CLINT EASTWOOD: THE WESTERNS

It’s Clint Eastwood’s birthday — I happen to think he’s pretty awesome no matter what genre he works in, and he just gets better with age. But westerns were his foundation and I’ve happened to jot down some thoughts about his work in that field, so that’s what today’s post is about. Warning: we always include spoilers.

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Rawhide (1959-1966)

I was too young to have watched this tv series during its initial run, but folks older than me will always have Eastwood’s role on Rawhide as their primary association. The premise for the show was a cattle drive, with an ensemble cast of diverse cowboys driving the drama. Eastwood, a baby of 29 when the show started, quickly became a star of the show as the impetuous, hot-headed young Rowdy Yates. This is the image he would tweak, subvert and build on for the rest of his career.

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A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

Italian director Sergio Leone based this founding spaghetti western on Kurasawa’s Yojimbo. Clint, as The Man with No Name, wearing a poncho and with a cigar clenched in his teeth, wanders into a desolate town where he somehow decides there’s money to be made. There are two rival gangs, the Baxters and the Rojas. Clint, a supernaturally good shot (he kills everyone he shoots at in one shot and no even gets a chance to shoot back) goes to work for both gangs. In the end he kills everyone from both gangs (which amounts to the entire town) and takes home twice the money. But he’s a little better morally than the gang — at a certain point, he helps a young couple and their child escape. The film is less a story that one follows and more like a collection of memorable scenes and images. Such as Clint making a bunch of guys apologize for insulting his mule, then killing all four of them in about a second. “Make that four coffins,” he says to the coffin maker. Clint accidentally punching a woman in the face. Clint propping up two dead bodies in the graveyard to stand in for a couple of soldiers. A bunch of U.S. soldiers stopping Mexican cavalry that is transporting a coach full of gold; they turn out to be Rojas’ gang. Rojas’ gang setting a house on fire and then shooting everyone who runs out, including the matriarch, laughing all the while. Clint, all of his bones broken, killing two pursuers by crushing them with a wine barrel, and then crawling across town on his belly to safety. Appearing like a magician in the end through a haze of dynamite smoke and then spooking his enemies by seeming impervious to bullets (he has sheet metal under his poncho). And it’s all for A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS.

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For a Few Dollars More (1965)

This sequel to A Fistful of Dollars has Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef as rival bounty hunters, after a crook named Indio, a guy so evil his wanted poster depicts him laughing. Van Cleef, known as The Colonel, smokes a pipe, and uses a strange gun, a pistol that is adaptable into a rifle. He’s also the kind of guy who pulls the emergency brake to make an unscheduled stop on the train and then terrorizes the conductor when he dares to complain. The bounty hunters decide to team up  after a contest in which they shoot each others’ hats.  One of them must go undercover with the gang as they prepare to rob the bank in El Paso. Indio once killed his friend then raped his friend’s girlfriend (who shot herself while he was doing it). Maybe that’s why he keeps smoking grass to calm down but it only makes him more insane. He plays music in a little watch whenever he fights a duel. The film climaxes with a three-way duel. Of course Indio loses. It turns out the girl he had raped was The Colonel’s sister. This explains why the Colonel turns down the bounty in the end. The Colonel only wanted revenge. Whereas Clint wanted A FEW DOLLARS MORE.

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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)

Leone’s third and last film in the Eastwood trilogy. When I first saw it I was alternately bored and scornfully amused by it. Now I think it’s amazing, though merely stylistically. Its cleverness is all directed at aesthetic elements. It doesn’t analyze or critique the human condition or America’s role in history or anything like that. I think the influence of many Italian film-makers on westerns has been in the main deleterious in this respect. Their storytelling makes no judgment between good or bad behavior. Revenge and vendetta are represented as legitimate human pursuits. We are occasionally invited to laugh at the pain and distress of others. It is a cruel universe. Yet many of the details and plot twists remind me of fairy tales: extremely fanciful, almost magical. At any rate, to the film at hand:

The film’s most indelible element is its justly celebrated soundtrack (Ennio Morricone), and the stylish way we are introduced to Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach as the titular characters. Essentially it’s the same story as It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World! The title characters are in mad pursuit of a cache of gold they didn’t even steal themselves (although these guys are plenty crooked already). Their paths keep crossing, the alliances keep shifting. Starts in New Mexico during the Civil War.  “Angel Eyes” (Van Cleef) learns about the gold when hired by one of the robbers to track down one of the others. He kills a guy who knows the name his quarry is traveling under (and his son) and the man who hired him. “When I have a job, I always follow through”.  Meanwhile, enter “Blondie” (Eastwood) and “Tuco” i.e., The Rat” (Wallach in Mexican mode). Tuco is a shifty eyed weasel, the cousin of Wallach’s character in The Magnificent Seven. These  two are partners. Blondie brings Tuco into the authorities for the price on his head, and then shoots the rope when they are about to hang him (shooting everybody’s hats off in the bargain). When Wallach annoys him one too many times, Eastwood takes all the money and leaves him in the desert.

Wallach makes it back to town, washes his face, and goes directly to the gun store, where he gets a gun, whiskey, and a sombrero — and robs the til. Wallach catches up to Eastwood while he is “rescuing” his next partner.  Wallach walks Eastwood through the desert now with no water and no hat, until he is seriously injured by the sun. He is about to put a bullet in his head when a wagon rides up. Everyone inside (they’re all wearing Confederate uniforms) seems to be dead. However, one is alive. He turns out to be the missing robber from the gold heist. He manages to give part of the location to Wallach, who then goes to get him some water and meanwhile he gives the rest of the clue to Eastwood. Then he expires. The two men are now bound together whether they want to be or not. Wallach brings Eastwood to recuperate at a hospital run by his brother, a priest. (They’re wearing confederate uniforms; they’ve disguised themselves as the dead soldiers, since they are actually wanted criminals). They’re then caught by Union soldiers, whom they mistook for Confederates, since they’re covered head to toe in grey dust. That’s one fairy tale twist. Another is that a major figure at the prison camp is Angel Eyes, who tortures Wallach for information, while Confederate prisoners play sweet music to cover the sound. Angel Eyes brings Blondie with him to get the gold. Meanwhile Wallach leaps off a prison train, handcuffed to a guard, knifing him on the way. Unable to get out of the handcuffs, he lays the chain across the railroad track, and waits for next train, which frees him. He catches up with the other two in a fantastic, dreamlike village that has been destroyed by cannon. Someone tries to kill Wallach while he takes a bath. He shoots from under the suds, saying one of my favorite lines: “If you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.” Wallach and Blondie team up, shoot several of Angel Eyes’ men, but Angel Eyes escapes.

Their next episode is a digression, perhaps it is only there to bring the characters’ redemption. They encounter a Union battalion that is at a stalemate with their Confederate counterparts. They fight and lose men every day over a bridge they are not allowed to destroy. The two men blow up the bridge. Finally they make it to the graveyard. Wallach, through trickery, gets there first. The other two show up. there is a three way shootout. Angel Eyes dies of course. Eastwood shoots him, having emptied Wallach’s gun earlier. Wallach digs uo the gold. Eastwood makes him put his head in a noose, standing on a very shaky headstone. He then rides away, waiting until the last possible second to shoot the rope.

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Hang ‘em High (1968)

I think of this movie as The Ox-Bow Incident squared. It’s supposed to be Oklahoma, 1889, but it really takes place in some weird parallel universe that might be called “Hanging Land”. All anyone has anything to do with in this world involves stringin’ ‘em up. An unjust and botched hanging of Eastwood (definitely based on the one in The Oxbow Incident) launches the story. Then Eastwood goes to work for a hangin’ judge (Pat Hingle), to bring back all them guys who almost hung Eastwood so they can hang ‘em! Meanwhile, the judge does a whole bunch of other hangings, and the whole town gathers in the town square to watch this enormous gallows that dominates the entire town in a manner that seems to echo the guillotine in Paris. (The prisoners are also kept in a huge dungeon that evokes the Bastille). Though American, the film has a strong flavor of spaghetti westerns, including the stylized hyper violence; lengthy shots where nothing in particular is happening, and a cool soundtrack. Other side benefits: Alan Hale Jr is one of the bad guys (exceedingly surreal and weird to see Skipper in this context) as are Bruce Dern and Ed Begley, Sr. who are right in their element.

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Coogan’s Bluff (1968)

Just want to give this one honorable mention though its has a contemporary setting. It was an INGENIOUS vehicle for Eastwood, a perfect segue for him from playing cowboys to getting to branch out into detective roles. In the film he plays an Arizona cop who has an assignment to track a man down in New York City. Much culture clash between his western cowboy ways and a modern metropolis. Dirty Harry and its sequels would never have been possible without Coogan’s Bluff. It also became the basis of the tv show McCloud. 

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Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)

Clint rides in over credits, oblivious to harbingers of danger: a cougar, a sidewinder, a skeleton, a tarantula. He plays his “Man with No Name” in this movie — only this time he has a name: “Hogan”. Hogan encounters three guys in the Mexican desert raping a nun (Shirley MacLaine). He dispatches them all handily.

Hogan proves to be a gentleman with Sister Sara, but only just so far: he makes her bury the guys who were raping her, for example. He prefers that they go their separate ways, but it turns out that she is being pursued by imperial French cavalry. Hogan has a heart, and decides to help evade this band. Then he hatches a plan to take a garrison on Bastille Day with the Mexican revolutionaries she supports and which he sometimes does business with. She knows the layout, and claims to have taught the soldiers Spanish. Bit by bit though we get hints that she is either more (or less) than the nun she claims to be. The film is very well plotted but slow paced, exploring the chemistry/antagonism/growing together of the two characters.

En route, Hogan gets shot by a Yaqui Indian arrow. Sara has to remove it while he gets drunk. Then they blow up a train bridge, in a spectacular but brief shot.  When they get to the town, it turns out that “Sister Sara” is not a nun, but a whore. But there is no time to fight about it. They and the Mexican band invade the French fort and are victorious. Hogan goes back to where Sara is taking a bath — a hint of the final resolution of all this romantic tension. An epilogue has them back in the dessert, Hogan this time carrying all kinds of wedding presents, and “Sister Sara” seriously tarted up. The moral of the story? When in doubt, Shirley MacLaine is always secretly a prostitute.

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Joe Kidd (1972) 

Well made, finely focused story with a screenplay by Elmore Leonard, directed by John Sturges. Clint Eastwood plays the title character, the town ne’er-do-well who is nevertheless a man of exceptional abilities. It’s Southern New Mexico, 1902. A group of Mexicans led by John Saxon, are having an insurrection, wanting to take their land back, and wreaking violence through the countryside. The land baron who is holding most of that land (Robert  Duvall) comes into town to hire Kidd, who turns out to be an expert tracker who used to work for the army in Apache country. Kidd refuses at first; he instinctively dislikes Duvall and his men. But he changes his mind when he discovers the Mexicans have killed one of his ranch hands. (He’s a ne’er-do-well who happens to have a ranch, albeit a small one). Kidd rides with the bad guys and quickly learns that they are TOO bad. They have a habit of exterminating everyone. When they get to a small village they threaten to kill five people every day until the insurrectionists give themselves up. They lock Kidd up as well; he’s obviously not with them. Kidd dispatches several of the bad men in quiet, clever ways: an open trapped door, a swinging jug on a rope. He shoots a bunch of them when they try to kill some citizens. Then he goes into the hills and persuades the Mexican leader he needs to give himself up to the law. When they ride back to their town though, Duvall and his men are waiting for him. Kidd actually drives a locomotive into the saloon to take care of a bunch of them. And he shoots Duvall from the judge’s chair in the courthouse!

 

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High Plains Drifter (1973)

Eastwood directs and stars. Much spaghetti influence lingers. The first 10-15 minutes of the film are absolutely delicious. His Unnamed Man rides into a seaside town. Sits at the bar, a gang of guys starts being mean to him for no reason. Gritting his teeth, he saunters across the street to the barber shop for a shave. The guys come over to harass him. Then he shoots them all with a gun hidden under his bib. Next we get to the meat of the story. This is an entire town full of reprehensible people. Yet they urge him to protect them from three recently released criminals. The backstory is this: years ago, these guys bullwhipped the town marshall to death while the whole town watched. Then the town captured the three guys while they were asleep and turned them in. Eastwood accepts the job on the condition he can have whatever he wants. He proceeds to turn the whole town upside down, including making a midget the sheriff and mayor and depleting all the stores of their wares. There is some grumbling. In the end, he kills a couple of townsfolk who tried to kill him. Then he sits back and lets the three guys kill half the town before he steps in and kills the the three bad guys off. (Incidentally he has instructed the townspeople to literally paint the town red and hang signs that say “Hell” and “Welcome home, boys” In the end we are left with a strong impression that Eastwood is the resurrected spirit of the murdered marshall. (He is a problematic hero at best, having raped a woman a couple of times in the film. That ain’t too cool).

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The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

Another self-directed Eastwood western. It is well-made after a fashion, but doesn’t do much for me. It doesn’t have much heart or thought behind it. Well, that’s ungenerous. It DOES have heart and thought behind it (as evidenced by Eastwood’s commentary on the film). But it doesn’t succeed and we don’t go away feeling or thinking anything, that’s my point. The film I think points the way to the action films of the 80s — just a bunch of violence and vengeance. There is an attempt to tack on a moral about the futility of war, but I don’t buy it. (Interesting to me that people tried to talk Eastwood out of doing a western at this time. They weren’t “being done anymore”. Because the film has little to do with the westerns of the past; it’s just an action film set in the west. In a way, you can think of The Shootist, released the same year, as the “last western”, and this film pointing the way toward the future).

This film is set before, during and after Civil War. Eastwood as Josey Wales is a simple Missouri farmer. His family is massacred by Kansas Redlegs. So he joins up with Quantrille and Anderson. This is already problematic — these characters were as bad or worse than the Kansans in these skirmishes. Most of the gang is rubbed out in a cold-blooded ambush by Federal troops after the war. Eastwood keeps on as a fugitive, pursued endlessly by these same Union troops (don’t they have anything better to do?) and bounty hunters (all of whom of course Eastwood dispatches effortlessly with bullets). First, his companion is Sam Bottoms as a young former compadre, but he gets shot and dies. Then he acquires an ever-growing crew of stragglers who need his help as he heads toward Mexico. Here’s where we see a little glimmer of “heart”. First a “civilized” Cherokee (Chief Dan George), his dog, and a squaw. Then an old lady and crazy young girl (Sondra Locke) from Kansas, then a gang of nice people left in a ghost town saloon in Texas. They go to the ranch the Kansans have inherited and band together as a new family. Wales has nightmares and misgivings about the massacre of his last family so is reluctant to stay. Then he goes and makes friends with a nearby Indian chief who seems about to give them trouble. And he offs (with the help of his new family) other guys who have been looking for him. In the end, we’re not sure if he goes back to the ranch or into the sunset (or will die — he’s been shot in the stomach).

Best parts of the film: Clint actually has to do some acting when he buries his family in an early scene, and he does a fine job of it. Also: the film’s recurring gag is that he spits tobacco juice on everything and everybody: dogs, scorpions, an elixir salesmen, and the corpses of those he has killed.

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 Bronco Billy (1980)

Another honorable mention. Not a western, but a terrific meditation on the show biz cowboy and the place of the image in 1980. sweetly anachronistic — seemingly intentionally so. As such it’s a better film than Robert Redford’s The Electric Horseman or even Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians,  I think. Clint Eastwood as the boss of a struggling wild west show. Sondra Locke is a society lady who gets stuck traveling with the show (very Taming of the Shrew like). Also includes Scatman Crothers, Sam Bottoms and — for symbolic freight — John Ford perennial Hank Worden. 

 

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Pale Rider (1985)

Riding high after a comeback brought about by Sudden Impact and Tightrope, Eastwood returned to the genre that made him big and that he had abandoned nine years earlier. (Prior to this comeback he was in a low state, known primarily as the star of the Every Which Way But Loose movies, at least to us young folks). The movie is very effective but somewhat artificial, referencing several classic westerns, not just Eastwood’s Leone pictures, but Shane, Hang em High and others. In fact, it cleaves so closely to Shane that it is occasionally annoying, as though the screenwriters had simply taken a copy of the script for Shane and paraphrased it. Instead of farmers, it’s miners in the California mountains. Instead of a married couple, it’s a couple who are not yet married. Instead of a little boy, it’s an adolescent girl. Instead of a stump, it’s a big rock. Instead of Jack Palance, its seven identical guys. (and also Richard Kiel, James Bond’s “Jaws” as a giant henchman.) (As in Once Upon a Time in the West, the bad guys all wear identical dusters).

The title comes from the Bible: “his name was death”. Eastwood is an unnamed preacher who rides into town and starts helping a group of small pan miners fighting a big mining operation which has been terrorizing them to get them out. Eastwood’s character may be some sort of angel or ghost — he has six or seven bullet hole scars in his back. (Recalls his rope scar in Hang em High. He’s “back from the dead”) Certain of the enhancements work. Making the kid an adolescent girl works very well — deepens the relationship, an interesting twist. On the other hand, the moral high ground is sort of lost by having them be miners. This is most transparently obvious when Michael Moriarity gives the motivating speech that persuades everyone to stay and fight. The idea that even a small pan miner is not motivated by greed is preposterous. Why not sell shoes? The object of gold prospecting is to strike it rich. Period.

Some really funny catchphrase lines: “you boys shouldn’t play with matches”, “nothin’ like a good piece of hickory”. I saw the movie at the cinema when it came out and these lines made us roar with laughter.

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Unforgiven (1992)

One of the best westerns ever, bar none. A brilliant, brilliant screenplay (David Webb Peoples), brilliantly acted and directed. It’s set in Big Whiskey Wyoming in 1880. A couple of cowhands are in trouble for drunkenly cutting up a prostitute. (actually one has done the damage; the other one actually stops him and is unjustly persecuted throughout the rest of the movie, just one of the details that help build tension and complexity in this expert screenplay). The sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman) shows up. First he is going to bullwhip the men but then decides not to, just fining them several horses each. (Another great touch. He is normally violent and cruel and uncompromising in his application of the law as we later learn, but his one act of leniency here leads to all sorts of terrible consequences). The prostitutes (really just the head prostitute, who has some unexplained bee in her bonnet that even the victim doesn’t share) are pissed off and pool their money together to hire gunmen to kill the perpetrators. Word gets around.

Two factions, if you will, answer the call. The script has awesome contrast and parallelism, a geometry that reminds me of King Lear. On the one hand, we get English Bob (Richard Harris), a notorious gunfighter, who brings along his biographer, a sort of Ned Buntline character. On the other hand, we have Will Munny (Eastwood), Ned (Morgan Freeman) and the Scofield Kid, who recruits them — he wants to make a name for himelf. Unlike the boastful, stylish English Bob, Munny and Ned are farmers (when we first see Eastwood he is literally wallowing in pig shit). He is a widower who thinks about the wife who reformed him all the time, and has two kids, whom he has raised well. He has put his past behind him. And neither Munny nor Ned both don’t like to talk about their violent pasts. The only reason they are coming out of retirement is to get some money for the kids, and because the crime against the prostitute sounds so dastardly. (Bad as it is, the Kid makes it sound worse). The opposite to the biographer is the Scofield Kid, who is also steeped in the legends. He acts tough and boastful, and seems to have killed some people (the opposite of the cowardly biographer). But there is also a relationship between Little Bill and Will Munny. They both have the same name. We see Little Bill doing carpentry, which makes us think of Munny’s own private life. Both seem nice and decent, but when riled, become savage, killing monsters. Little Bill beats the shit out of English Bob (then runs him out of town, a whimpering crybaby), and literally beats Ned to death. Eastwood becomes almost a soulless monster at the end — what we think of a serial killer. (All the more chilling to think he simply returns to his family and domestic life at the end. But isn’t this what all soldiers do when they come back from war?). Just so much food for thought in this movie. I don’t blame Clint for not making a western after this one. Where do you go after perfection?

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