Geoff Pevere: The Cathartic Clint – The Western Hero Deconstructed

Clint Eastwood once made me cry. It was twenty years ago, and I was sitting by myself in a movie theatre in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I’d gone to see a matinee of Unforgiven while my daughter and her mother did some sightseeing, and when the credit came up “Dedicated to Sergio and Don”, my water broke. Not big time. Just enough welling for a cheek-streaking trickle.

When I’d composed myself – naturally, as a modern man I carried no hankies – I slid out of the row, up the aisle and back into a brilliant sunshine. But I was rattled. It was the first time I’d cried at a movie that hadn’t involved the death of an animal in god knows how long, which is to say since maybe 1965. But something about Unforgiven got me.

It’s funny. I’ve seen it maybe three times since, and each time without risk of spillage. It’s a movie I greatly admire, but not because it makes me sad but because it tackles among the deepest running themes of the western – the reckoning with the past and the coming of death – and it does so through the filter of the Eastwood’s own movie-made mythology. He was the last Hollywood movie star to become one playing a cowboy, and Unforgiven is a self-struck match to all that.

And I’d grown up with the guy, for God’s sake. I remembered him from the old TV series Rawhide, which was only one of the dozens of western TV shows that dusted up the prime time schedule in the early to mid-1960s. My father had not only taken me to Eastwood westerns like Two Mules for Sister Sara, I remember sitting beside him in Kelly’s Heroes and Where Eagles Dare. Most unforgettably, he even snuck me in with him to see the then ‘Restricted’ (to people eighteen years of age and over) Dirty Harry, a gesture of paternal bonding that not even an entire world of Ward Cleavers could touch.

So Unforgiven came with its share of baggage. And in its depiction of a former killer (Eastwood’s William Munny) whose lure back into violence only makes him realize that killing’s all he’s good for, Eastwood was taking a lifetime of charismatic widescreen gunslinging and burying it: just like his character is seen, in silhouette on an empty prairie, burying his wife in the movie’s bleak opening.

By the time he made Unforgiven, Eastwood had already made more movies that questioned his laconic action stud persona than embodied it. And he’d done so not only as an actor – think, for instance, of those yahoo drive-in movies in which he starred opposite an orangutan – but as a director.

This was significant and unusual. While other actors, even those of the saddlebound variety, had made movies in which the idea of traditional gunslinger invincibility was put to the test and found wanting – James Stewart’s ’50s westerns directed by Anthony Mann, John Wayne in The Searchers, Gary Cooper in High Noon and Man of the West, Randolph Scott in his films by Budd Boetticher and Sam Peckinpah – Eastwood was the only one to point the camera at himself and ask “Who is this guy? And why do we like him?”

And because he did we liked him more. It started, it seems to me, with The Outlaw Josey Wales in 1976. That was a traditional revenge western that cast its hero as a catalyst for community-building, a man whose quest for the murderers of his family resulted in the creation of a new family of the disenfranchised, marginalized and misunderstood. Effectively, it turned the solipsistic logic of Eastwood’s star-making westerns – the spaghetti cycle with Sergio Leone, and the early American movies like Hang ‘Em High and Joe Kidd – on their ear by depicting the futility of violence divorced from a larger purpose. If you aren’t killing so that others may live and live safely, then you’re just a killer.

William Munny, the aging failed farmer, father and husband who is drawn by economic desperation back into the killing trade, is a man who has been visibly broken and ruined by his past. Killing is all he really knows how to do, and as we see he’s pretty damned good at it. But it has hollowed out his soul in the process, so that when he takes his final apocalyptic revenge against Gene Hackman’s Little Bill – a variation on the western town dictator as old as westerns themselves – it comes with a powerfully paradoxical gut punch: while we root for the Eastwood we’ve grown up watching blow the deserving away, we mourn for the man who has accepted that bringing death is his only skill. This is therefore not a victory of the good guy over the bad, it’s a triumph of the dark side that won’t let a man escape to the light. As Munny says before the final act of gunplay, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

Eastwood hasn’t made a western since, and his farewell to the genre with Unforgiven marked the end of something we’ll never see again: a movie career made in the west, or at least the movie and TV version of it, and a star who first appeared on the cultural horizon on horseback. Certainly there have been westerns since, and few of them – likeThe Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert FordAppaloosa and Meek’s Cutoff – have been more than worthy entries to a largely departed genre. But what Eastwood put the bullet to was something larger and deeper: our collective investment in a mythic figure who rode from one cowboy movie into another, a western hero who transcended in any single western and symbolized the form itself. That’s what he buried along with his wife in Unforgiven, and you’ll forgive me for shedding a tear at the sight.

— 30 —

Geoff Pevere’s column appears every Friday.

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Geoff Pevere has been writing, broadcasting and teaching about movies, media and popular culture for over thirty years. He can’t help himself. His column appears every Friday.

One Response to “Geoff Pevere: The Cathartic Clint – The Western Hero Deconstructed”

  1. honestly, amazing. loved this one. gotta watch the movie now!

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