“In this world there’s two kinds of people, my friend. Those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You dig. “
When I was in junior high school, The Man With No Name appeared. In three now classic films – A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and the capper, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly that character established what we all now know as the “Eastwood persona”: the laconic loner, adhering to his own peculiar moral code (at times seemingly amoral but generally tending toward just in a rough frontier sort of way) and, when crossed, breathtakingly deadly.
“I know what you’re thinking. Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kinda forgot myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum – the most powerful handgun in the world – and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question – Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya punk?!”
When I was in college, Dirty Harry appeared. In the era of peace and love, Harry Callahan, in films like Dirty Harry and Sudden Impact, suggested that the best way for society to deal with those who found society’s laws and rules difficult to obey was to eliminate them – usually as violently as MPAA ratings would allow.
Through a long, sometimes puzzling, sometimes distinguished set of films, Eastwood has massaged those images, and tried his best at times to shatter them.
There are westerns that exploit, expand, and even try to explode the Man With No Name – The Outlaw Josey Wales, High Plains Drifter, Pale Rider.
There are the “Dirty Harry” films – a film series that celebrates vigilante-ism in modern society and which Eastwood himself has admitted to a “love/hate” relationship with – Dirty Harry, Magnum Force, Sudden Impact, The Dead Pool.
If these were all Eastwood had given us, he’d still be a film icon. But he’s done so much more:
The “Man with No Name” films led to the series of Western anti-heroes described above – but they also led to clever skewerings of the image Eastwood carefully built – in films like Bronco Billy – a film whose title character, played by Eastwood, makes a statement that could come out of the mouth of any of those anti-heroes – but couches it in the context of advising school children as the Lone Ranger or Hopalong Cassidy would:
“You should never kill a man unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
And ultimately, of course, those films led to Unforgiven – arguably the greatest western film ever made – a film that looks unflinchingly at the myths of gunfighters and the horror that adhering to “the code of the West” caused even the most hardened men:
“It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man. You take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.”
And the Dirty Harry films led Eastwood to the conflicted heroes of films like In the Line of Fire and Blood Work – men whose powers both physical and mental are being drained by age and life’s disappointments, but who carry on because it’s what they must do:
“A good glare can be as effective as a gun. Know what I mean?”
And of course there are the anomalies – the films that Eastwood did out of love of his craft – Play Misty for Me, Honky Tonk Man, White Hunter, Black Heart, Million Dollar Baby and of course the the two brilliant WWII films from the past year – Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. – or those done for the hell of it or because he was having fun – Every Which Way But Loose, Pink Cadillac, The Bridges of Madison County, Space Cowboys.
But always Eastwood has gone his own way. As he said himself:
“I tried being reasonable. I didn’t like it.”
Happy Birthday, Clint.