The Westerns of Clint Eastwood
“Whatever success I've had is due to a lot of instinct and a little luck.”
Publishers Weekly, discussing Richard Schikel’s 1996 biography of Clint Eastwood, talks of the actor/director/producer (etc) as “one of the most important and influential filmmakers of his generation”. Throughout Eastwood’s “ascent from critical contempt to adulation” he remained steadfastly popular with fans, and, Publishers Weekly goes on, “the actor combines the masculine authority and repressed rage of Gary Cooper and John Wayne with an almost postmodern ironic self-consciousness.” If that sounds a bit hi-falutin’, the fact remains that Clint became, despite arriving relatively late on the Western scene, one of the really great figures of the genre. Ask any non-Western fan (for such sad souls do exist) to name a movie cowboy, and the chances are they’ll say John Wayne or Clint Eastwood.
He got a screen test in the mid-1950s on the say-so of director Arthur Lubin, along with David Janssen and Rock Hudson, and, on a princely $75 a week, was given a few bit-parts at Universal as a result. He was First Saxon (uncredited) in the gripper Lady Godiva of Coventry, that sort of thing. His entrée to the world of the Western was a bit of uncredited voice dubbing on Man Without a Star in 1955 and he followed that in June ’56 with another Star picture, Star in the Dust, an undistinguished John Agar Western in which Clint had a walk-on two-line part as a cowpoke. At least he got to speak. But it didn’t stick. He and Burt Reynolds were fired together after eighteen months. Reynolds said that the exec who fired them told Clint he spoke too slowly (probably true then) and had a too prominent Adam’s apple, while Burt simply had “no talent”. Afterwards, Reynolds said to Clint, “You know, I can learn to act. But you’re going to have a hell of a time getting that Adam’s apple out of your throat.”
That summer Lubin called Clint to do a bigger part in the comedy The First Traveling Saleslady at RKO, with Ginger Rogers. It was a sort-of Western. Clint was billed fifth, after David Brian and James Arness, so that was a step up. He plays a handsome young lieutenant recruiting for the Rough Riders for whom Ginger’s assistant (Carol Channing) falls, and he has quite a lot of lines.
Recently married, Eastwood tried to make a buck by digging swimming pools and getting the occasional walk-on part on TV. In December ’56 he had a decent role in The Last Letter, an episode of Death Valley Days. In 1957 he got a small part in a Regal Productions Western released by Fox, Ambush at Cimarron Pass, an unacknowledged remake of Columbia’s Massacre Canyon. Clint said it was “a Z-movie, the lousiest Western ever made.” It wasn’t, but it wasn’t very good either. Still, it was work, and he was paid a mighty $750. Fox would in fact re-release it later, to cash in on Clint’s fame when he had got known on Rawhide.
CBS wanted a cowboy series to match the success of NBC’s Wagon Train and commissioned a new show about a cattle drive, Rawhide. Clint managed (finally) to get to see producer Charles Marquis Warren and landed the role of Rowdy Yates, trail boss Gil Favor (Eric Fleming)’s sidekick. The series was a huge success, and from its first screening in January 1959 it ran for no fewer than eight seasons, until 1966, for a remarkable total of 217 episodes. It wasn’t a smash hit right off the bat. Clint said, “I made the pilot film and the first ten episodes and then nothing for six months. We had to wait until it was aired by CBS in order to see how the audience liked it and if we would continue.” It was actually a very good show, atmospheric and tough, and it did not shy away from some quite controversial topics. It was also unusual, in my family at least, for being as popular with the girls as with the boys. Sisters tended to be Gil Favor or Rowdy Yates supporters (just as they divided tribally between Slim Sherman and Jess Harper on Laramie and Adam and Little Joe Cartwright on Bonanza - no one went for Hoss). Sisters and girlfriends didn’t follow Gunsmoke or Wagon Train but they sure liked Rawhide.
It certainly made Clint’s name. His (then) wife said, “With Rawhide everything changed. Before we knew it we had some money, a house with a pool and were forever posing for pictures as Hollywood’s latest young and exciting couple.” After a time Clint understandably grew restless on the show (he called it Rawmeat), and said he would have liked to do something else, but work was work and the good paychecks must certainly have come in handy. He did the odd TV show elsewhere, such as Duel at Sundown, an episode of Maverick directed by Arthur Lubin again, in February 1959 (a very entertaining one, in fact, with Clint as an angry young gunslinger challenging Bret, who has a convenient hurt hand) but he really wanted to be back on the big screen. Some TV stars made the transition to features, such as James Garner and Steve McQueen, but many didn’t. A couple of Rawhide episodes were edited together to make some short feature releases but they didn’t really count.
Finally, as a way (an unusual way then) to get into features, while Rawhide was still screening, Clint said yes to going to Europe and doing an Italian western for non-English speaking Sergio Leone. The Italian public had grown rather tired of the cheap sword-and-sandal ‘epics’ churned out by Cinecittà and the new fad was shoot-em-ups. Leone had been brought up on American Westerns, and indeed his father had directed and his mother starred in what is often regarded as the first ever silent Italian western, La Vampira Indiana, in 1913. Leone first wanted Fonda, then Coburn, but they were too expensive (these were very low-budget pictures) and then Charles Bronson refused, saying the script was the worst he had ever seen (he had a point). So Clint Eastwood was far from the first choice. Clint later recounted, “The agency called and asked if I was interested in doing a Western in Italy and Spain. I said, ‘Not particularly’. They said, ‘Why don't you give the script a quick look?’ Well, I was kind of curious, so I read it, and I recognized it right away as Yojimbo, a Kurosawa film I had liked a lot. Over I went, taking the poncho with me - yeah the cape was my idea.” Per un Pugno di Dollari (A Fistful of Dollars), a prophetic title, was made mostly in Spain for $200,000, of which Clint got $15,000.
The original script, based on Kurosawa’s Yojimbo with nods to Dashiel Hammet’s Red Harvest (but Leone claimed mostly Goldoni’s A Servant of Two Masters), had yards and yards of dialogue which Clint simply cut. He wanted to be the mystery man who kept people guessing. “I felt the less he said the stronger he became and the more he grew in the imagination of the audience.” Clint also said “I guess I finally got to a point where I had enough nerve to do nothing.” It worked. Viewers hung on his every grunt. Richard Burton, co-star on Where Eagles Dare (1968) said Eastwood had “dynamic lethargy”, which put it rather well.
Fistful was speedily followed by a sequel, with amusing irony named Per qualche dollaro in più (For a Few Dollars More). Lee Van Cleef, Clint’s co-star in the picture as Colonel Mortimer, and to become heir as spaghetti-specialist, said this was a superior movie. “It had more depth to it. There was more subtlety about the film and about the performance. And Clint had the confidence then. He had the character down. He was playing it minimal and it worked.” In 1985 Clint said, “My old drama coach used to say, ‘Don't just do something, stand there’."
These pictures did not have an immediate impact. Though popular in Italy, Fistful wasn’t released in France until March 1966 and in the US till January ’67. But as Van Cleef said, “When the movies were seen outside Europe, there was no stopping.”
In August 1966 Unidis in Italy released a 93-minute Western, El magnifico extranjero. But it was unauthorized, Clint sued and the picture was withdrawn. In fact it was just two Rawhide episodes tacked together and cheekily run as a movie. It doesn’t count as part of Eastwood’s Western œuvre.
By 1967 the team of Leone and Eastwood was recognized as a commercial winner. Both Dollars pictures were showing, and in the box-office rankings. Leone got more funding for the third of these “macaroni westerns”, as a Japanese critic called them, and Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, a mildly interesting change of order) was released in the US by United Artists in late December 1967. Already the second picture had an upped budget of $600,000, triple that of Fistful, and now Leone got $1.2m, serious money for him, to make a big Western set in the Civil War. It had, as well as the picaresque plot, large battle scenes, trains and all the other paraphernalia. A bridge was blown up before the cameras were ready. No bother: they rebuilt it and blew it again. The picture climaxed in a long three-way shoot-out to the accompaniment of Morricone at full volume. Some people admire both the staging and the music. The movie grossed $6.1m, coming 25th in the rankings for the year. A less fortunate aspect of the big budget was that the movie was unconscionably long, 186 minutes in the French version. It is slow-paced and at times seems endless. A lot of this runtime is spent with characters staring at each other, a Leone trademark. More budget really only meant more spaghetti.
Clint said, “I spun off Sergio and he spun off me. I think we worked well together. I like his compositions. He has a very good eye. I liked him, I liked his sense of humor, but I feel it was mutual. He liked dealing with the kind of character I was putting together.”
Along with Clint as the Good (or as good as these characters got anyway), Van Cleef was the Bad and Eli Wallach, bandit leader Calvera in The Magnificent Seven, a New York stage actor who had got the taste for Westerns, was the Ugly. So Clint got only a third of the limelight this time. And he was no longer the Man with No Dialogue. He had had enough of these Italian westerns now. It was time to move on. Leone would go on to work with the heroes he had wanted in the first place, Fonda and Bronson, on the even huger Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) but Clint went back to LA. There is a story that Leone wanted Eastwood, Van Cleef and Wallach to be the three gunmen shot down in the opening scene of OUATITW, but they wouldn’t play. Spoilsports. It would have been a good joke.
While The Good, Bad & Co was being released Clint was already at work on his next feature, a Westerny (but not Western) cop drama, Coogan’s Bluff, directed by Don Siegel and released by Universal in March ’68. Clint is an Arizona deputy sheriff sent to New York to escort a fugitive back for trial, and while there he applies his ‘Western’ police methods to a shocked Eastern city. It didn’t do badly, grossing $3.1m, also spinning off into a TV show, McLoud, with Dennis Weaver, and Clint was now a figure on the Hollywood scene.
The same day Coogan wrapped, Clint flew to London to start Where Eagles Dare, for which he got three quarters of a million, nice, but he followed that up with a ‘proper’ Western, Hang ‘em High, helmed at Clint’s insistence by Ted Post (not a feature Western specialist but a director who had done Rawhide episodes and would work with Eastwood again when he was Dirty Harry) and released in early April in Italy, curiously, but not by United Artists till end-July in the US. It’s a serious 1960s attempt at a Western, not a trashy spaghetti (for one thing, there is an attempt to address a moral question, so that disqualifies it immediately as spag). It did great business, recouping the $1.6m costs in only ten weeks, the fastest turnaround in UA’s history.
Coogan and Hang ‘em High were co-produced by Clint’s own company Malpaso, also the name of his ranch near Carmel, which I visited once, but only as far as the 'Keep out, trespassers will be mercilessly shot down on sight' sign (not really). He wanted more control, and producing was a way to get it. And he disliked the extravagance and waste evident on overblown pictures like Where Eagles Dare, which took six months to shoot. The success of these pictures gave him investment funding for a big project.
Paramount’s comedy/Western/musical Paint Your Wagon was budgeted at $20m, very big money for the late 60s. Top production billing went to Alan Jay Lerner Productions but Malpaso was in too. Director Josh Logan (Bus Stop with Marilyn Monroe) wanted a star “who could be a leading man and a romantic threat to Lee Marvin’s love for Jean Seberg” and thought Clint ideal: “he’s strong physically and as a personality.” Though it has its admirers, Wagon wasn’t very good. There were too many songs, most of which are bland, and the principal actors were bad singers. The picture was way too long at two hours, thirty-eight minutes; it didn’t have the plot to sustain that, and it drags. Marvin was good, building on his comedy Western success in the big hit Cat Ballou in ’65. On the set of Wagon he was affable but vodka-fueled. The other saving grace was the location photography (William A Fraker). But that’s it. The picture was received rather sniffily by the critics, The New York Times saying that the $20m budget was “a high price to pay for something that is more an expression of good intentions than evidence of sustained cinematic accomplishment”, though it did well at the box-office, grossing $31m, so Clint can’t have been too broken-hearted.
Clint next teamed up with Don Siegel again to do another Western, Two Mules for Sister Sara, released by Universal in May 1970 (though bizarrely shown in Finland first, in March). Now it is true that 1970 was hardly a renowned vintage as far as Westerns go, with junk like They Call Me Trinity, There Was a Crooked Man, Soldier Blue and Adiós Sabata going the rounds, though we did get The Ballad of Cable Hogue too. Still, with so little competition you would have thought Sister Sara would be good. Nope. It was way more spaghetti-influenced than Hang ‘em High, with many scenes, especially in the first and last reels, clearly Leone-style, and the Ennio Morricone score didn’t help. Clint is unshaven, squints and chews on a cheroot. It has the well-worn tough-guy with surprising dame plot (The African Queen, Rooster Cogburn, etc) and top-billed Shirley MacLaine (Clint was second to nun) rode her donkey around Mexico (it was made by a Mexican company jointly with Malpaso) slathered in 1960s cosmetics, the false eyelashes being especially prominent. There is a battle at the end in which much dynamite is thrown and Juaristas and French soldiers die in great numbers, sometimes bloodily, but it's alright because they are foreign. It got to twentieth in the box-office rankings that year, grossing $5m on its $4m budget, so it wasn’t a disaster. Eastwood still gets enthusiastic about this movie, according to his biographer Douglas Thompson, but it really was a poor Western, despite being co-written by Budd Boetticher, and it wasn’t until well into the 70s that Eastwood would start putting out good pictures in the genre. His career is an upward climb, finally reaching greatness, but the early Westerns were often pretty bad.
The Beguiled, released in Italy in January 1971, then by Universal in the US in March, was another Malpaso picture, once again directed by Siegel (who would direct five pictures starring Eastwood altogether). It wasn’t a ‘straight’ Western in many ways, more of a gothic-horror, the story being of a cynical Civil War soldier who takes refuge in a girls’ boarding school, where exceedingly unpleasant things happen to him. We shall be reviewing this soon.
But 1971 was the year when Clint became a huge star, thanks to two non-Westerns. First he was the Californian disc jockey tormented by the unhinged Jessica Walter in Play Misty for Me, and then of course he was rogue cop Dirty Harry. Eastwood was now a hot property and could have his pick of projects. Interestingly, his first picture after these hits was another Western.
I like Joe Kidd (1972), another Malpaso production and Universal release, this time directed by John Sturges. It had a number of plus points, such as splendid Bruce Surtees photography, Elmore Leonard writing, Sturges at the helm (he could do bad Westerns like The Hallelujah Trail but was also capable of outstanding ones like The Magnificent Seven). And Robert Duvall is good as the bad guy. We have jangly Lalo Schifrin music and a band of spaghetti-esque killers but the spaghetti sauce is far less copious this time. There’s an important question of land rights underpinning the tale. Not everyone loves this Western. Brian Garfield, for example, said that “the movie is faddishly littered with mindless movement and brutality”, but name me a Western that is universally adored. It got to twentieth in the box-office rankings and grossed $6.3m (in a year, though, in which Jeremiah Johnson made $44m and The Poseidon Adventure $93m). For me, it was the best Eastwood Western to date.
High Plains Drifter, another Malpaso/Universal picture, was Clint’s second picture (after Play Misty for Me) and first Western as director. On one level it’s a gothic drama with hints of the supernatural, as The Beguiled had been, but on another it is again very ‘Italian’ in style. Clint is once more a nameless superhero, ‘The Stranger’, riding this time on a pale horse into the town of Lago to the sound of exaggerated over-dubbed clip-clopping, seeing a coffin-maker at work and then shooting three importunate thugs. Lago might just as well have been San Miguel in Fistful. We are supposed then to sympathize with this man raping a woman in a stable and have to watch a man being whipped to death twice, in flashback. In fact everyone is bad in this movie. The baddies are just more bad. The ‘hero’ is no better; he just has super-human homicidal skills. There is spaghetti-ish woo-woo music and the gunshots absurdly do a ricochet whine even when they don’t hit anything. It’s just a spaghetti. But, fortunately, the picture does get better. There is now a slight surreal tinge to the plot as the stranger decides to paint the town red. We know the expression but he takes it literally. We are more interested. And the superb photography by Bruce Surtees again saves it. Variety said it was “a nervously-humorous, self-conscious near satire on the prototype Clint Eastwood formula of the avenging mysterious stranger” but in fact it isn’t, really. It was just Eastwood saying, “I can do Leone too.” Of course this doesn’t help those who don’t rate Leone highly in the first place. Time Out thought it was “Eastwood's fond adieu to the worlds of Sergio Leone and Don Siegel; and indeed he cuts the operatic excess of the former with the punchy economy of the latter.” But actually, it’s really just American spaghetti with a sauce of weirdness. Once again it did well commercially, appearing at 17 in the rankings that year and grossing $15.7m. Eastwood certainly had the knack of making popular movies.
If you ask IMDb to rank Eastwood’s Westerns by popularity, The Outlaw Josey Wales appears at the top of the list. And indeed Eastwood himself reckoned it one of his best efforts. Once again he both directed and produced, so it was quite a personal endeavor. Based on two novels by the rather disreputable (as it turned out) Forrest Carter, Josey Wales is a Civil War-and-after story in which Josey, who joins Bloody Bill Anderson’s marauders to avenge the death of his family by Union guerrillas, then goes on the run after a cowardly massacre (not in the book) of surrendering Confederates by Union Redlegs. He makes his way to Texas, reluctantly gathering a kind of motley family about him, and establishes a sort of self-ruling commune in an idyllic log cabin (though it is actually Josey who rules). Mikhail Bakunin, who died exactly a hundred years before the movie came out, would have enjoyed it. It was 1976, and the obvious message was that maybe there is peace for those dislocated by the Vietnam War after all. It’s anti-government and anti-Establishment, a hymn to individualism. As Julian Petley writes in The BFI Companion to the Western, “A lyrical epic of great scope and grandeur, The Outlaw Josey Wales is, for all its violence, a film of reconciliation and considerable tenderness.” The Oscar-nominated music (Jerry Fielding) is especially fine and the photography magnificent (that man Surtees again). It was often the case that movie versions of Western novels didn’t quite live up to their novel sources, but in this case a rather iffy book, not well written, became one of the best (if not the best) Western movie of the decade.
Nearly ten years passed before Eastwood made another true Western. He was busy being Harry Callahan in money-making sequels, cavorting with an orang-utan in Every Which Way but Loose (which was beaten in earnings for Warners only by The Exorcist and Superman), escaping from Alcatraz and so on. He did do two Western-ish movies in this period, the rather charming Bronco Billy (1980) and the less successful Honkytonk Man in 1982, both of which he directed, producing, however, only the second. Bronco Billy had Clint as an ex-shoe salesman now owner-manager of a modern-day one-horse Wild West show. Once again the people around him are misfits and once again there is a strong sense of community. Much of the endearing tone of the movie comes from these characters. It’s amusing and touching in equal measure, and Clint has probably deliberately moved well away from his macho image. It didn’t do at all badly, grossing $24m. Honkytonk Man co-starred Clint’s son Kyle and was the Depression-era musical story of uncle-nephew bonding on a road trip. Eastwood was happy with the picture but it was not well received, the highest praise The New York Times could muster being that it was “slack but mildly likeable” and it was nominated for a Razzie Award, for Worst Original Song (No Sweeter Cheater Than You). It grossed only $3m, coming 112th in that year’s rankings. Clint probably thought, Well, you can’t win ‘em all. In any case, these pictures weren’t really Westerns.
The early 1980s were a period of near-famine for Hollywood A-picture Westerns, Michael Cimino (who had directed Clint in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot) having almost sunk the genre single-handed with his monstrous, elephantine and massively loss-making Heaven’s Gate in 1980. That picture sank United Artists (bought up by MGM) and thenceforth for a lustrum big studios shied like unbroken broncs at the very idea of making a Western. Eastwood is on record in 1985 as saying, “There are two American art forms, the Western and jazz. It’s funny how Americans don’t support either of them any more.” According to Eastwood colleague Fritz Mines, Clint had been sitting on a Western since 1978 or ’79. But in the fall of ‘84 he and the Kasdans defied the trend, riding to the rescue (praise be unto them) with Pale Rider and Silverado respectively, in their different ways excellent Westerns both. Pale Rider was premièred at Cannes in May 1985 and Silverado in LA in July.
Pale Rider, which Clint again directed as well as produced, was almost a remake of, certainly anyway paying homage to Shane. That was quite bold, commercially, given that many in the MTV generation had probably never even seen Shane. Like Alan Ladd in 1953, Clint rides into a valley, becomes the champion of honest American folk against ruthless capitalists, beating the bad guys and then riding off into the sunset. It was back to the Man with No Name because he is known only as Preacher (his clerical collar comes as a shock) and he rides a pale horse again. In fact this time Revelations 6:8 is specifically cited. The picture compares favorably to the great Shane in many ways. For one thing, Clint, with his tough-guy persona and celluloid history, was far more convincing as a gunman than the rather soft Ladd with his blond coiffed hair and Beverly Hills tan. For another, it was Surtees at the camera yet again and this time he excelled himself: the photography of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in Idaho is absolutely stunning, the equal of the (Oscar-winning) cinematography of Loyal Griggs in ’53. But the film is different, and more modern: for example, there is a strong eco-message – the bad guys are raping the land with industrial mineral extraction techniques while the good guys are greener, panning for gold in the old-fashioned way. Instead of a small boy we have a teenage girl who develops a crush on the Preacher. This time, too, the gunman actually sleeps with the Marion-equivalent (Carrie Snodgress) rather than just subtly romancing her, and instead of fighting only Jack Palance, as Shane had done, Preacher super-heroically kills the chief bad guy (John Russell, superb) and all his six henchmen, riding off into the snowy wastes uninjured. In these ways it did perhaps lose some of the subtlety of the original but it is in fact one of Eastwood’s very best Westerns, in my view the equal of or even superior to Josey Wales, and second only to Unforgiven. But of course fans (and Clint) may think differently. They’re entitled. (Although I secretly believe in the dictum chacun à mon gout).
There was only one more Western to come. And maybe that will be the last. If Eastwood had sat on Pale Rider for years, it would be even longer before he made another script he’d bought, one by David Webb Peoples, who was a co-writer of Blade Runner, which was finished the year Josey Wales came out. It is intelligent, literate and powerful. The movie version, Unforgiven (1992), was perhaps a sort of mea culpa for, or at least a counterpoint to his early shoot-em-ups (in Fistful his body count is 18 and Gian-Maria Volontè’s is 50) and even as late as Pale Rider he was shooting down bad guys in considerable numbers. But he said of the Unforgiven script, “What I like about Unforgiven is that every killing in it has a repercussion.”
The central character, Will Munny, an aging ex-gunman (one reason why Eastwood waited so long to film the screenplay he had bought was that he wanted to be suitably wrinkly) is no superman blasting the bad guys right, left and center. As he tells the young would-be gunslinger the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), “It’s a hell of a thing killing a man. You take away all he has and all he’s ever going to have.” Death is unfair, sudden and brutal. But as Munny tells the local lawman Little Bill Daggett (Oscar-winning Gene Hackman in his best-ever Western role), “Fair ain’t got nothing to do with it.” As Pale Rider had an environmental message, so Unforgiven had a feminist one. The action is initiated by some saloon whores who get up money to hire killers to exact vengeance on the men who horribly abused one of their number. There was a sisters-are-doing-it-for-themselves vibe going on. The picture is at times horribly violent but the violence is as far away from the cartoon-like killing of countless Westerns (especially spaghettis) as it could be.
The acting is superb, Eastwood especially but also Hackman and Morgan Freeman (the latter going some way to redress the astonishing absence of African-Americans in Western movie history), Saul Rubinek as the biographer (referencing various other Westerns) and even that ham Richard Harris is good for once, as the gunman English Bob. The picture is beautifully shot, by Jack N Green, in fine Alberta locations, the Henry Bumstead sets are superb, and the Lennie Niehaus music (using a theme by Eastwood himself) is haunting and beautiful. It is no wonder that the film won Best Picture at the Oscars and Eastwood won Best Director – very few Westerns have ever been in Oscar contention – and was nominated for a host more (including for Peebles).
Unforgiven was a worthy adieu, if adieu it be, and I fear so, to the Western career of Clinton Eastwood Jr.