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Westerns made Clint Eastwood a star. His iconic role as the Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy (which includes The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966), cemented his persona playing men of little words – tough, terse archetypes of American authority. The Western genre presented, as Eastwood described it, “the last masculine frontier.”
But in the modern context, it was already a landscape in decline when Eastwood stepped into it, under pressure from civil rights movements, including feminism, which demanded the revision of the dominant narrative of white male power. America’s messy role in the Vietnam War also made it difficult to continue to imagine the old mythologies in black and white terms.
Eastwood is primarily associated with revisionist Westerns, which problematise past representations of marginalised figures in the Western landscape (Native Americans, African-Americans, women) and emphasise moral grey areas in human behaviour. His characters in these films are rarely clear-cut good guys.
I recommend you watch The Outlaw Josey Wales and then watch Pale Rider – two films that underline the enduring appeal of Clint Eastwood’s revisionist Westerns.
The Outlaw Josey Wales
His fifth film as director, The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) follows in this tradition. Eastwood stars as the titular outlaw, a Confederate Missouri farmer who is driven to bloody revenge after Union militants murder his wife and young son during the American Civil War.
As The Outlaw Josey Wale’s original poster declared, Wales is “an army of one” – a hero who kills. The film’s body count is indeed high, as Wales becomes a fugitive, on the run from bounty hunters and the Union army. He’s bitter about what he’s seen – a natural born loner who turns his back on civilization after it turns its back on him. Despite its violence, The Outlaw Josey Wales is firmly an anti-war film. The Vietnam War had ended only a few years before it was made, leaving an open, national wound from which many of America’s greatest films would bleed out of. Before he rides off into the mountains, Wales has distributed his own form of justice and retribution, but redemption is still a long way away.
Eastwood plays an avenging angel of another sort in Pale Rider (1985). In the highest grossing Western of the 1980s, Eastwood directed himself as the shadowy high plains loner known only as ‘The Preacher,’ who like the fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse that gives the film its title, rides into town on a pale horse.
Is he a real man or some kind of spectral form? This is a mystery the film never quite resolves, but while he is in the snowy mountain town of Lahood, California, The Preacher becomes something of a divine protector for a village of prospectors trampled on and tormented by the greedy mining baron who gives the town its name, Coy Lahood (Richard Dysark).
Like his work in The Outlaw Josey Wales and beyond, Eastwood’s Preacher is a cowboy of few words, an almost empty image of American masculinity onto which the film’s characters, and its audience, can project their desires and needs.
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