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Clint Eastwood – "Scraps of Hope"
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Clint EastwoodThe following piece was originally published in the September/October 1992 Film Comment under the title "Scraps of Hope." I don’t find much to add to it, particularly (and obviously) since Clint Eastwood hasn’t made a Western since Unforgiven and the piece occupies itself exclusively with that form. That’s not to say he’s been finished making great films. A Perfect World and The Bridges of Madison County, especially, were major films by any measure. And True Crime does have an aromatic resemblance to El Dorado.

     First as an actor, then as an actor-producer and actor-director, Clint Eastwood has helped extend and re-imagine the Western with startling persistence and consistency throughout his career. His gunfighter heroes are distinct from the detectives who comprise the other key facet of his iconography. "Dirty Harry" Callahan and his ilk belong to institutions that no longer live up to their responsibilities; they are perpetually at war, trying to figure out how far one can go in fulfilling one’s responsibilities without betraying them in the process. Eastwood’s gunmen – in his work as an actor-director, at least – enjoy no such organized backing. His Westerners are loners, outcasts, and outlaws who have to forge some coherent ethical code in a world dominated by hypocritical adherence to money, power, and force, and defined by an implacable landscape. Unforgiven is the harsh, brilliant, culmination, indeed consummation, of themes, motifs, characterizations, and critical attitudes that have evolved in Clint Eastwood’s Westerns for more than 30 years.

     In the mid Fifties, Eastwood had been slowly and unspectacularly working his way toward featured player status in a handful of films (including three Westerns: The First Traveling Saleslady, Star in the Dust, Ambush at Cimarron Pass) and had made guest appearances on TV's Wagon Train and Maverick. His first career breakthrough came with his casting as Rowdy Yates, the second lead on CBS-TV's Rawhide series. Though his stint on Rawhide ran seven years, from January 1959 to January 1966, it has been treated as a career footnote – merely the means of giving him enough visibility to attract the attention of Sergio Leone after the Italian director had failed to land bigger names for A Fistful of Dollars. Yet the very fact that Eastwood achieved his lasting fame with ferocious subversions of Western conventions lends a special significance to the seven years he spent playing by the rules.

     Besides, Western stars have always tended to establish their physical images early in their careers and hew to them forever after, as physical reflections of moral character. It was in Rawhide that Eastwood adopted the flat-crowned, wide-brimmed hat that would remain his trademark. Although he claims to have chosen that particular style for the disappointingly mundane reason that he needed something to shade his sun-sensitive eyes, the hat had an immediate and sustained impact on his screen character as well. The brim didn't just protect Eastwood's eyes from the sun, it hid them from the audience. Rowdy Yates, young and affable and even somewhat naive, became, as a result, also something of an unknown quantity, guarded in his glances and in his attitude.

     Eastwood explains that the idea behind Rawhide was to make a television series out of Red River, with the cattle drives from Texas to Abilene providing the structural spine for each week's episode. Moreover, just as Eric Fleming's trail boss Gil Favor was a kind of paterfamilias like Red River's Thomas Dunson, Rowdy Yates's semi-rebellious ramrod echoed Matthew Garth, Dunson's adopted son – or, perhaps more to the point, Cherry Valance, the young gunfighter who became Garth's friend and somewhat sinister double.

     Like Garth and Valance, Rowdy is proud of his quick draw; like Valance specifically, he has a temper as quick as his hand, and carries a strong air of menace. And whereas Matthew Garth had, through his adopted father's patrimony, a vested interest in the cattle he herded to market and in the land where they were bred, Yates, like Valance, is a hired hand without ties to the land.

     That transitory relationship with the land was emphasized not only by the series's ongoing cattle drives – essentially and existentially, one long drive that lasted seven years – but also through Rawhide's use of extensive location shooting. The show had its full share of soundstage scenes, but unlike such series as The Rifleman or Gunsmoke, which took place in single towns with solitary main streets and barrooms, or even Wanted Dead or Alive and The Rebel, which moved from saloon to saloon, Rawhide had no choice but to film in the wide open spaces. Not even Wagon Train got as much use out of the Western landscape.

     We shouldn't, of course, get too carried away with Rawhide's expressive possibilities. Television series of the time suffered from severe limitations, including strictures on length, production values, and violence and sex. Regular characters were deliberately purged of dark, troubling emotions, and characterizations were set in stone; seven years of trail travails could not be allowed to alter anyone too much, lest the viewing audience's comfort zone be punctured. Yet by the time Eastwood made A Fistful of Dollars, his character type, if not his character, had been chosen: a hired man, basically a free lance, tied to the broad expanse of the West rather than any particular farm or town, and relying on his own skills – including gunmanship – to survive.

     Neither the spaghetti Western nor Leone's own peculiar spin on it requires further general analysis here. However, it's worth noting the specific ways Eastwood was affected by the films and also those particular contributions he made to them. Leone scuffed up the actor's looks and, by extension, his personality. Eastwood's now grimy, bestubbled face, with cheroot smoke curling up under an even broader-brimmed hat, suggested an acquaintance with all the darker experiences of the frontier. Leone also replaced the gunslinger's hair-trigger temper with a more Italian sense of vengeance carefully stewed in plotting and conspiracy. In the opening of A Fistful of Dollars (produced during a hiatus from Rawhide in 1964, but not released in the States till early '67), the Man With No Name spies a helpless Mexican family being brutalized by gunmen; he just watches silently before riding on into town. It's not a lack of interest he's displaying, but the long view of the vendetta. His actions in provoking the calamitous battles between the town gangs contending for supremacy, despite being rooted in the Japanese Yojimbo, have a fine Renaissance malice. This notion of long, ongoing feuds with deadly, unforeseeable consequences would haunt the Westerns Eastwood went on to direct.

     Eastwood would pick up another, less obvious but equally Latin thread from Leone. By giving the Man a mule rather than a horse, and by dressing him in a humble scrape, Leone was deliberately investing the dominant image of a cowpoke fashion-plate on horseback with a correspondingly diminished image of Christ on a donkey, specifically Christ entering Jerusalem the week of his crucifixion. This is the first, though hardly; last, time Eastwood would play a gunfighter as someone who, one way or another, assumes the sins of others around him.

     Leone did hot pursue this configuration consistently. Its boldest depiction occurs in Fistful when the Man straightforwardly avenges the little family and spares them the need to sin through either murder or despair. In For a Few Dollars More (Italy '65, U.S. '67) the connection is treated cynically: The Man, in pursuit of bounty money, relieves Colonel Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) of the need to kill each and every member of the gang riding with their quarry El Indio (Gian Maria Volonte), thus weirdly purifying the older man's quest (Mortimer is motivated more by revenge for his sister's rape and death than by bounty). Yet it is in the even more cynical The Good, The Bad & The Ugly ('66/'67) that the theme of assuming burden resurfaces most strikingly, when Blondy (Eastwood) and Tuco (Eli Wallach) take time out from their obsessive pursuit of gold to blow up a bridge and thus bring a meaningless but deadly Civil War battle to an end.

     The depiction of gunfighter as savior was hardly new with Leone. He wasn't even the first to deal with it explicitly. However, where before – say, in George Stevens's Shane – religious imagery had been submerged, consciously or unconsciously, Leone pulled it back out in order to deal with it critically.

     When he first signed him up, Leone was probably drawn to Eastwood as a type. But the actor turned out to be a unique, contributory presence, as decisive to the Dollars trilogy as James Stewart was to his series with Anthony Mann. On Fistful, Eastwood persuaded Leone to drop a flashback explanation of why the Man went to all his vengeful trouble, and, further, to limit all reference to his earlier life to two vague, almost offhand remarks. In general, Eastwood made the Man With No Name a Man of Few Words because, as Eastwood says now, he knew the audience would recognize the character well enough to imagine his past and possible motives. The laconic style also served to add a more authentic Western presence to films packed with bellowing, wildly gesticulating Europeans.

     Also, the distinctive, almost macabre sense of humor Eastwood brought to his portrayal had a growing effect on the trilogy. What started off in Fistful as a casual order for "three coffins" (later corrected: "My mistake; four coffins") had graduated, in The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, to an ironic "Poor Shorty" in the scene when Tuco prevents Blondy from rescuing a partner from the hangman's noose. This deliberately unsettling humor quickly became a hallmark of (most) Eastwood performances, accomplished with expressions as whittled-down as a suspicious shift of the eyes. Aside from leavening the homicidal atmosphere, they increased critical distance, offering a running commentary on the notion of audience identification. Eastwood's attitude drew viewers into an intimate sense of complicity, most effectively in The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, in which his character, despite being the most sympathetic and on such close terms with the audience, is at best amoral and very nearly as criminal as his rivals Tuco and Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef).

     Eastwood turned down a role in Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West because, he says, he wanted to try something new. His characters threatened to become theoretical abstracts if he stayed in Italy, so he returned to the States and made Hang 'Em High ('68) with an old friend from Rawhide days, Ted Post (an underrated director who would also do Magnum Force with Eastwood). The movie is a transitional work, a hybrid integrating elements of the spaghetti Western into a more traditional Western story and setting while sticking with what were emerging as Eastwood's own preoccupations.

     This time Eastwood's character has a name, Jed Cooper, and a concrete motivation for his gunplay. A rancher, Cooper is lynched by another rancher (Ed Begley) and his hands, who wrongly suspect him of murder and rustling. Saved by a passing marshal (Ben Johnson), Cooper becomes deputy to a hanging judge (Pat Hingle) chiefly in order to seek personal vengeance. The film contrasts Cooper's quest with the judge's fanatical dedication to legal executions, and also to that of a local woman, Rachel (Inger Stevens), who checks out every new batch of prisoners, looking for the men who raped her. The spaghetti sauce is largely decorative and anecdotal: the marshal who saves Cooper drives a cage-on-wheels through the sagebrush, picking up miscreants along the way; and an execution in a crowded town square – in which six men are hanged simultaneously, and at least two dubiously – poses a Leone-like question about what we like to watch when we watch Westerns.

     Much of the film's pleasure derives from a tension between the screenplay and its enactment. The script, by producer Leonard Freeman and Mel Goldberg, is in the liberal Hollywood tradition, taking a contemporary social problem – here, capital punishment – and recasting it in the Manichean terms of the genre. But Eastwood's overwhelming similarity to Leone is a penchant for smudging what are supposed to be clear moral differences. While Cooper does come to understand the futility of revenge (and helps Rachel reach the same understanding), he certainly enjoys wreaking it in the meantime. He finally achieves a moral advantage over the judge not because he, Cooper, is any less bloodthirsty, but because unlike the judge he is willing to face the dark side of his own soul.

     If Eastwood's humor was missing from this portrayal, the semi-Western Coogan's Bluff ('68), the first of five films he would make with Don Siegel, is a different matter. The film is another hybrid – of genres – in which a modern-day Arizona deputy sheriff has to go to New York to pick up a prisoner for transport back home. Big-city bureaucracy and lifestyles, which the prisoner Ringerman (Don Stroud) and his girlfriend (Tisha Sterling) use like ground cover, frustrate Coogan and underline how the world has grown hostile to the time-honored gunfighter's code. That frustration also makes for a welcome resurgence of Eastwood's comic exasperation.

     Coogan's Bluff provided a clever avenue for Eastwood's eventual entry into detective thrillers (Dirty Harry would come out in '71). But it also furthered the actor's tendency to appear in films that investigated, rather than merely evoked, the Western gunfighter. Director Siegel largely saw the issue as a matter of individual control over space. Coogan's Bluff opens with the deputy tracking a fugitive Indian hidden on a steep, rocky rise overlooking a desert floor. Shooting from various vantages on the hillside, Siegel tracks Coogan's jeep as it closes in from the low distance, makes some diversionary maneuvers, then abruptly comes to a stop, empty. After firing off a few wild shots, the fugitive discovers that Coogan has scaled the hill unnoticed and got the drop on him. Siegel switches between zooming and panning to present a huge empty space dominated by the lone deputy.

     Once in New York, however, Coogan finds himself in another large space, the inside of a huge, jam-packed discotheque (unfortunately, though typically for Universal at the time, named "The Pigeon-Toed Orange Peel"). This time, with Siegel's lens emphasizing human densities, Coogan can barely move. It's only at the climax, in the park area around The Cloisters, that the lawman once again finds himself in a habitat suitable for hunting.

     Around the same time Coogan's Bluff came out, Sam Peckinpah was achieving his great popular and critical success with The Wild Bunch. Nowadays, when the release of even a single Western is a major cultural event, it's hard to remember a time when there could be two revisionist schools contending in the genre. Peckinpah's films, which initially commanded much more middlebrow reverence than the Leones, provide a useful contrast to Eastwood's.

     The struggle in Peckinpah's films is epochal and external, and focuses on the old men of the West resisting the approach of modernity. Eastwood's Westerners fight more intimate battles against contemporaries who for the most part share the same values, and whose hostility often mirrors an internal struggle on the hero's part. Peckinpah details the bloody business of killing, the detritus of slaughter, the long death-rattle collapsing into final silence; Eastwood increasingly finds death a sudden business, but its aftermath extended and unpredictable. Peckinpah likes to take low or routine actions—a robbery or the establishment of a way-station – and lend them grandeur by extolling the heroism of their performers. Eastwood prefers to take an archetypal figure – the gunman – and question his stature by examining either the uses to which he's put or the tasks he voluntarily undertakes. Peckinpah believed that even - hell, especially – his criminals were romantic because of their insistent individualism; Eastwood finds his loners forlorn or susceptible to self-delusion because they are socially isolated. In Peckinpah's films, facility with weapons is an indication of a knight's station; in Eastwood's, handiness with a gun carries no moral suggestion whatever. Peckinpah's is the cinema of slow-motion, the climactic moment teased out; Eastwood's is the cinema of successive long takes, consequence piling upon consequence. Peckinpah seeks romance, even if it's fleeting. Eastwood finds scraps of hope amid disillusionment.

     That said, Eastwood worked his way through a pair of Western oddities before his Western acting-directing debut (his second directing effort, after 1971's Play Misty for Me). First came Two Mules for Sister Sara ('70), made, as nearly all his other films would be, under his own Malpaso banner and directed by Don Siegel from a screenplay by Albert Maltz based on a story by Budd Boetticher. A genuinely entertaining action comedy, the film is propelled by a series of comic reversals that start when an explosives expert, Hogan (Eastwood), while crossing the desert on his way to do a job for Mexican revolutionaries, saves a nun (Shirley MacLaine) from a trio of would-be rapists. Although the obviously weaker and more dependent of the two, Sister Sara, herself a Juarista, has soon manipulated Hogan into doing her bidding. Only when Hogan becomes wounded and helpless does he manage to get the nun to do what he wants. The passive-aggressive game continues cross-country until they reach the target French garrison of Chihuahua, where each suddenly reveals the truth to the other: she's a whore, he's turned on by her. The emotional fireworks are matched by the explosive destruction of the French fort.

     Two Mules is a deliberately light work, vaguely reminiscent of Siegel's playful 1947 The Big Steal. Eastwood's hired gun (or dynamite stick, in this case) is still isolated, and the dead continue to present their killers with problems (after Sister Sara's attackers are shot down, she and Hogan find their newborn solidarity strained by an argument over what to do with the bodies), but for once everyone ends up happy (except the French).

     Joe Kidd (72), on the other hand, was and is a plain disappointment. Director John Sturges and writer Elmore Leonard had a good setup, but their story quickly peters out; Eastwood says they started shooting without a written ending, and it shows. The film gets underway with a situation Leonard has mined richly on several occasions: a specialist in a particular skill joins up with dubious acquaintances to pull a caper, only to realize he's in with some bad people and has to find some way to extricate himself. The specialist here is Joe Kidd (Eastwood), a smalltime New Mexico rancher and former gunman who seems to spend most of his time imitating a town drunk. Under the mistaken belief that Luis Chama (John Saxon), the leader of a Mexican-American peasant revolt, has bullied one of his hands, Kidd enlists with big landowner Frank Harlan (Robert Duvall) to hunt Chama down. Harlan, however, is nothing but a frontier gangster and Kidd, with the help of a beautiful Chama ally (Stella Garcia), soon finds his sympathies transferred to Chama.

     Joe Kidd's mayhem is more mechanical than wonderful. There's some spark in the verbal give-and-take between Duvall's loquacious land-pirate and the taciturn Kidd, and Don Stroud – perhaps still smarting from his beatings in Coogan's Bluff – is amusing as a confederate who wants Kidd to betray him just so he can get off a shot at him. But too often the film substitutes bromides about racial equality and land reform for real dialogue. The basic problem may lie in the fact that Sturges was used to taking what seemed like ambiguous figures (the hired guns of The Magnificent Seven, for instance) and gradually making them appear more plainly sympathetic and likable, more conventionally "good" – the direct opposite of Eastwood's characteristic approach.

     In any case, Eastwood confesses that while shooting Joe Kidd he already had in hand the script of High Plains Drifter ('73), by Ernest Tidyman, and was excited about directing it. A Western veteran by this time and an experienced production organizer, Eastwood displays a nevertheless startling stylistic maturity in his first Western feature. From the very first shot – a long, telescopic view of a high-desert floor, the air above it shimmering from the heat, in which a lone rider in the far distance suddenly appears – Eastwood is speaking his own dialect. As that shot implies, he has a regard for landscape fundamentally different from that of his two mentors. Leone fragmented his landscape and – through framing in the weird, flattening widescreen Techniscope process or through editing – reordered dimensions both human and topographical as he saw fit. Thus, a rifle barrel could loom in the foreground against a vast wilderness of vanishing perspective, or pairs of eyes a hundred yards apart could jostle against each other in hurried sequence. For Siegel, space was like an accordion, collapsing and expanding along with the threat of the moment. A large empty room could transform into a claustrophobic chamber with the abrupt appearance of an intruder.

     For Eastwood, landscapes take on a permanent, massive presence of their own and serve as counterpoint to the fluid nature of the characters who traverse them. In all his Westerns, his stellar character does not ride into the frame in traditional gunman style but emerges from within it; he doesn't dwarf the scenery, but coexists with nature. So, right from the start, his gunmen face a limitation. Though they may be larger than life to those they encounter, they are clearly subordinate to a still larger and omnipresent order.

     Not that Eastwood's character, another nameless Stranger, appears subordinate to anything, including the laws of mortality. The film is not a revenge fantasy but a fantasy built around themes of revenge, inspired by Tidy man's "what if" riff on High Noon: What if the sheriff were killed by Frank Miller and his gunmen when he was abandoned by the townspeople?

     Because the Stranger appears with such lyrical mystery out of the heat waves and then, as the action progresses, divulges only the most elliptical hints regarding his identity before melting away into the distance once again, it's been widely assumed (by yours truly, too) that he was literally an avenging angel. Such a characterization accords with the film's gothic temper and baroque climax. But Eastwood says that in fact the Stranger is just a relative of the late sheriff Jim Duncan (longtime stunt coordinator and sometime director Buddy Van Horn), whom we see bullwhipped to death in flashback. That does fit in with Eastwood's treatment of character; no matter how otherworldly or mythic they appear in conception, once Eastwood's blighted avengers get down to business they are subject to the same emotional and psychological demands as the rest of us. With one exception: they can kill with cold dispatch. And there are always plenty who will pay for the service.

     The people of Lago want to hire the Stranger to protect them from three gunmen just released from territorial prison. Themselves hired to kill Duncan, the threesome was betrayed by the trio of businessmen who control the town and who needed Duncan removed when he threatened a crooked mining deal. The Stranger agrees to train the townspeople to defend themselves and proceeds to upend the social order: raping the town floozy, replacing the sheriff with a midget (Billy Curtis, who along with the hotelier's wife Verna Bloom is one of the only two real innocents around), literally dismantling every business in town, painting its stores and barns red, and renaming the place Hell. Naturally, this doesn't faze the three released killers one bit. After letting them run riot for a day and night, the Stranger, amid blazing ruins, exacts a Jacobean revenge of his own.

     It's the merging of buildup into aftermath into buildup into aftermath, one succeeding the other in the long deadly life of vengeance, that animates the film. People go to a lot of trouble to kill. The three ex-convicts have a grueling trek to make across a sere, unforgiving wilderness to reach Lago, and they begin spreading death almost immediately. In a scene wherein the Stranger deliberately riles up the three with dynamite as they camp in a gravelly depression, Eastwood plays with space very much as Don Siegel would. For the most part, though the conquest of distance is an arduous and deliberate affair, it's an effort that measures depravity, not heroism. And when the scourging Stranger finally leaves town, we discover that the administration of true justice means nearly absolute destruction.

     The Outlaw Josey Wales features an altogether more down-to-earth character (literally: we first see him plowing a field) but, in a film based on Forrest Carter's novel Gone to Texas, there are some legendary resonances to his name and history. "Josey Wales" sounds more than a little like "Jesse James" (or "Jesus Christ," for that matter), and Wales has a background broadly similar to James's: A Missouri farmer whose wife and son are murdered by Northern raiders at the beginning of the Civil War, he searches for vengeance by joining "Bloody Bill" Andersen's Southern guerrillas in their raids on Kansas. (This all takes place before or during the credits.) At war's end, a surrender negotiated by one of Andersen's weary battlers, a man named Fletcher (John Vernon), proves to be – unbeknownst to Fletcher – a trap. Wales, who had refused to surrender, rides in in time to kill about half the duplicitous Yankees but can rescue only one young, seriously wounded compatriot (Sam Bottoms). They light out for the West, where they aim to go on fighting for the Cause. The young man dies en route, but the Northern "redlegs" – headed by the reluctant Fletcher and the officer. Captain Terrill (Bill McKinney), who led the attack on Wales's farm – stay on his trail. Like Josey, they want to keep fighting the war.

     Josey finds himself repeatedly detoured from his mission. On his way west he begins accruing companions: an elderly Cherokee (Chief Dan George) and a battered Cheyenne woman (Geraldine Keams), as well as a young white woman (Sondra Locke) and her querulous grandmother (Paula Trueman) rescued from comancheros. Finally, trying to lead the women to what they insist is an Edenic ranch owned by the old woman's late son, Wales is saddled with the last residents of a ghost town. In the countryside just beyond, the group finds the ranch, very nearly as paradisiacal as promised. There they consolidate their ad hoc family, and Wales, caught between hostile Indians to one side and the oncoming Fletcher and Terrill to the other, has to decide once and for all between peace and war.

     The Outlaw Josey Wales is Eastwood's most optimistic film, laced with humor and innocent romance. What's really startling about a movie so filled with often eloquent dialogue (screenplay by Philip Kaufman and Sonia Chernus) is how effectively it would work as a silent film. Although his chiseled features and laconic voice had branded him as a resolute underplayer, Eastwood by this point had developed an acting style that could access an impressive range of emotions. Giving his best performance to date ('76), he charted the dissolution and redemption of a simple, single-minded man, his face expressing a spectrum of feelings from despair to obsessive hate, from weary sadness to exhausted determination and, finally, to blessed relief. For every major chord there is a minor accompaniment – profound, soul-wrenching feelings mitigated by more quotidian humors and exasperations.

     Wales's internal struggles come to life in an ever-changing landscape. The director's canvas begins with consoling pines, encompasses blood-soaked killing fields, swamp and scrubland, barren desert, and ends up in a valley hideaway of trees and running water that echoes, but does not duplicate, the environs of Wales's farm at the opening.

     (Eastwood seems to have been so taken with the reintegration of this lost soul that he reassembled much of Josey Wales’s cast – Locke, McKinney, Bottoms, character actor Woodrow Parfrey – and re-imagined some of the characters – the Indians, now younger and married – in Bronco Billy ('80). This contemporary comedy depicts a ramshackle traveling Wild West show, racially integrated (Scatman Crothers plays the ringmaster) and run by a former shoe-salesman from New Jersey (Eastwood). Old antagonists are now bound together in a nostalgic evocation of the past, its deadly exchanges reduced to showbiz flourishes. The only menace comes from wealth based in New York City, the headquarters of a modernity that threatens to swamp our memories of the West.)

     When Eastwood's next Western, Pale Rider, came out ('85), it was widely dismissed as a remake of Shane. I suppose that's true enough, but only in the way that Charlie Parker's recording of "Koko" was a remake of "I Got Rhythm." You catch the similarities but it's the harmonic and rhythmic changes that really command your attention. Where George Stevens's film toyed surreptitiously with the notion of gun-fighter-as-avenger, Eastwood faces it with calm audacity, depicting his six-shooting savior as a real avenging angel, the answer to a teenage girl's prayer for deliverance, a gunman in a clergyman's collar known only as Preacher. On the other hand, where Shane romanticized the pioneers, represented by a self-contained nuclear family tilling the land, Pale Rider gives us an accidental community of gold panners made up of widows, wives, orphans, and bachelors. He even sexualizes – and thus complicates – the gunman's friendship with a kid, turning Shane's prepubescent Little Joe into an emphatically post-pubescent Megan (Sydney Penny).

     Again, the beauty of the natural landscape plays an active role, helping to differentiate the good guys from the bad guys – that is, the panners, who leave the land much the way they find it, from the industrial miners, who wreck the earth with hydraulic mining. Within the dynamics of the film, this is as forceful a mark of character as the big-timers' reliance on intimidation and murder to achieve their rapacious goals.

     Pale Rider also highlighted a continuing development in Eastwood's visual style. Without maintaining a didactic insistence on point-of-view shots, Eastwood's camera tends to adopt a position consistent with the physical logic of a scene. Hence, if Preacher is seen in a heroic high angle, it's generally because he's mounted on a horse and the camera mimics a standing person's vantage, or Preacher is on a boardwalk and the camera is on street level. At the most extreme moments, when Preacher is coming to the aid of a menaced miner, we see him from the supine position of the rescued victim.

     This practice leads to an unsettling reversal at the end, when the camera exchanges height positions between Preacher and an assassin kneeling in front of him. The scene, which brings us right into the messy side of accomplished vengeance, also emphasizes Eastwood's critical appraisal of moral relativism. A gunfighter's ascendancy extends to the height others are willing to give him or he is able to compel. Preacher towers over the tin-panners because they need his lethal talent; he dwarfs the hired gun because he's forced him to his knees. And over this scramble for relative advantage loom gigantic mountains, into which Preacher disappears under the end credits: true giants, throwing individual struggles into diminished relief.

     Mountains loom over the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, as well, in Unforgiven. Now, however, the scramble for advantage is more desperate, and more dependent on the most minuscule of differences. In fact, the film can be regarded as a shift in relative positions, starting with the post-credit opening when the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), sneering on horseback, looks down upon a mired-in-the-pigsty Will Munny (another sound-alike, this time with William "Billy the Kid" Bonney). The pattern concludes with the scene just before the climactic shootout, when Munny (Eastwood), who alone among the killers has the courage to face the awful implications of his acts ("When you kill a man you take everything he has and everything he's going to have"), stands over the Kid, a frightened emotional wreck hunkered on the ground.

     Even the residents of Big Whiskey are introduced this way. After the two cowpokes accused of cutting up Delilah have been tied up, they sit on the saloon floor under the dominating height of Little Bill (Gene Hackman). But in the same shot, over Little Bill, perched on stairs and landings, are the prostitutes, Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher) in particular. However, her figure, being in the background, is too small to influence the action; when she decides to take a hand – a step that eventually leads her to offer a bounty on the offenders – she has literally to descend to Little Bill's level.

     There are communities of equals, which Eastwood goes out of his way to humanize. Both the prostitutes and Little Bill's deputies are carefully individualized in egalitarian group scenes – the prostitutes when they raise the bounty, the deputies when they await Little Bill's confrontation with English Bob (Richard Harris) – but these single-sex groupings have no chance of forming a whole, healed community. The scene with the deputies, in fact, serves largely to underscore their innocence of the sinister turn events have taken, and the tragedy of their impending deaths in the facedown with Will Munny.

     Little Bill's jailhouse history lesson may be the most stunning display of Eastwood's mastery of mise-en-scene. As Little Bill demystifies the self-aggrandizing English Bob for the benefit of Beauchamp the writer (Saul Rubinek), he begins to romanticize his own exploits and gaseous "philosophy." And so the bars that cage English Bob are also seen to imprison Little Bill as if within his own self-delusions.

     Eastwood is the Western's ultimate anti-romantic. His heroic models of gunmen in Pale Rider and High Plains Drifter are viewed critically as agents motivated by social groups, communities into which we are implicitly integrated as we cheer these heroes on. Josey Wales's heroism entails opting out, refusing to become a drifter or rider, and returning to farming. Unforgiven’s Will Munny had done the same thing, but grinding poverty and fear for his children's welfare send him out to make money the only way he knows how. His sacrifice is not his health or his safety, but his own soul.

     When Munny and his compatriots commit the first murder, of the truly innocent cowhand Davey Boy, they form a triple portrait of the gunfighter. Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), hugging an outcropping of rock, looks away in self-disgust; the Schofield Kid, effectively blind, shouts questions about what's going on; only Will Munny, his rifle in hand, looks down at the aftermath of his shooting. There, down below him, Davey writhes in the agony of oncoming death. And in a small barren nook, isolated from the land around him, Will looks down on the price of his ascendancy.

     No wonder Little Bill's brutality, masquerading as righteousness, so maddens Will Munny. Will and Bill are equals in death-dealing, but whereas Little Bill kills and lies, Munny has the crushing, tortuous benefit of honesty. When he administers the coup de grace to Little Bill, it is from the height of the film's most vertiginous angle, as seen from down on the floor with Little Bill.

     When Munny rides off, it is not into the sunset but into pitch-black night. Our last view of him echoes our first, but a fading view now – back on his farm, silhouetted as he stands at his wife's grave. That's his margin of hope, his chance for survival and redemption: that he knows what he's done, and that only an awful man could do it.

Henry Sheehan
September/October 1992
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