Whether he was skittling baddies with his six-gun or cracking fart jokes with Clyde the Orang-Utan, his movies were a fixture in the Black household when I was growing up in Glasgow.
Clint’s characters didn’t say much, but they were handy with a gun and didn’t take any crap. There is no reason people from the west of Scotland should feel an affinity with this stance more than men from anywhere else, but it seemed to fit in perfectly with the macho, testosterone-drenched outlook that dominated my family home.
It boils down to: mess with me, and you’ll get it.
I knew Clint’s films were absurd, even as I loved and consumed them when I was young. They were as realistic as Star Wars or Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion monster movies for me, and the main man seemed just as credible a tough guy as Doug McClure or William Shatner.
In real life, he probably wouldn’t have shot four men at a time from a standing start while they all held a gun on him. He certainly wouldn’t have been able to withstand a bare knuckle fight for two minutes, never mind twenty, as he does at the end of Every Which Way You Can, and walk away with little more than some corn syrup on the side of his mouth.
Not everyone got the idea that it was all pretend, though. I remember my father and brother commenting on these and other tough guy movies with the utmost seriousness – “Aye. Great left hand.” “Yep, a .357 Magnum. That’s the best gun by a mile” – although what they were actually watching was men in make-up dancing in front of a camera.
I was delighted when Clint Eastwood seemed to acknowledge this absurdity when he gave us Unforgiven in 1992, his shining masterpiece, and easily one of the best American movies ever made. It’s said the star and director sat on David Peoples’ script for years, realising he had a winner but waiting until he was old enough to play the ageing gunfighter William Munny.
Justly lauded as the United States began to put some distance on the Reagan era, that film, more than any other mainstream American movie, skewered the myths, the legends and the machismo of the Old West.
William Munny is all washed up when we meet him, flailing around in the filth of a pig pen when a young buck asks him to join a revenge mission. A woman has had her face cut by a cowboy in a small town, leading to a bounty being placed on the heads of the two men involved. Munny, in need of the cash, straps on his guns, enlists his friend Ned (played by Morgan Freeman) and sets out to kill the two cowboys.
Unforgiven illustrates the obscene validation that fiction grants to violent acts. We see a dime western novelist trailing around after the dapper gunfighter, English Bob (Richard Harris), and having his fantasies of violence torn apart by ugly reality. In Gene Hackman’s sheriff, Little Bill, backed up by a host of knock-kneed but heavily armed deputies, we see that violence is underpinned by basic cowardice. It also shows us that bad reputations can be a matter of distortion. William Munny, “a man of notoriously mean and intemperate disposition”, admits that his past glories with a six-gun were based on little more than being a bad-tempered drunk, and that many of his victims were complete innocents.
In simple terms, our tough guy hero was a ned.
Similarly, Little Bill the lawman is a bully, using grandstanding acts of violence weighted in his favour from the very start as a way of showing off to his deputies and the people he is paid to protect. As with English Bob, Little Bill beats William Munny senseless, but only does so when Munny is out of his mind with a fever (Little Bill thinks he’s drunk), his opponent has been disarmed, and he has the support of several loaded guns as back-up.
The storyline shows us that justice based on violent retribution can be a complete and utter joke, a black cap mentality threaded with lies. Only one man carries out the act of butchery which sets events in motion, but two men end up being shot dead for it.
As for guns, these are treated not as tools in the Alan Ladd/Shane sense, but as the instruments of murder they are. No celluloid gunfight thrill could compare with the dread we feel when Little Bill and his deputies confront English Bob. Not a single shot is fired, but you’re aware of those guns, aware of what can happen if one trigger finger should get twitchy. There is not an ounce of what I would call bravery in that scene, and indeed the rest of the movie. It’s a masterpiece of screenwriting.
And lastly, as William Munny marinates his rage in whisky, loads his shooters and rides into town in the middle of a perfect pathetic fallacy of a storm, the final judgment is on you as a viewer. Despite yourself, you revel in Will Munny’s revenge. As he shoots Little Bill and his deputies with video game accuracy, you are delighted. Here’s Clint, the tough guy, doing what you’ve been waiting two hours for him to do: kill everyone who messed with him.
“Deservin’s got nothin’ to do with it,” Munny drawls, before he blows Little Bill’s head off. A pithy pay-off line, to be sure, but it sums up the entire wretched enterprise and the futility of lives lived by the sword. Anyone smacking their lips over this blood-soaked finale, thrilling as it is, has missed the point of the film.
“Aye! Ye don’t mess wi’ granda wi’ a drink in him!”
Yeah? He sounds charming.
Few if any of Eastwood’s acting roles or directorial efforts were so anti-violence, or so breathtakingly honest about pathological male psychology. Unforgiven shows it’s not only bullies who are cowards at heart, but tough guys and hard men, too - people with plenty of muscle but not much vocabulary.
It was a subversive film, and like Christopher Nolan’s post-9/11 nightmare, The Dark Knight, I’d bet its themes and messages sailed over a good portion of its audience’s heads.
That’s why I was discomfited by Gran Torino, Clint’s “grey power” tough guy movie from 2008. Again, it was an enjoyable picture and I loved Clint’s octogenarian vigilante character taking a stand against the youth gangs in his neighbourhood. But I laughed out loud at it, too.
Watching Clint battering one of these kids, his good shoe filling the entire frame, I wondered if the actor and director had forgotten what he said so eloquently in Unforgiven. Its confrontations might represent things that could happen in real life, but it left a sour taste to watch Clint suggesting that your only real option for self-defence in society is to have access to a gun.
The part where Clint watches a teenage boy being humiliated by a gang with designs on his girl, then sorts the situation out by pretending he is going to shoot them, before piling more misery onto the hapless lad for not having taken the thugs on, was dreadful.
How depressing, then, to hear that Clint has undone more of his good work with the blatant propaganda film, American Sniper.
Age comes to us all, and Clint Eastwood is getting on a bit, but he’s not showing any signs of slowing down. I should think it something of a genetic miracle if I get to see my eighties, never mind direct major cinema releases, as Clint does. For dignity’s sake I’ll overlook his performance at the Republican National Convention a couple of years ago, which is thought to have put a final nail in the coffin of Mitt Romney’s bid for the White House, and its implications for Clint’s mental acuity. He might have had a bad day at the office. He might have had one nippy sweetie too many before going onstage. He might have been following the instructions of a PR clown.
In Gran Torino, Clint backslid a little, championing the idea of justified interpersonal violence on the streets, righteous homicide. American Sniper commits a far worse crime, by seeking to legitimise entirely unjustified violence committed by the state.
It will have a built-in audience, drawing on the current political mania for the armed forces. In Britain, there’s been a great deal of controversy over Poppy Day, a weeks-long festival which dominates the media and seems to drag on as long as Christmas. Since the western incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan, the social temperature has risen on this matter. As recently as 2001, I remember going to Celtic Park with a poppy in my lapel and no-one took any notice at all, far less called into question my allegiances and political stance. The contrast today is startling.
“Support for our armed forces” is an immense straw man. As someone whose close friends and family have served, my support for them as people, and my fear for them when they are placed in harm’s way, is a given. This is entirely separate to opposing the west’s millennial adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There can’t be too many people left in the UK aside from Tony Blair who thinks this action was a good idea. We are still waiting – perhaps for the rest of our lives – for the Chilcot Report on the UK’s entry into Iraq, but we’ve already seen appalling evidence of how the United States broke international laws and trampled on basic human rights during its new crusade in the Middle East. These conflicts have left hundreds of thousands of people dead or displaced, and if they were meant to have ended international terrorism then they must be counted as an immense failure. The whole enterprise is a ghastly mess, and its repercussions will continue long after we’re all in our graves.
The timing of American Sniper, which celebrates the exploits of a state-sponsored assassin who killed hundreds of people by pulling a trigger up to a mile away, could not be worse.
It’s a well-made, gripping movie. It does great honour to the men and women of the American armed forces who give up their time, and sometimes their lives, for their country’s economic prosperity. It quite rightly focuses on the blight of the soul that is PTSD. But morally, it’s a pig sty. That high horse Clint rode so magnificently back in 1992 is in the knacker’s yard.
How horrible that in the twilight of a brilliant career, this thoughtful film-maker, a far more nuanced storyteller than his tough guy persona led us to believe, should start rootin’, tootin’ and shootin’ for Uncle Sam. This is Clint Eastwood’s Green Berets. It’s a crying shame.
A taxi driver once told me about two old boys confronting each other outside The Grand Ole Opry on Govan Road in Glasgow. They were both dressed in full cowboy outfits, shooting hands poised above their cap gun holsters.
It was probably bullshit – these days, walking around the streets with a cap gun would probably get you tasered or worse within minutes - but a funny tale nonetheless. I keep trying to write a short story based on this anecdote, but it’s maybe best kept as a one-liner for taxi drivers, or as an awkward coda to an essay.
If the story of the two gunfighters is true, I hope the whole thing was a charade, a laugh; a carry-on that the people involved still giggle about. The alternative scenarios are a bit depressing.