don't just act.  Stand There! It`s not easy to admit, but I believe Western movies to be gods in the cinema world. It`s also not easy to admit that I believe Clint Eastwood to be one of the greatest film stars ever descended to this planet.

There are all sorts of reasons not to like Westerns. They are sexist, ageist, racist, colonialist, violent and of apparently no relevance to the British way of life (excepting of course the fact that we started it all). The relevance comes though, in that we are affected by them, as we are increasingly affected by all things American, that are dominating our film screens through Hollywood, our television screens through Channel Four imports and our computer screens because of US cheap and easy access to the internet. Whatever is relevant to America is now relevant to us, and Westerns are more than relevant, they are America.

They`re also a hell of a lot of fun.

My favourite Western was shown on television last month, and I got excited to see it in the tv guide. Its name 'The Outlaw Josey Wales' just cried out with class; it is indeed a classy, arty Western. In Josey Wales, which Eastwood directs as well as stars in, all the usual elements of the genre are there, but it`s fun to see them inverted and confused, and generally messed around with.

I think the best example of this comes in the first fifteen minutes of the film. The opening shot, as you would expect of a film directed by Clint Eastwood, is of Clint Eastwood. You can say the name Clint Eastwood as many times as you like, but it never becomes meaningless, simply because to Americans he has become an icon for their wildest dreams, all the things their society has been taught to believe in, yet has rarely achieved. The name Clint Eastwood, even to the more sceptical British viewer, embodies values and attitudes, tough guys yet fair guys, guys who talk little and act big, guys with a job to do. Clint Eastwood`s film persona and the American national consciousness have one major thing in common; they both think they`re hard. Eastwood`s characters violently avenge wrong doings, and America, self- confessedly seeing its role as the 'global policeman', often comes out looking more like the global Dirty Harry.

But the opening shots of Josey Wales play around with the whole Eastwood persona. When we first see Clint, we know it`s him, but, well, he`s wearing a floppy hat. And, well, he`s pushing a plough. And, even more difficult to accept, his wife is giving the orders. To continue the confusion, even the scenery is wrong for the audience`s perceptions of a Western, particularly a Clint Eastwood Western. There is no desert and cactuses from the spaghetti Westerns. Instead this scene is set in a rural idyll, there are trees with sun shining through them, there is a child, there is a woman. Clint is a farmer and a family man. If Clint embodies American attitudes, where does this leave America? Certainly in a more peace loving position than they`ve seen this century.

Fortunately for the film, which probably would have flopped if this glimpse of Clint in touch with his feminine side had continued for more than five minutes, things are going to change. Within a few short shots, Clint is left scarred, widowed, childless and homeless. The why`s and wherefore`s of this process are too many and too complicated to be explained here, but the result, Clint standing alone, is crucial to the film and its categorization as a Western. This gives Clint the opportunity to become the persona beloved of American culture, the rugged individual. Anybody who has read US literature, from Kerouac to Twain, and from Fenimore Cooper to Hemingway, will know that the American public loves the individual and would gladly hug him (or her) to its collective breast if only they would consent to go.

Now that Clint is alone, and his character`s grief is briefly dealt with by the unceremonious disposal of bodies, he is free to unleash the more violent side that has previously gained respect for his screen persona. In a scene that causes distinct discomfort to the British viewer in the wake of recent gun legislation (and the reasoning behind that legislation) the character Josey Wales unearths his pistol from the still smouldering ashes of his house. True to Western style, the symbolism is full on; his gun rises like a phoenix to avenge the death of his boy. Josey Wales puts away his delusions of a peace loving existance and responds to a corrupt society in the only way Clint Eastwood knows how. He, er, kicks some ass.

Of course the audience enjoys this immensely while it happens, because this is what Clint Eastwood the actor is good at. But Clint Eastwood the director is even better at keeping the audience guessing, and constantly messing around with our expectations from his films. Eventually, after having killed, or spat on, (or both) many, many people, Josey Wales settles down with a new family, made up of tarts, pioneers and Indians. I remember all the hype a few years back about Kevin Costner`s Dances with Wolves being the first pro-Indian Western, the first Western to use Native American actors to play Native Americans. Not true. Clint Eastwood beat Costner to it, and did it with more style and sensitivity, but received none of the kudos. Part of the problem was that US culture at the time Josey Wales was made was not entirely ready to admit the mistakes their country had made with the Native American people. But also, I expect, the US audience just was not ready to accept that Clint Eastwood could be such a nice man.

I think Clint Eastwood is a nice man too. Josey Wales was, I believe, his first attempt at directing a film, and it went down pretty well with the public and the critics, despite pushing quite hard at some of the barriers that are a necessity to the Western genre. More recently he`s done this again, to even greater acclaim, having made Unforgiven. This film was said by many to be a feminist Western, avenging as it does a woman`s honour. It was also said to be an anti-racist Western, having been made shortly after the Rodney King incident in LA, and mirroring some of the issues about society and the law that were raised then.

Clint`s films do go pretty far down the line of thought that Westerns are America, particularly when they can be said to reflect all sorts of issues that are relevant at anyone time. I think where his Westerns are most successful is that they show us the audience up for how we live and what we enjoy.

Carrie McMillan, November 1996.