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
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
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.