On its face, the film is a musical comedy about a group of prospectors in the 1849 gold rush in California. There’s bawdy humor in the film, so it’s not suitable for all viewers. I’ll discuss the plot, so be warned of spoilers.
The story begins with a group of prospectors traveling in the mountains. We are introduced to the lead characters, the old hand Ben Rumsen, played by Lee Marvin, and “Pardner”, a farmer from Michigan, played by Clint Eastwood. These two become partners after an accident kills Pardner’s brother and leaves Pardner injured, but leads to finding gold. After the prospecting camp is established, a Mormon man comes to the camp with his two wives, and agrees to sell one of his wives to the highest bidder. Ben Rumsen while drunk makes the highest bid, and finds himself with a new wife, Elizabeth, played by Jean Seberg. He agrees to honor the marriage, but only for a time, and promises to build her a cabin. Pardner and Elizabeth fall in love. Rather than breakup the partnership, the three agree on a polyandrous marriage. The camp quickly grows to a boom town, complete with gambling saloons and bordellos. The original prospectors find it harder to find gold, but come up with a plan to tunnel under the saloons to recover gold lost through the floorboards. The tunneling is successful, but leads to undermining the town, which collapses into the ground. At the end of the film, Ben leaves to wander again, while Pardner stays behind with Elizabeth to farm in the valley.
In a metaphysical reading, which I’ll readily grant is a conceit, the prospectors represent souls wandering the world:
Truly, the truth of the play is the dance of the soul; her journey through forests and plains, over seas, over mountains; her restless and wearisome quest through the whole world; and each step brings her nearer to that which she yearns for in secret; or else, in her ignorance, carries her further away. Like a leaf on the wind is the foolish soul blown without purpose: the plaything of passions, the puppet of every desire; knowing neither from where she comes, nor where she is going; seeking substance in shadows and having no heed for the truth. (The Pillar of Light)
Though they are wandering in the “Golden Country”, they have eyes only for gold in the ground and what that wealth can buy. Ben is reconciled to this life and sees himself as “born under a wandering star”. For Ben, wandering is an end in itself. Pardner however is conflicted, and in his heart yearns for a return to farming, that is to the original garden. Elizabeth yearns above all for her own cabin with a real hearth (heart). Pardner is nonetheless afflicted by “gold fever”, representing his false self.
The town that grows up is called “No Name City” (in the original play it was “Rumsen City”). The community is vestigially rajasic, and is governed by mining law. Even Ben’s marriage is recognized in this form. However even “low born scuff” like Ben hold the law of partnership as sacred, and this binds his word both to Pardner and Elizabeth. Pardner in turn fulfills his promise to Ben. The community still functions through a minimal form of Divine Law or Thamë.
No Name City becomes more dissolute as time passes. A preacher arrives and seeing iniquity predicts the town will be swallowed up into the earth. The prediction comes true due to the tunneling under the saloons.
Those who live in discord with eternal harmony, in discord they shall perish. Their cities that stand so proud upon the morning shall be rendered asunder before the evening comes. No pillar shall stand erect, nor any stone lie whole upon another. (The Heart of Water)
At the end of the film, Ben returns to wandering. Pardner stays behind with Elizabeth, who symbolizes the Self. His wandering is over. Pardner’s name is revealed only at the end, when “No Name City” is gone.
Curiously, Clint Eastwood later played the “man with no name” in the Sergio Leone trilogy. Leone’s “man with no name” is directly based on Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo.
One of the highlights of the film is Harvey Presnell, playing the gambler Rotten Luck Willie, singing “They Call the Wind Maria”. The song invokes the elements of rain (or water), fire and wind. Each element is envisioned in feminine terms, in memory of each man’s lost love. The fourth element, earth, is represented by the mountains themselves. The wind is “Ma-raya” symbolizing the Spirit Herself. Maria has a terrible aspect, but the singer also calls on her to restore the beloved that he has lost, and to end his own wandering.
Cry Marya; Mother; and in the mists and vapours of illusion, thou has seized the Real. Cry: Mother, I know that I am one with Thee and all things are one in Thee. Awake me from the dream of separation.
The name “Marya” can be parsed as “Ma-Raya”. (A)Ma is the universal Mother. Raya is the Déanic name of the Solar Janya, meaning Lady or Queen. It is cognate with “raja” and “regina”. It may also be related to “ray” and “radius”. Ma-Raya can be seen as a name of the Mother, but can also be seen as referring to the Daughter as Queen of Heaven.