Great American Westerns (Part 5) – ace directors and star actors hunt in pairs: Clint Eastwood

In the final entry of this series, let’s look at a collaboration that brought a strikingly different stylistic approach to the Western and heralded the arrival of a new leading man, just in time to take over from ageing stars like John Wayne and James Stewart. Sergio Leone’s “Spaghetti Westerns” in the mid-60’s made Clint Eastwood the face of the Western for GenX just as John Wayne had been for Baby Boomers. Eastwood then parlayed the success of these Italian-made films to become a one-man global entertainment behemoth over the next half a century, which included some notable Westerns in which he excelled both in front of and behind the camera.

Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood

A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966).

After honing his skills for nearly two decades as an assistant director and scriptwriter for Italian “sword-and-sandal” epics such as Sign of the Gladiator, The Last Days of Pompeii and The Colossus of Rhodes (which he also directed), Sergio Leone was ready to try his hand at something new. After he and his filmmaker friends saw Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, he used the story template to write the screenplay for A Fistful of Dollars. At this point, the Italian film industry had just started experimenting with their own version of Hollywood westerns having released a few western comedies in the early 60’s. Leone and his producer friends felt that it would be interesting to take the genre into a grittier and edgier direction, and Kurosawa’s story of a morally ambiguous ronin playing two opposing village factions against each other for his own financial benefit, presented the perfect vehicle to bring this vision to life.

Failing to secure established Hollywood stars for an Italian production, the producers eventually approached Clint Eastwood who was coming off a highly successful run on the TV show Rawhide, but hadn’t had much success in films up to that point. Eastwood was eager to take on a screen persona that was the polar opposite of the his goody-two-shoes TV cowboy Rowdy Yates. The movie redefined everything that the public had come to expect from a Western; the title sequence (by Iginio Lardani), the soundtrack (by Ennio Morricone) and the camerawork (by Massimo Dallamano) were all highly stylized. Eastwood’s nameless lead had a distinctive look, with a permanent stubble, a poncho, a cigar in his mouth and a wide-brimmed, flatter hat (as opposed to the high crown, pinch-front diamond crease hats worn by John Wayne). The only weak link in the movies is the atrocious dubbing into English. Two more films in the series followed in quick succession repeating the winning template, launching Eastwood’s career and also creating the much-talked-about but short-lived “Spaghetti Western” sub-genre.

Clint Eastwood as “the man with no name” from Sergio Leone’s trilogy.

The final film in the trilogy was the most commercially successful. It benefited from the inclusion of American actors Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef (he was also in the second film), who along with Eastwood’s “man with no name” created a compelling on-screen dynamic.

The producers had failed to secure the rights from Toho Studios for Yojimbo and so the two parties got bogged down in a lengthy legal dispute before an out-of-court settlement finally paved the way for the release of all three films back-to-back in the US in 1967.

Sergio Leone only directed three more films in his career, which are loosely referred to as the “Once Upon a Time” trilogy. These were the highly acclaimed Western, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), the unfortunately named, but visually arresting “Zapata Western” Duck You Sucker (1971) and the nearly 4-hour-long crime drama Once Upon a Time in America (1984). These films featured some of the most accomplished actors of their time, including Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale, Rod Steiger, James Coburn, Robert De Niro, James Woods and Joe Pesci.

Clint Eastwood and Clint Eastwood

High Plains Drifter (1973), The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Pale Rider (1985), Unforgiven (1992).

Armed with his earnings from The Man with No Name trilogy, the doors of Hollywood opened for Eastwood and he proceeded to take control of his cinematic future by setting up Malpaso Productions, and going on to produce and direct a number of his feature films. Studios loved his economical directing style; he would invariably bring his films in ahead of schedule and under budget. After an auspicious directing debut with the psycho-thriller Play Misty for Me, Eastwood returned to the Western genre again as a nameless stranger with High Plains Drifter in 1973, quickly followed by the highly acclaimed and financially successful The Outlaw Josey Wales in 1976.

After nearly a decade during which he directed himself in a wide range of action films, he returned to the Western with Pale Rider in 1985, one of my favourites. Again playing a man with no name, Eastwood dialled up the mythic aura of his character The Preacher, in a film dotted with religious symbolism. It was quite a risky venture for Warner Bros., given the decline of the Western as a genre and the costly failure of Heaven’s Gate in 1980. But Eastwood delivered as usual, with a $40 million domestic box office against a $7 million budget. The film received praise from critics and was even entered into Cannes that year.

And then, as he entered his sixth decade, Eastwood kicked off one of the most remarkably successful runs of any director in the modern era with his revisionist Western, Unforgiven. The film would be nominated for 9 Oscars, including 3 for Eastwood personally as producer, director and actor, of which he would win for Best Picture and Best Director. This extraordinary, engrossing tale attempts to subvert every aspect of the Eastwood’s on-screen cowboy persona. It is effectively the sequel to every one of his man-with-no-name films, answering the question – what happens to a gunslinger if he survives all his fights and settles down with a family and gets old. Is he able to walk away from his violent past forever, or will there always be a yearning for one last fight? And so, he plays Bill Munny, going from the man with no name to a man with a very ordinary, in fact almost laughable name. We are introduced to him many years after his violent past, now living as a (not very capable) hog farmer and single parent trying to raise two kids, a man who has forgotten how to shoot or even get on a horse. Somehow, through the most unlikely circumstances, he is drawn back to violence one last time. But instead of glorifying violence, the film deglamorizes it, not just for the audience but even for the characters. As Bill Munny says at the end, “Its a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away everything he’s got and everything he’s ever gonna have.”

Filled with an all-star cast of character actors at the top of their game – Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, Richard Harris, Jaimz Woolvet (in his feature film debut), Frances Fisher, Saul Rubinek, Anthony James and others – this is as powerful a film as any Eastwood has made in his career, matched perhaps only by 2003’s Mystic River for its deep examination of the choices people make and the impact of those choices on the people around them.

Clint Eastwood as Bill Munny in Unforgiven (1992), directed by Clint Eastwood

And so, we come to the end of this series which I’ve really enjoyed reminiscing, researching and writing. What started out as a chance reading of a New York Times article about the films of Bud Boetticher and Randolph Scott led to a 2 month long discovery (and re-discovery) of some fantastic (and some pedestrian) Westerns from these extraordinary director-actor collaborations.

To close off, here are the other collaborations I covered in this series:

  • Part 1: Randolph Scott’s films with Henry Hathaway, Andre DeToth and Budd Boetticher
  • Part 2: James Stewart’s films with Anthony Mann, John Ford and Andrew V. McLaglen
  • Part 3: John Wayne’s films with George Sherman and John Ford
  • Part 4: John Wayne’s films with Howard Hawks, Henry Hathaway and Andrew V. McLaglen

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