noon (1952).
In many later Westerns, power is controlled by a ruthless overlord whose criminal activities are having a poisonous influence. The overlord operates within the system, and to some extent has become the system.
At first they are willing to cut the hero in on their lucrative monopoly: running legitimate landowners off their property through intimidation and violence, or smuggling illegal performance enhancing drugs. The hero is not swayed by material reward — he is incorruptible — and the casual use of violence disgusts him.
The hero, Preacher in Pale Rider, and William O’Niel in Outland, have troubled histories; they have faced themselves, and now they are ready to do the right thing. They will fight the corruption that is endemic in the system.
William is a classic ‘honest cop’; he’s moved from place to place because ‘he can’t keep his mouth shut’. The Preacher in Pale Rider is shrouded in ghostly mystique. He has been murdered — he has the bullet holes in his chest to prove it — and now he’s come back from the dead.
Both mining communities have one person who is willing to support the hero — that person is not a natural fighter: a washed out doctor in Outland, and a socially inept character in Pale Rider.
The hero enters the community as an outsider. Preacher arrives, alone, on a pale grey horse. William has a family, but being the ‘honest cop’ he is really ‘married to the job’. Soon his wife and son travel to Earth, and he is alone.
The heroes show humility and restraint, but they’re forced into a showdown. The criminal masterminds are smug, confident they can hide their illegal activities behind the veneer of legitimate business. In Pale Rider the criminal boss is so entrenched in the establishment that the town is named after him. In Outland the corruption reaches into the senior management of Conglomerates Amalgamated (the corporation that owns the mine).
Greed is the motivating force that drives the corrupt elites. In Pale Rider it’s pushing people off their land to steal the gold beneath the earth, and using an environmentally damaging high pressure water system to extract that gold. In Outland it’s smuggling illegal performance enhancing drugs that make workers more productive, but it has a deadly side effect. The controlling elite is interested in maximising profit over staff welfare, or the environment. Their goal, like the Resources Development Administration in the film Avatar, is making money.
The ruling elite in both stories rely on hired killers to carry out their dirty work. The euphemistically named ‘Deputies’ in Pale Rider wear beige coats, which gives them a weird clone-like uniformity. Their ruthlessness is counterbalanced by the hero’s ingenuity. Although the killers have the advantage in numbers and viciousness, the hero has the resourcefulness to outsmart them. He employs various traps and tricks to kill them one by one.
Outland takes place on Con-Am 27, a mining facility on a distant planet. The depiction of space as a grubby, lonely place matches Alien (1979). It resembles a rusty container ship rather than the sleek, high-tech environment of the Star Trek bridge. The grimy take on space is echoed by William’s choice of weapon, a classic pump action shotgun, and Ripley’s, a crude flame thrower.
The context of mining echoes a history of working class exploitation and oppression. Outland, a British film, was released in the same year that Arthur Scargill became President of the National Union of Mineworkers. He went on to lead the strike in 1984, in what became a bitter struggle with Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government.
These stories are celebrations of good prevailing over bad. There is a hero out there, someone willing to risk his or her life, to tackle the thugs. They will break the cycle of fear, and expose the criminal conspiracy. Then they will leave town, seeking no reward — justice restored.