Clint Eastwood and the Mythology of the American West

(be warned – film buff that I am, this entry is a very lengthy and boring and pretentious look at one of my favorite genres, the western – it was inspired by recently watching the Clint Eastwood film “Gran Torino” on television (I know, not a western) – proceed at your own risk!)

The frontier history of America, from the arrival of Columbus to the Louisiana Purchase to the cowboys and Indians of the American west, has created its own mythology and iconic figures.  The expansion and conquest of a wild and unexplored continent defined our values.  The term “rugged individualist” is often used to describe our ideal character.  The iconic American hero was largely defined by the myths of the American west that were created in the dime novels of the late 1800s and used to fuel and justify our “manifest destiny” and expansion to the shores of the Pacific.   From the outset, hidden under thin layers of this myth were harsh truths of genocide and brutal violence and exploitation.   We used the myth and the mythic hero as methods to sublimate these ugly realities and project the image of who we wanted to be, who we wished we were.

The western hero that emerged from this mythology was perpetuated in the early cinema serials and b-movies, starring the likes of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.  This hero was a simple and solitary and pure and righteous figure, who existed on the periphery if not outside the boundaries of society, yet was always willing to stand up and fight for social justice and defend the community against the wild and untamed evil of the wilderness.    In “The Lone Ranger”, in the immensely popular works of Zane Gray and Max Brand, truth, justice and the American way became the mythic core values of these mythic archetypes.

As time went on, American cinema relentlessly exploited these myths, as they became central components to our value system.   Perceived as the great democratic empire of the world and flooded with immigrants from all continents who were eager to embrace this mythology, America developed a cultural certainty and arrogance in its moral superiority that the simple, two-dimensional portrayals of good guys in white hats and bad guys in black hats reinforced and reveled in. 

While most of the western films created in the 1920s to 1940s were unimaginative and formulaic exercises in perpetuating and exploiting this mythology, some talented directors and actors emerged, and from time to time made nuanced and artistic variations on the same stories.  John Ford and Howard Hawks emerged as the genre’s greatest directors, with films like Ford’s Stagecoach  (1939) and My Darling Clementine (1946) and Hawks’  Red River (1949)  enhancing and expanding the genre with three-dimensional characters, complex plots and conflicts, and visual artistry.  These films, great as they are, still largely operate within the confines of the boundaries of the genre that the myths had established.  Other westerns came along and used the genre to explore more universal themes.  William Wellman’s The Ox Bow Incident (1943), for example, used the western to explore mob violence and fascism.  John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) used the setting but none of the mythology as the second of his three great explorations of human greed (The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Man Who Would be King (1975) being the other two).   These films primarily used the west as a setting for broader, timeless themes, and as such didn’t explore or challenge the mythic archetypes. 

For me, there are three great westerns of the 1950s that make serious explorations of these myths.   Then, in the 1960s, the same cultural explosion that challenged archetypes in all art exposed the underlying hypocrisy and shallowness of the western myths, nearly destroying them and the entire genre in the process. 

The first 1950s western to examine this mythology was Fred Zinneman’s  High Noon (1951), in which the traditional hero (played by Gary Cooper) is portrayed as an almost Christ-like figure.  Forsaken by an ungrateful and cowardly community, Cooper’s sheriff Will Kane is left to defend the town alone against the evil Frank Miller and his gang, just released from prison and determined for vengeance on the community that sent him away.  Cooper tries unsuccessfully to recruit help from the town, and finally, after heroically and single-handedly defeating the bad guys, he disgustedly throws his badge in the dust, leaving the community that has proven unworthy of him.  Cooper’s sheriff is simple and straight forward, virtuous, and heroic, an embodiment of all of the mythic elements of the western hero.  What is significant in High Noon is the notion that the community is not worthy of such a man and his heroism.  This is a foreshadowing of the anti-establishment mood that would take hold in the 1960s.  The ending of  High Noon is consistent with the traditional ending to the mythic western tale in that the hero rides off, triumphant and virtue untarnished.  However, Cooper’s sheriff isn’t alone – his new bride (Grace Kelly), a stranger to the town and the only one to help him in the gunfight, is with him.   The implication is that the town is corrupt and cowardly, and only the pure and beautiful outsider, unstained by the culture of the town, possesses the virtue that makes her a worthy love of the hero.  As they leave the town, it is implied that they will never return. 

This idea that society is unworthy of such a hero was a subtly radical challenge to the assumption of the mythic purity of the American way.  The selection of an iconic screen presence like Gary Cooper, and the traditional and heroic qualities his character possesses, reinforce the iconic archetype of the myth.     But the film denies the mythic inherent goodness of American society, and not only suggests it is flawed and not worthy of such a hero, but also questions the wisdom of the hero.  Is this town really worth fighting for?  Is it worth losing not only his life, but the love of his new bride?  These are questions that were never asked in the dime novels and b-movies that created the myth. 

The second 1950s film I’ve chosen that examines this mythic character is the 1956 John Ford film, The Searchers.  The John Wayne character, Ethan Edwards, is, as Ford often did with Wayne, shot from angles to heighten Wayne’s impressive physical presence.  Wayne is bigger and stronger and faster than any of the other characters, he is a dominating and intimidating physical presence who knows the real, harsh and violent world of the west.   When Indians raid and kill his brother’s family and capture his young niece, his hatred for the Comanche people boils over to an almost psychotic rage.  The traditional portrayal of the western hero would portray him in tragic terms, maintaining his virtue despite the heavy burden of grief he carries as he conducts an endless search to rescue his niece.  Instead, Ford introduces serious flaws of hatred, racism and violence in the hero, and combined with the character’s exaggerated and intimidating physical presence, the flaws become heightened and dangerous.  The search for Ethan’s niece goes on for years, and it isn’t motivated by virtuous heroism, it is instead driven by the need for vengeance and the white-hot hatred he feels for the Comanche.  When encountering a dead Comanche brave, Ethan shoots his eyes out, so he will be unable to wander the spirit world.   He is so consumed by rage that his nephew is compelled to join him on the search, knowing that when he finds his niece, he will kill her, because she’s been “tainted”.   When he finally finds her, he is ready to kill her, when, upon looking in her eyes, the instincts of the mythic hero return, and he instead takes her home.  The famous final shot is of Wayne, framed in a doorway, watching as the family members all enter the home, euphoric in their reunion and oblivious to Wayne, standing alone beyond the porch.  Wayne starts to enter but then turns away, and the door closes on his image.  Again, the hero is left alone, admittance to family and community denied him.   Only this time, you get the sense that the hero is alone because of his flaws, not by choice or tragic circumstance.   The film seems to be saying that in order to be such a hero, in order to defend society and the purity of its values, one must be capable of raw hatred and brutal violence, and while these things may enable him to triumph in the harsh wilderness of the west, they make him incapable of the love and companionship of family and community.  Ford’s portrayal of the family scenes is all warm and innocent and light-hearted, in sharp contrast to the brutal and desolate wilderness that Ethan and his nephew’ s search is conducted in.  Ethan is much more comfortable and at home in the lawless wilderness.   The film seems to suggest that outside of America’s borders, the world is a harsh and violent place, and only by understanding and maintaining a presence in that world can our idyllic and isolated values be defended and preserved.  This is another radical challenge to the myth, that in order to preserve our core values and principles, we have to be willing to violate them.  

The third 50s film to play on these mythic archetypes is George Steven’s Shane (1953).  Stevens enthusiastically embraces the old myths to almost cartoon levels.   Alan Ladd is Shane, the retired gunfighter trying to change his ways, Van Heflin and Jean Arthur are the pure and good settlers trying to raise their son Joey (Brandon DeWIlde) on the frontier, while Jack Palance is the evil, black hat wearing gun man hired by the cattle men to drive the settlers off.  The film is shot largely thru the child’s eyes, as DeWilde idolizes Ladd and the myths he represents.  His Father (in a memorable performance by Heflin) is a simple and hard-working man, too simple and virtuous to see that he is losing his son and wife to the hero that has inhabited their home.    The odds are stacked against Shane, both in terms of maintaining his heroic virtue and in his triumph over evil.  He has to resist the temptation of love from the woman and her son, and defeat the towering presence of evil that Palance represents.  The odds against Shane are represented by the camera angles him and Palance are shot against, and even in their horses – Shane is given such a small pony to ride that he looks ridiculous on it as he makes the long trek into town to face Palance.  It is Shane’s virtuous character that saves the family not only from the evil cattlemen; it also saves them from themselves, from the urges and longing that threatens to tear them apart.   In the end, a wounded Shane tells Joey to take care of his family, he then rides off into the sunset past the cemetery, intermingling with the graves, while Joey cries, “Shane, come back!”   In Stevens’ film, society is not only saved by the hero, but remains faithful to him. The western hero and the associated myths are dying, symbolized by the cemetery, and despite DeWilde’s pleas, will never return.  The myth is ultimately just that, a myth that has served its purpose.  The simple, emotional cries to Shane can be interpreted as Stevens’ farewell to the myths and the core values they represented.  The broad strokes with which Stevens paints the film highlight the iconic archetypes and emphasize that what we are watching is myth; the good guys are as unmistakably good as the bad guys are bad.  The tone is elegiac, and the film is colored in distinctive autumnal hues – there is a funereal tone, and it becomes clear Stevens is paying tribute to the myths as he buries them.  Like Joey and his family, we can draw strength from the heroic values represented by the myths, but it is time to move on and grow up.

In the sixties, as American cinema was being hit with the same cultural explosion that was transforming music and literature, it took an Italian director and a supporting player on an American television series to write the next chapter in the exploration of the mythic American western hero.  In the spaghetti westerns, “A Fistful of Dollars (1964) ”, “For a Few Dollars More” (1965), and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966), Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood recast the western hero as an anti-hero.  They created the “man with no name” character, and imbued him with all the super human skills of the best gunfighters, but they added moral ambiguity, as the intentions and morality of the character were often times indistinguishable from the corrupt bad guys.   This was all in tune with the anti establishment mood of the time.  In The Good, the Bad and The Ugly, it isn’t until the end that Eastwood’s character is revealed to be the good.  Through most of the movie he is morally indistinguishable from the other two of the trio, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach.  In the end of these movies, like the other icons, the man with no name is alone, outside of society, the rugged individual that America has always celebrated.  However, unlike his heroic predecessors, the man with no name swears no allegiance to or longing to belong to society.  Leone and Eastwood combine the flaws and violence of the Wayne character in The Searchers with the flawed society of High Noon, and offer no hints of healing for either hero or society.   At the end, unlike the Cooper and Wayne and Ladd characters, there is no tragic romanticism associated with Eastwood’s triumph.   The triumph of Eastwood’s character is that he is cynical and world weary enough to manipulate and ultimately rise above the corruption that is inherent in Leone’s view of the world.  

In 1971, in Dirty Harry, Eastwood and the American Director Don Seigel took the man with no name character, put him in a suit and tie, and made him an urban detective in modern day San Francisco.  Harry Callahan was every bit the misogynist of Leone’s man with no name, hating people of all races and creeds equally, and every bit the cowboy on the raw and violent urban streets he patrolled.  The problem, as imagined by Siegel and Eastwood, was that society had softened to the degree that it granted more rights to criminals than their victims, and was every bit as weak and ineffective as Callahan was strong and effective.  As such, Callahan, tracking down a ruthlessly evil serial killer, not only had to triumph over the evil of the villain, but the contemptible weakness of society.  Imagine Gary Cooper’s hero in High Noon not only unable to get help, but also be told that he had to bring Frank Miller and his gang to justice without shooting at them. 

In the end, after triumphing over the serial killer, Eastwood’s Callahan, like Cooper’s Will Kane in High Noon, takes off his badge and throws it away in disgust.   Society has proven unworthy of the hero, but this time, it’s not the leftist anti-establishment view of Leone’s corrupt society and it’s not the ineffective institutions of religion and community of Zinneman’s town in High Noon.  In Dirty Harry the criminal is the soft and naïve intentions of the liberal values that have created an atmosphere where the emphasis on individual rights has elevated the criminal to the master of society.  The establishment that Dirty Harry is rebelling against is contrary to the right wing, Nixon administration establishment that most films of the era were railing against. The ultimate triumph of Dirty Harry  is  that, at a time when Hollywood was dominated by films embracing the counter culture, such a right wing fantasy was not only made but became one of the most commercially successful films of the era. 

 As an actor, the role of “the man with no name” wasn’t very demanding.  It traded on Eastwood’s leading man looks and ability to snarl out his largely monosyllabic lines.  While he projected an undeniable screen presence, there wasn’t a lot of depth or ambiguity to his performances.  As such, he initially seemed an unlikely figure to start directing his own films.  However, it soon became apparent that he was no slouch, and that no one understood Eastwood like Eastwood.  As a director, he has not only made some of the most interesting explorations of the mythic American hero, he has also deconstructed and fleshed out the very iconic images he helped create.

 The first of his films to do this was his second directorial effort, the expressionistic 1972 western High Plains Drifter.  In High Plains Drifter, Eastwood puts the man with no name character directly in the shoes of the Gary Cooper character in High Noon,  but he exaggerates the misogyny of the character and the corruption and cowardice of the town.  Eastwood’s character is hired by the town leaders to defend them from a gang being released from jail that has vowed vengeance on them; like the Cooper character, the town did not defend its Sheriff, unlike High Noon, their inaction resulted in his brutal murder.  Eastwood imagines his character to be an avenging angel, as one by one, he exposes the town leaders for the cowards they are, rapes their women, and literally paints their town red.  In the end, after defeating the returning outlaws and delivering justice, he leaves, telling the midget he had promoted to mayor to mark a grave before riding off and fading into the haze, a ghostly apparition.  The ending recalls the death imagery of Shane, but with a mystical, paranormal twist.   It is with this element of the supernatural, always evident in the character’s superhuman skills with a gun, that Eastwood deepens the mythic qualities of his character, rendering him immortal and comparable to a Greek or Norse God, delivering cosmic justice to the flawed and inferior mortals.

 In 1994, in Unforgiven,  Eastwood deconstructs the man with no name character, stripping him of any hint of immortality or mythic qualities.  In Unforgiven we see him aging, alone, widowed, struggling to bury his past and raise his children on the frontier.  The character is given a name, William Munny, and we see him on a farm, literally falling face first in the mud as he tries to raise pigs.  He even has difficulty mounting a horse.  He is unable to do much of anything; it seems, except kill men.  Even in that aspect, he seems luckier than superhuman.  

In Unforgiven, society is viewed as harsh and corrupt, but gone is the weakness and hypocrisy of “High Plains Drifter” or “Dirty Harry”.  In fact, in Unforgiven, instead of being weak and ineffective, law enforcement is portrayed as brutal and sadistic. The sheriff, played by Gene Hackman, rules the town with a brutal iron fist.  He disposes of the legendary gunfighter English Dan (Richard Harris), hero of dime novels,  with violent effectiveness.  In this film, there is no room for myths of any kind (though there is a writer character who spends the entire film drifting from character to character in an unsuccessful search to find and capitalize and perpetuate the myth) .  It is interesting that the Hackman character, like Eastwood’s, is trying to build a normal, respectable life – he is trying to build a new home but is as bad a carpenter as Eastwood is a farmer.  Neither character is good at anything except raw brutality.  They both long to be part of society but are unable to function there.   There is literally no place in society for men with such skills, and despite their desires to repent, there will be no absolution for their sins.  They will remain unforgiven.

 In the film’s postscript, as Eastwood’s silhouetted figure is seen visiting his wife’s grave, text on the screen says that no one is sure what happened to William  Munny, that he disappeared with his children and was rumored to have moved to San Fransisco and prospered in the dry goods business.  As the text finishes its crawl, Munny’s image disappears.  Shane and the Eastwood character in High Plains Drifter also fade from the screen, but in Unforgiven, there is none of the romantic or mystical symbolism of the earlier films.  The ending is unusually ambiguous for an Eastwood film.  I think it means that regardless of what happened to William Munny, with all his mythic qualities having been stripped away, the hero he represented has finally faded and is gone, and like the ending of Shane, it is time to move on.   Unlike Shane , which seeks to honor and pay tribute to the myth, Unforgiven recognizes the violence and brutality that the myth has perpetuated through the years and that no posthumous tribute is deserved.   In interviews, Eastwood has said he was motivated to make Unforgiven by the Rodney King race riots of 1991.  Recognizing the cowboy mentality that is at the core of the inner city street culture to this day, and the role of the western myths in perpetuating violence, Eastwood seems to be saying that the myth will only be buried when it is stripped bare and clean and revealed as nothing more than a manufacturer of violence,  and that an unglamorous and anonymous ending is the only ending that will finally allow us to move on without its destructive influence.

So now, well into the 21st century, what are we to make of the American western hero?   Has modern culture, as Zinneman and Siegel presented, proven unworthy of such heroism?   Is he, as Stevens and the Eastwood of “Unforgiven” suggest, an outdated relic, something we have to move past?  Were Ford and Leone correct that in order to survive in the modern world of violence and cynicism, he had to shed some of his heroic values?  

This brings me to the film that got me thinking about all of this, Eastwood’s Gran Torino (2008).  Gran Torino isn’t a western, and, unlike Dirty Harry, it isn’t a cop movie, either.  But the film does have Eastwood as leading man in what he has said will likely be his final performance.   If so, he saved his greatest performance for this last, a neat summation of all the characters he had ever played, particularly the Man with No Name and Dirty Harry.

In Gran Torino, Eastwood imagines Dirty Harry as retired auto worker and Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski.   Kowalski finds himself old and alone in an unfamiliar landscape.  He is still recovering from the death of his beloved wife, while the neighborhood he has lived in for years has been taken over by Hmong immigrants and a cycle of poverty and gang violence.  Kowalski clings to his “greatest generation” values of family loyalty and hard work, and his racist attitude and stereotypical viewpoints are reinforced by the violence and selfishness and decay he sees around him.   A new Hmong family has moved next door to Kowalski, and the teenage son, named Thao, as part of a gang initiation, attempts to steal Kowalksi’s prize possession, a mint 1972 Gran Torino.  Kowalski, despite his better judgment, gets involved with the family, rescuing the teenage daughter, Sue, from a gang attack.  Sue befriends Kowalski, and introduces him to her family.  The family is shamed by Thao’s  attempted theft of Kowalksi’s car, and in addition to bringing him gifts and food, they insist the young man work off their shame by doing whatever odd jobs Kowalski has for him. 

A t the same time, Kowalski’s fractured relationship with his own sons is revealed.   On his birthday, one son and his wife try to convince Kowalski to enter a retirement home, with disastrous results.  Then, invited into their home by Sue, he witnesses the close knit multi generational dynamic of the Hmong family, and observes that he has more in common with them than his own family.  This is an important revelatory moment for Kowalski:  not only does this foreign culture hold dear many of the same ”American” values and principles, they observe them and are more faithful to them than he and his family are.   Kowalksi is able to see the universal humanity that had previously eluded not only him, but had also eluded Ethan Edwards’ view of the Comanches in The Searchers and Harry Callahan’s two dimensional view of the street minorities in Dirty Harry .   By seeing his failures with his own family, he also begins to understand that just merely labeling values as American doesn’t mean we actually obey them.   

As Thao goes to work for Kowalski, a friendship emerges, as Kowalksi learns that Thao possesses the core value that Kowalski holds most dear, a strong work ethic.  Kowalski becomes aware of the tragic cycle of poverty and violence that is perpetuated by the gang culture that dominates the streets.  Like Harry Callahan, Kowalski “knows how to fix things”, and tries to take matters in his own hand by brutally beating the gang leader and telling him to leave Thao alone.    However, Kowalski is unable to fore see the violent and tragic outcome of his action, as the gang takes vengeance, retaliating with drive by shootings of the family’s home and brutally raping Sue.  Kowalski knows he is responsible for this chain of events, and knows that Thao and his family will never find peace as long as the gang continues.   He tells Thao that he is planning their revenge, that “this is what I do, I finish things.”  Then, while preparing for their final confrontation with the gang, he lets Thao admire the Silver Cross he won in Korea, using it as a vehicle to lock Thao in his basement, so he’d have no part in the killing that was going to occur.   He explains to Thao that he got the medal for shooting a teenage Korean kid not much older than Thao, and that the memory has haunted him ever since.   Here is the second key deconstruction of the myth – the heroic deed for which he received such a high reward was in fact the murder of a young boy – not much different from the young boys who are murdered every day in the cowboy violence of the modern inner city.  Again, as in Unforgiven,  Eastwood is revealing the real cost this outdated myth continues to inflict.

 All of this sets the stage for the final showdown between the lone gunslinger hero and the bad guys.  Like Will Kane, Eastwood is seen preparing for the showdown by visiting members of the community, unlike Kane, he is not seeking their help, but rather seems to be saying goodbye.    He approaches the bad guys and calls them out, loudly so the townspeople can bear witness.  He puts a cigarette in his mouth and when he reaches in his jacket, the gang members shoot him down, assuming he is reaching for his gun when in fact he was reaching for his military issued lighter.   Having shot down an unarmed man in front of many witnesses, we are told the gang members will be put away for a long time.   Kowalski has willed the Gran Torino to Thao (instead of his own selfish granddaughter) and ensured peace for Thao’s family.   He has, like he promised, “finished things.”

In the end, Kowalski sacrifices himself for the American family.  His death suggests the Christ comparisons of High Noon, except in Gran Torino, Kowalski dies for nobody’s sins but his own, for the cycle of violence he perpetuated when he beat the gang leader.   In a larger sense, Eastwood’s hero is dying for the sins committed since the earliest days of our history in the name of the western hero.   It is also worth noting that the American family Kowalski dies for is a Hmong family, having proven to be more worthy of the “American” values than Kowalski’s own family.    The melting pot proves to be a better ideal to strive for than the “rugged individual”.    In the end, the hero possesses none of the cynical survive at all costs attributes of Leone’s man with no name, there is no place for the violence or misogyny of Dirty Harry or Ethan Edwards of The Searchers.   The true heroic values of self sacrifice and love of community are all that  remain.

4 thoughts on “Clint Eastwood and the Mythology of the American West

  1. Fascinating and informative – I’ve just started to “get” Western’s and Clint plays a seminal role in my film going life.

    The BBC made a documentary by an Rich Hall about the history of the Western which you may find informative.

    Loved it.

  2. Ha, the fact that you started the post with “be warned-this entry is a very lengthy and boring and pretentious look at one of my favorite genres”, actually made me laugh and want to read on. It was interesting reading about the dissection of older western films and it’s romanticism, compared with the more harsh Eastwood films. Watching a lot of these, I get caught up in the moment and don’t think about themes and such until later. This was a great article, and interesting insight into the genre. Thanks!

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