From the August 1989 issue of Chronicles.
A nation lives by its myths and heroes. Many societies have survived defeat and invasion, even political and economic collapse. None has survived the corruption of the picture it has of itself. High art and popular art are not in competition here. Both may and do help citizens decide what they are and admire. In our age, however, high art has given up speaking to the body of its fellow citizens. It devotes itself to technical displays that appeal and can only appeal to other technicians. The greatest art, high or popular, aims at speaking to a whole society. The group may not be large in number, but it is felt to be a whole. Aeschylus was composing for only a hundred thousand or so Athenian citizens, while Stephen King writes for millions of people, but one was trying to speak to everybody in his city, while the other has a carefully marketed target audience that is and is viewed as being only a fraction of his nation.
Hollywood in the days of the great studios tried to express a national feeling. This effort collapsed with the decline of the studio system in the 60’s. It is striking how many watchable films, along with a few masterpieces, the old system produced compared with the dated products of the 60’s. Yet the 60’s did produce a filmmaker who is committed to films that both work as popular entertainment and speak to the American people. No real understanding of the oeuvre of Clint Eastwood is possible unless the viewer sees this continuing effort to present America to itself.
Eastwood’s famous chipped tooth and limited acting range had slowed down his career until he was cast as Rowdy Yates in the television series Rawhide. Eastwood’s youthful good looks and sullen passion won the hearts of the teenagers who were becoming the majority of the nation in those years. (The show is still syndicated all over America.) Based on this success, Eastwood’s agent got him a part in a European movie, a Western directed by an Italian with an Italian villain.
A quarter of a century later, that villain, Gian Maria Volonté, is considered one of Italy’s premier actors. The director, Sergio Leone, has just passed away, honored as the creator of one of the most popular sub-genres in film history, the “spaghetti Western.” It is an education to watch Leone grow with Per un pugno di dollari (1964), hit his stride in Per qualche dollaro in piu (1965) and go on to create Il buono, il brutto e il cattivo (1967). I have little patience for his later, critically acclaimed movies. They resemble nothing so much as expensive imitations by someone who has studied Sergio Leone movies, but cannot understand what made them work. The original trilogy is slow paced, but tense with excitement, superficially immoral but in fact deeply ethical. Above all, it has Eastwood. The casting was as inspired as it was on that distant day when John Ford got to direct John Wayne for the first time in Stagecoach. The men and the hour had met.
What Leone was doing needed Eastwood’s strengths and could bypass his weaknesses. There was not much dialogue, but Leone needed a strong screen presence that was tough, that had a sense of humor and remained sympathetic. Critics scorned the products and Italian Marxists explained that the trilogy and the many successive spin-offs were a Christian Democratic plot to make the Italian people forget about the economic troubles of the end of the Economic Miracle of the 50’s. Ordinary people flocked to see them and Clint Eastwood’s screen persona was born, created by Leone’s genius and Eastwood’s own squinting charisma.
Leone’s vision of the American West was of a place freed from the traditions and constraints of the Old World, open to incredible cruelty and violence, but saved, after all, by an individual with a moral center and a sense of humor. Critics noted the violence, horrific by the standards of the early 60’s, but forgot that even if virtue was not always rewarded, honor and a sense of humor always triumphed over rootless evil. Eastwood never forgot what he learned from the Italian about pacing and humor, but especially he was struck by Leone’s vision of the world as the American West.
The late 60’s were not a good time for either man. Eastwood was cast in a number of Westerns, watchable now only because they include him. The nadir was the incredible catastrophe of Paint Your Wagon (1969), a musical Western that combined appalling immorality with unbelievably bad singing. Eastwood’s walk through a forest singing, “I talk to the trees,” may be the musical low point of a decade that listened to Herman’s Hermits. The waste of money appalled Eastwood as much as the aimlessness of his career, and he finally founded Malpaso Productions and signed contracts to produce his own movies with complete artistic control.
How the critical world howled with laughter at that proviso. Eastwood proceeded to make a series of movies, sexy teasers like Play Misty for Me (1971), Westerns, and cop movies. It was the last that won him the most enduring fame and that alienated permanently the Hollywood elite. Today after nearly two decades we can see Dirty Harry (1971) for what it is, a film masterpiece, directed by the great Don Siegel, the most influential work of popular art since Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Although Don Siegel is a very different director from Sergio Leone, the Italian’s vision of the American West can be felt in the film’s ethical tensions.
Eastwood’s Westerns were made in the Leone mold. In fact, his Westerns were the true continuation of Leone’s project, as the Italian’s later movies became increasingly bizarre and out of touch with popular feeling. As in For a Few Dollars More, an act of immorality is avenged after a long time by a tough but honest hero. The humor that was so essential for Leone’s first trilogy (and risks taking over The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly) is developed and matures. Already with Joe Kidd (1972) we begin to see the admiration for the hard-working ordinary competent person contrasted with the immoral rich and the professional revolutionary. It is a theme found in the Dirty Harry movies. Even so, The Outlaw Josey Wales came as a surprise.
Directed by Eastwood himself, Josey Wales (1976) was based on real incidents, the massacre of surrendering Confederate soldiers by Union armies at the end of the Civil War. The title of the movie is dripping irony. Wales has lost his family to Yankee raiders, as we see in staccato flashbacks used with a power and control that Eastwood has not been able to recover. Wales refuses to ride down to surrender to the Yankees, and so he witnesses the massacre that ends the surrender. He charges and rescues one friend and becomes an outlaw. Fleeing the relentless pursuers, he gathers around him a motley family of those who have suffered from the Union, including an Indian and some women who have lost their husbands and fathers. Finally he establishes a new homestead and turns to face his tormenters. Directed with restraint and considerable humor, Josey Wales is now recognized as one of Eastwood’s best movies, but he has been forgiven for it just as little as for Dirty Harry. There is no clearer statement that in America, ordinary people can create a community without giving in to history’s victors.
The picture of a true community that survives and prospers while at odds with the official successful society is found again in Bronco Billy (1980), Eastwood’s most successful comedy and yet one of his most serious films. Bronco Billy’s Wild West Show is Eastwood’s vision of America. In one sense, it is a weird congeries of misfits, deserters, and losers. Bronco Billy, however, gives to these people the chance to create the world they need to live in. In fact, none of the members of the show is authentic. Not even the Indian is a real Indian. They are all fakes. They have, however, created their own personas, and in the final scenes, the Show performs in a tent made up of American flags sewn by lunatics, and Eastwood tells the little pards to live up to the American ideals of law and order. The affirmation of his country and its mores manages to be splendidly absurd and deeply moving at the same time.
Fifteen years ago the Greek scholar Jean-Pierre Vernant said of Greek tragedy that it ceased to use the tragic hero as a model and treated him as a problem. The same change took place in the popular art of the 50’s and 60’s, most strikingly in John Ford’s later Westerns, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and in John Le Carre’s spy novels. The popularity of Sergio Leone’s Westerns, with their violence and superficial cynicism, can be placed in this context. Most of the products of this time are dated. Who can watch Alfie or Morgan anymore? Typical of the age were the scenes added to Patton to cut the general down to size when it became obvious that George G. Scott’s tour de force performance had made the man too heroic.
Eastwood’s contribution was to show how the new problematic hero could be rescued, could be made a model again. As in so many other ways. Dirty Harry is crucial. The early scenes of the movie consistently show Harry breaking the rules of sensitive, caring Liberal America. We are deeply into the movie before we recognize with Harry’s partner that Harry is “dirty” because he is competent and so can be used to do all the dirty jobs. Similarly in Bronco Billy we learn only slowly that the Wild West Show is a Potemkin Village for people who are not really cowboys and Indians, but shoe salesmen and deserters. It is nearly the end before we discover that creation of a new world by people fleeing from a failed old world is the definition of America.
Pale Rider (1985) is a typically misunderstood Eastwood masterpiece. Eastwood has often borrowed key scenes from important earlier movies, but he had never attempted a complete mimesis of an earlier movie. Here he takes Shane and refilms it with an Eastwood avenger in the lead. Unlike High Plains Drifter (1973), where a corrupt community is destroyed by the avenger, here the hero’s revenge saves a community of miners, who face destruction at the hands of a corrupt rich man who is practicing strip-mining.
Eastwood’s admiration for Shane is easy to understand. Alan Ladd is a man without family who saves not only a community but also a family in the face of temptations to use violence and to steal another man’s wife. That the family and the community are saved by a man who has been stripped of both is a constant Eastwood theme. Dirty Harry’s wife was killed in a meaningless accident with a drunken driver. Josey Wales’s family was destroyed by Union raiders. Bronco Billy shot his wife when he caught her in bed with his best friend. (“What did you do to him?” asks Sondra Locke. “Nothing,” Billy replies. “He was my best friend.”)
It is here that the motifs of epic unite with the generic conventions of the Western. Eastwood’s heroes are Vergilian. Like Aeneas they have been stripped of family and city so that they may lead others to a new home and a new community. It is no wonder that Josey Wales and Bronco Billy, where these motifs are clearest, are also Eastwood’s most successful films artistically. (Naturally this is not meant to detract from the brilliance of 1988’s Bird, easily the best directed film of the year, pace Hollywood’s criminal indifference.)
These themes unite most perfectly in the final scene of Dirty Harry. Eastwood confronts an enemy whose madness, furor, will destroy society unless he is stopped, as Aeneas confronts Turnus at the end of the Aeneid. Harry has stopped Andy Robinson, the Scorpio Killer, from hurting the children in a school bus he hijacked, as Aeneas was not able to stop Turnus from killing young Pallas. Although Turnus pleads for mercy, Aeneas knows that it is too late. Harry instead gives the Scorpio Killer a chance. The Aeneid ends with the death of Turnus. Not so Dirty Harry. After disposing of the Scorpio Killer, Harry takes out his badge and throws it away, then slowly walks back as the camera sweeps upward to show us the hustle and bustle of the society that Harry will no longer risk his life for.
The discarding of the badge and the leaving of the spineless society is a direct mimesis of the end of High Noon. At some stage the hero will turn away from weakness and corruption and devote himself to creating his own community. That community may contain elements of the absurd, as in Josey Wales and Bronco Billy. The absurdity, however, adds piquancy to man’s stumbling search for honesty and honor. The hero can no longer take refuge in his situation as a problem. He must recover the harder and admittedly somewhat absurd task of becoming again a model for healthy and honest people.
The dream of the West involves a frightened town, terrorized by corruption and a guilty secret. That dream also contains the promise of the frontier. It is a frontier in the human mind and will, accessible to everyone with the courage and the honesty to move out of corruption and weakness. Honesty and courage, leading to creativity, are their own reward. They give meaning to an individual and to a nation. No Academy Award can add to their importance.
In Eastwood’s films, the American hero has ceased to be a problem and has become a model. The Man With No Name is free to choose a name, Bronco Billy or Josey Wales, and so are we.