Thursday, March 7, 2013

Heath Holland On: Clint Eastwood's West

Few actors still working today have the legacy of masculine cool and machismo of Clint Eastwood. There’s Sean Connery, Harrison Ford, and obviously Rip Taylor, but Eastwood stands tall among few remaining actors from his generation (old people shrink).

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.
The violence and gritty, unforgiving (stay tuned) setting, coupled with Ennio Morricone’s larger than life, often operatic music, was like shock therapy to the traditional western. America didn’t get to see A Fistful of Dollars until January 1967. The next installment, For A Few Dollars More opened that summer, and the concluding chapter, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly made it out in time for Christmas. 1967 was the year that Clint Eastwood went from TV actor to a full fledged star. Can you imagine all three of those movies hitting America in the same year? It’s crazy!

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.
In 1973 we get High Plains Drifter, a traditional revenge story in which a man named “The Stranger” that’s been riding around in the high country, you know, sort of a HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, if you will, rolls up into town on his horse, proves himself to be handy with a gun, and is promptly enlisted by the town to defend them against a band of bad guys who’ve been terrorizing them. What they don’t know is that Eastwood’s character has tangled with them before, and he has a score to settle. If you read my 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.
There’s a bunch of interesting background information on this movie, and it had some ugly behind the scenes bickering (I imagine many movies do, we just never hear about it). What’s interesting to me, though, is that Eastwood says that this is an anti-war movie. It certainly doesn’t glamorize the subject and shows the sad reality and the toll that war and violence takes. After years of making a living being a tough guy who blows people away for looking at him wrong, Eastwood had crafted a movie that showed the human side of that violence. Before this, Eastwood had been in some fun westerns, some good westerns, and one or two spectacular westerns. But The Outlaw Josey Wales transcends the genre and becomes a great FILM with a lot to say. This, coupled with McCabe and Mrs. Miller, are the two finest westerns of the Seventies (Patrick talked about McCabe and Mrs. Miller on F This Movie!’s 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.
Eastwood stars as William Munny, an old bounty hunter who takes on one final job to track down some lawbreakers who need to be brought to justice. The main reason that the tired plot (how many movies revolve around “one last job?”) resonates is because twenty-one years after this movie, this has indeed proven to be Eastwood’s last western role. Gene Hackman co-stars as the town sheriff, with as Morgan Freeman as Munny’s old partner and Richard Harris as “English Bob.” The movie brings us the only logical conclusion that could exist for a man who has skirted the law and lived a life of violence. As a result, Eastwood won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director in 1992.

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.


  1. An excellent column, Heath. I really didn't realize that Eastwood actually made so few westerns in his career, as you pointed out, seeing as how he has such an indelible mark in the genre. And I agree with you (who wouldn't?) that Unforgiven is a perfect closing chapter for Eastwood's work in the Western genre. It encapsulates everything perfectly. It would definitely be a huge mistake to revisit the genre.

    I also love Clint Eastwood the director. He and Ben Affleck are two examples who make me want to see more actors try their hands at directing to see what happens, but I'm pretty sure that is a hope for greatness that would fail much more often than it would succede. But the three movies of his you mentioned are all well done.

    Confession: Though I understand Eastwood's importance to the western genre, and love his efforts in films like the Man With No Name trilogy and Unforgiven, I have never seen The Outlaw Josey Wales, High Plains Drifter OR Pale Rider.

  2. Of the movies that you haven't seen, I definitely think Outlaw Josey Wales is the most worthy of your time. It's a precursor to Unforgiven in many ways.

    I thought that Eastwood had been in more westerns too. When I started composing this column, I was surprised that I'd seen them all. It's amazing to me that he's so associated with the genre (see Rango and the Spirit of the West) that he'd only done less than a dozen.

    Thanks, Murph!

  3. I just saw The Good, The Bad and the Ugly at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood a couple of days ago and the entire theater, which holds about 800 people, was packed. I really love that movie and seeing it in a theater made me love it even more. I never realized until seeing it this last time just how funny the movie is, almost everything Tuco says was getting a reaction from the audience and his relationship with Clint Eastwood has to be one of the greatest on screen relationships i've ever seen.

  4. @Clint, I had a very similar experience almost 10 years ago. I saw The Good, The Bad and the Ugly on the big screen in Chicago and it'll go down as one of my favorite movie-going experiences ever. The crowd was SO into it, and it made me love the film that much more as well.

    While I agree that Outlaw Josey Wales is a better movie than High Plaines Drifter, I LOVE High Plaines Drifter. It's such a weird movie, actually. It's endlessly watchable.

  5. I'm so jealous of you guys and your big screen experiences with The G, The B, and The Ugh. While I do live in the most artistic and progressive city in Alabama (stop laughing), and while we DO have an old theater that occasionally shows older films, I went to their website today to see what was coming next, and there is NOTHING until the summer. And that's Gone With The Wind. Can I come live with you?

  6. Heath! Another great article about a subject which I know little about. I already pulled up an empty chair and had a nice long chat with you about it but I'll get some of it down in writing.

    Though I've never been inspired to really dig into his filmography, there is something about Clint Eastwood I like a lot and I've never really disliked anything I've seen him in. As I type this I've got Hang 'em High on in the background (it's on TCM - big Western marathon by the looks of it) and it seems pretty good - believe it or not Unforgiven is the only Western I've seen him in - should I start with the Man with No Name Trilogy? My brother from another cattle rustler, Mikey P., named a couple and we seem to have pretty similar tastes (I almost typed "testes" - probably also true), so should I break myself in with those? To be honest, I haven't been doing so great with my Heavy Action homework, so I can't promise I'll get right on them, but I'm keeping a list so appreciate all of the recommendations you F'ers have to offer!

    Keep up the great work, Heath!