Thursday, March 7, 2013
Heath Holland On: Clint Eastwood's West
For the last twenty years, he’s directed nearly as much as he has acted, often wining awards for his efforts. Half a century before he was addressing invisible presidents to a room full of guffawing republicans or pulling his pants up to his arm pits, he was an icon of masculinity, and it all started in the west -- or, more precisely, in the wild country outside of Madrid, Spain.
In 1964, Italian director Sergio Leone cast Eastwood, then starring on television’s The Rifleman (and presumably practicing his squint/snarl everyday in the mirror), in his western take on Yojimbo after failing to nab Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson. Eastwood’s character, now widely known as The Man With No Name but who has plenty of aliases (Joe, Manco, Blondie, Fitz P. Nutzenstuffin), would become an icon not just in '60s counter culture, but popular culture as well. Spawning two sequels that culminated with The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, sometimes considered the greatest western ever (though not quite for me), Leone’s first effort with Eastwood in 1964 turned western conventions on their head by depicted shocking violence and a good guy who seemed uninterested in saving anyone but himself, his main motivation being to ride out of town with his saddle bags more full of money than they were when he rode in. It’s easy to look back and compare what Leone did in those movies to what Tarantino did 25 years later with Reservoir Dogs, but I’ll try not to be obnoxious and instead just say that Leone’s take on the western was pretty unorthodox and a lot more realistic. The traditional western was pretty much done and over by the time he came along, and Gene Autrey, Audie Murphy, John Wayne, and Gary Cooper had started to seem positively quaint by the mid-sixties.
One year later, Eastwood starred in his first American made western, Hang Em High. It was also the first movie to be produced by Eastwood’s fledgling production outfit, The Malpaso Company. It greatly suffers from coming so soon after the Leone films, because the feel and the aesthetic is completely different. It’s not nearly as gritty or dark, and Eastwood falls more into the category of a traditional hero. After seeing him do whatever it takes in Leone’s films, this one feels decidedly American and conventional.
1969 saw the release of Paint Your Wagon, a film version of the '50s musical, but it's Eastwood’s next movie, Two Mules for Sister Sara, that really feels like the most significant offering since Leone’s films. This is one that I really have a soft spot for. Shirley MacLaine is Sara, a nun who Eastwood wanders upon as she’s being assaulted by a band of thugs. He rescues her, and then they’re paired together as they try to keep her out of the hands of the people who are pursing her. It’s not reinventing the wheel, but it has a great atmosphere and a great score by Ennio Morricone, proving that Eastwood, the West, and Morricone’s music make a pretty unbeatable combination. Quentin Tarantino seemed to think so too, because he used some of the music from this movie in Django Unchained. Dirty thief.
Two years later saw the release of Joe Kidd, which paired Eastwood with Robert Duvall (the same year as The Godfather, no less, and the two roles couldn’t be more different) as a bounty hunter forced into working for Duvall against his will in order to survive. It also stars John Saxon, who we’d see one year later with Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon and then much later as Nancy’s dad (the cop) in A Nightmare On Elm Street. Here he plays Luis Chama, a Mexican (?!) revolutionary that needs to be taken down. Lucky for us, Joe Kidd is really good at playing it cool under pressure. This is a fun one and well worth the time (as are all these movies), but there was much better to come.
column on Dolph Lundgren, you may recall the plot of Missionary Man as being awfully similar to this. It’s almost the same movie, with a few variations, and instead of being set in modern Texas as Dolph’s movie was, this one is set in the classic western town of Lago. What’s interesting about this movie is that it’s Eastwood’s second directorial effort, and his first western movie that he directed himself. As this is the first western he directed, I think it’s fair to extrapolate that the themes represented here show his take on the genre, which is violent, brutal, and largely without sympathy. It’s a fairly merciless movie, and has little of the levity that what came before had shown. John Wayne criticized the movie by saying that it didn’t represent the real west, a west of the people who worked hard to settle the land and worked to keep it alive (I’m paraphrasing). That’s probably true, but I like this west a LOT more than Wayne’s west. I like the harsh, unforgiving (there’s that word again) west that Clint shows us here, and shows us again three years later in The Outlaw Josey Wales.
The Outlaw Josey Wales is a masterpiece. He’d really come into his own as a director by this time. He had learned from his experiences, both as an actor and as a man who had played in the western sandbox so many times that he really knew the genre and how it could be used. Eastwood plays Josey Wales, a southern farmer at the close of the Civil War whose family was killed by Union soldiers. Though the war is pretty much over, he joins a band of freedom fighters who continue to fight the Union army. He’s motivated by revenge. When the rest of his group is trapped and executed, he flees on his own and hardens himself into an instrument of revenge, his one goal to find the Union soldiers responsible for the deaths of his family fellow rebels and to kill them.
The scope of this film is much larger than anything we’ve seen from Eastwood’s western output up to this point. While Leone’s trilogy (particularly The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly) used the Civil War as a backdrop, this movie treats the subject matter much more seriously and is less stylized and operatic, choreographed, etc. The movie was released in the middle of the Seventies, almost ten years after the Leone trilogy, and filmmaking had come a long way in that time. The Outlaw Josey Wales is a wonderful representation of the aesthetic and pathos of the Seventies, mixed with the grittiness that we’d come to expect from Eastwood. The cinematography is often breathtaking, and features an AWESOME first person sequence of Eastwood firing two pistols years before John Woo ever picked up a camera. Sadly, no doves.
Our Favorite Westerns episode.
It would be nine years (and two movies with an Orangutan named Clyde) later before Eastwood would star and direct another western with Pale Rider. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this movie, so I can’t get too specific about the plot, but it involves Eastwood riding into town (so few people ever WALK into town, or take a taxi or the subway) named Preacher. He’s a mysterious, potentially supernatural figure who must mediate a dispute between two opposing factions in the town. Sound familiar? We’ve been here before. Several times. I like the movie, but it has not stuck with me like Eastwood westerns before or after. It’s good, though, and a rare example of a western filmed in the '80s that people went to go see.
In 1992, Eastwood starred and directed what has become his final word on the western: Unforgiven. If The Outlaw Josey Wales represented all that Eastwood had learned and become in 1976, Unforgiven stands as a master director with decades of experience telling the story of an old gunslinger who has found himself nearing the end of a life full of death, pain, and regret. It’s the Man With No Name thirty years later, when all those trips into the sunset have led not to happiness or enlightenment, only solitude.
The movie was so well executed and received that there has been absolutely no need for Eastwood to work in the genre again. When the movie came out, Eastwood was in his early 60s, and it resonated with audiences because the man had become an embodiment of the western hero, bringing westerns out of what they were in the '50s and early '60s into the revisionist western genre, where heroes weren’t always easy to identify and the bad guys didn’t wear black hats.
But here we are twenty-one years later, and while I wonder what an Eastwood in his eighties could bring to his old stomping grounds with two extra decades of experience, I hope he stays away from it. Unforgiven is such a perfectly crafted statement on a large part of his life’s work that to try it one more time would be tempting fate. The Beatles always talked about getting back together, but they knew that the expectations people would have couldn’t live up to what they would be able to give them. I think that’s what’s happened with Eastwood’s westerns: Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Unforgiven mark a very clear beginning, middle, and end of a legend. Why potentially spoil that?
There you have it. Less than a dozen traditional westerns in a career that spans almost 70 films, but movies that have left such a stamp that Eastwood will forever be associated with the western anti-hero. Of course, there are lots of other movies that made Eastwood the icon that he is today, and we’ll talk about some of those in a future column. After all, how could we not talk about Escape from Alcatraz, or In the Line of Fire or his directorial efforts like Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, or Gran Torino?
And let’s not forget the tough San Francisco cop named Harry Callahan who carries a REALLY big gun.