Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Clint Eastwood – "Scraps of Hope"

The following piece was originally published in the September/October 1992 Film Comment under the title "Scraps of Hope." I don’t find much to add to it, particularly (and obviously) since Clint Eastwood hasn’t made a Western since Unforgiven and the piece occupies itself exclusively with that form. That’s not to say he’s been finished making great films. A Perfect World and The Bridges of Madison County, especially, were major films by any measure. And True Crime does have an aromatic resemblance to El Dorado.
     First as an actor, then as an actor-producer and actor-director, Clint Eastwood has helped extend and re-imagine the Western with startling persistence and consistency throughout his career. His gunfighter heroes are distinct from the detectives who comprise the other key facet of his iconography. "Dirty Harry" Callahan and his ilk belong to institutions that no longer live up to their responsibilities; they are perpetually at war, trying to figure out how far one can go in fulfilling one’s responsibilities without betraying them in the process. Eastwood’s gunmen – in his work as an actor-director, at least – enjoy no such organized backing. His Westerners are loners, outcasts, and outlaws who have to forge some coherent ethical code in a world dominated by hypocritical adherence to money, power, and force, and defined by an implacable landscape. Unforgiven is the harsh, brilliant, culmination, indeed consummation, of themes, motifs, characterizations, and critical attitudes that have evolved in Clint Eastwood’s Westerns for more than 30 years.
     In the mid Fifties, Eastwood had been slowly and unspectacularly working his way toward featured player status in a handful of films (including three Westerns: The First Traveling Saleslady, Star in the Dust, Ambush at Cimarron Pass) and had made guest appearances on TV's Wagon Train and Maverick. His first career breakthrough came with his casting as Rowdy Yates, the second lead on CBS-TV's Rawhide series. Though his stint on Rawhide ran seven years, from January 1959 to January 1966, it has been treated as a career footnote – merely the means of giving him enough visibility to attract the attention of Sergio Leone after the Italian director had failed to land bigger names for A Fistful of Dollars. Yet the very fact that Eastwood achieved his lasting fame with ferocious subversions of Western conventions lends a special significance to the seven years he spent playing by the rules.
     Besides, Western stars have always tended to establish their physical images early in their careers and hew to them forever after, as physical reflections of moral character. It was in Rawhide that Eastwood adopted the flat-crowned, wide-brimmed hat that would remain his trademark. Although he claims to have chosen that particular style for the disappointingly mundane reason that he needed something to shade his sun-sensitive eyes, the hat had an immediate and sustained impact on his screen character as well. The brim didn't just protect Eastwood's eyes from the sun, it hid them from the audience. Rowdy Yates, young and affable and even somewhat naive, became, as a result, also something of an unknown quantity, guarded in his glances and in his attitude.
     Eastwood explains that the idea behind Rawhide was to make a television series out of Red River, with the cattle drives from Texas to Abilene providing the structural spine for each week's episode. Moreover, just as Eric Fleming's trail boss Gil Favor was a kind of paterfamilias like Red River's Thomas Dunson, Rowdy Yates's semi-rebellious ramrod echoed Matthew Garth, Dunson's adopted son – or, perhaps more to the point, Cherry Valance, the young gunfighter who became Garth's friend and somewhat sinister double.
     Like Garth and Valance, Rowdy is proud of his quick draw; like Valance specifically, he has a temper as quick as his hand, and carries a strong air of menace. And whereas Matthew Garth had, through his adopted father's patrimony, a vested interest in the cattle he herded to market and in the land where they were bred, Yates, like Valance, is a hired hand without ties to the land.

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