Clint Eastwood and the Western: A Film Primer

Clint Eastwood Pale RiderThere are few figures quite as representative of American ideals of masculinity as Clint Eastwood. Since starring in Sergio Leone’s genre-perforating Western classic, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), Eastwood’s career has largely been about the representation – and later the deconstruction – of what it means to be a man.  This was, initially, a trajectory set forth not so much by Eastwood himself as by the studios that wished to work with him. Here was a white male, fit, of a handsome yet rugged appearance, whose early success in Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns had been more about intimidating silence than verbal exchange (something Eastwood puts down to his protests against the excessive exposition and dialogue in the initial A Fistful of Dollars screenplay). And so, soon enough, Eastwood found himself being offered similar roles in the United States.

But then in 1971, a rupture occurred that allowed the coexistence of two alternate Eastwood’s within the same cinematic universe. In this year Clint Eastwood’s silent stranger was relocated to San Francisco in the guise of Dirty Harry – a movie critics like Pauline Kael were to quick to criticise as fascist in tone. But also in that year, Eastwood released his directorial debut, Play Misty for Me, in which he casts himself as a lackadaisical DJ with a tendency to take women for granted.

In Play Misty for Me, Eastwood’s character has an affair with a young woman before deciding to cast her aside, and soon her increasingly obsessive advances move from irritating to disturbing. The material is problematic in many ways, but Eastwood is clearly attempting to work through the consequences of his protagonist’s own assumptions and arrogance – it is his flippant lack of consideration for the opposite sex that leads him into this situation. This is the first film in which Eastwood appears to be using his own masculine star-image to reflect upon the ideas that this image implicitly represents: what does it mean to be a man?

Which brings me to my purpose. While Eastwood’s work within the Western represents only a small portion of his total oeuvre, it is within this genre that his development can be most perfectly traced – from macho star to auteur of masculine-centric cinema. And so, here is a primer tracing Clint Eastwood’s development and evolution within the Western.

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

When the relatively young Clint Eastwood received a script from an obscure Italian filmmaker by the name of Sergio Leone, it was immediately apparent that he was looking at a potentially half-decent (and unauthorised) remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), relocated from feudal Japan to the Old West. With the expectation that the film would provide him with a half-decent pay-cheque and an opportunity to travel, Eastwood headed off to shoot in Italy and Spain. At the end of the day, he reasoned, even if the film was a disaster it would never be seen in America. And thus, history was made.

As it turned out, A Fistful of Dollars was a significant success, even if many critics were initially less than enamoured with what was perceived as a rather brutal, cynical and vulgar new take on the Western genre. Morricone’s startlingly original and operatic score lifted the material. Leone’s fascination with the grimier elements of the Old West, reflected in the weathered faces of brutal men, gave the genre an added layer of grit that had never been there before. And Eastwood’s simple yet imposing stoicism brought everything together. The critics were certainly right that this was something new; a subgenre that would soon become known (initially disparagingly) as the Spaghetti Western.

For a Few Dollars More (1965)


A sequel was inevitable, and Eastwood soon headed back to Europe to star in For A Few Dollars More, once again helmed by Leone. The result was a film superior in every way to the original. The characters were more coherent, the score was a triumph, and the performances of Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Gian Maria Volonté were equally outstanding. And to my mind, the strange infusion of diegetic and non-diegetic sound is perfection – the centrepiece being a musical pocket-watch used by Volonte in duels, whose sound is absorbed, expanded and made operatic by Morricone’s accompanying score. Epic.

If anything, Eastwood’s character was the least complex of the three protagonists, but it was becoming clear that the emotionally impervious nature of this ‘man with no name’ was to be the defining characteristic of his new persona. Although, despite what the marketing campaigns for English-speaking countries suggested, Eastwood’s character did have a name.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

They say good things come in threes, and Leone’s Dollars Trilogy is no exception. Eastwood headed back once more to Europe in order to star in this, the biggest, boldest and most iconic of them all. Millions of people around the world, who have never seen this film, still recognise its score (rightly or wrongly) as the definitive accompaniment to the Western genre.

Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and the adorable Eli Wallach star in this tale of greed and betrayal set against the backdrop of the American Civil War. There is no denying the ambition of the work, even if Leone loses control of his material at times, getting a little bogged down in the historical mythology he’s trying to convey.

Once again, Eastwood plays the film’s impassive protagonist, standing in contrast to two characters who are given far more developed back-stories. By this point, Eastwood was clearly the stand-in for the (male?) spectator, the character who very shakily walks the ambiguous moral line, always landing just barely on the side of right.

Hang ‘Em High (1968)


Clint Eastwood returns to the United States in this far more modest entry into the Western genre, directed by Ted Post, which works (with partial success) to combine some of the Spaghetti Western’s operatic elements with a more American narrative-driven approach. Most interesting is the film’s engagement with ideas around the death penalty and the fine line between justice and vengeance.

Eastwood plays a man who is wrongfully hanged as a suspect horse-thief, only to escape his fate just before death. Subsequently, he becomes the marshal of a nearby town, and must battle with the conflict between his duty and a desire for revenge. The moral complexities of the text are weighed down by less than audacious filmmaking, but what’s most interesting about this film is that Eastwood turned down Mackenna’s Gold, a far larger and more lucrative project in favour of this more conceptually ambitious Western.

Incidentally, Mackenna’s Gold was a mess, and only achieved success in the Soviet Union, where it became the fourth most popular foreign film of all time.

Paint Your Wagon (1969)

Eastwood and Lee Marvin star in this less than stellar Western-Musical. Neither is the most gifted singer (admittedly, they could be worse), but it’s the generally clumsy writing, meandering narrative and excessive running time that make this more homework than entertainment. A footnote in the Eastwood/Western oeuvre.

Two Mules for Sister Sarah (1970)

Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine star in this Mexican-American coproduction, a loveable tale of an American Mercenary and a nun (supposedly) who find themselves working to help a band of American revolutionaries. Directed by Don Siegel, who displays his typical sense of cinematic economy in a film that gently straddles the border between Western and romantic comedy. This is light entertainment, no doubt – but it does entertain.

Joe Kidd (1972)

John Sturges directs Joe Kidd, the last Western Eastwood would ever appear in without also sitting in the director’s chair. It’s also probably the worst. A solid cast and screenplay by Elmore Leonard can’t help this rather limp effort along.

High Plains Drifter (1973)

In retrospect, it’s quite staggering to note that Eastwood was in his early 40s before he first got around to heading-up his own Western, but he certainly made it count.  Following his directorial debut with Play Misty for Me (1971), Eastwood directed High Plains Drifter, an aggressive revisionist take on the genre that commenced a series of increasingly sophisticated interrogations of the Western mythology.

Clint Eastwood High Plains DrifterEastwood plays a drifter who arrives in the small town of Lago with the apparent intention of just passing through, only to be forced in to killing three men in broad daylight. As it turns out, the townsfolk are in need of the stranger’s talents for killing, having just found out that a gang of convicted criminals with a vendetta against Lago are about to be released. Eastwood is hired to prepare the people of Lago for the gang’s imminent arrival. However, as the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that nobody is as they appear. The townsfolk are clearly hiding something from the stranger, but it’s also clear that the stranger’s arrival in town is not the happy coincidence it initially appeared to be. It’s not long before this sleepy little town – almost literally – goes to hell.

Eastwood clearly spent much time fermenting the genre down to its barest essentials in his mind before making his first contribution, and the result is an artfully constructed old-testament tale of revenge, devoid of extraneous materials. By taking the minimalist exposition of the Dollars Trilogy to the level of abstraction, and using this approach to literalise many of the common thematic concerns of the genre (e.g. a man out for revenge is simplified down to a man who is revenge), Eastwood’s film almost becomes an essay on the genre itself. This is all the more interesting when one considers that the film could be considered as something of a sequel or response to High Noon, were it to have ended with the flagellation of Gary Cooper by the villains as the cowardly townsfolk looked on.

I’d be remiss in my duties here if I did not acknowledge that there is a highly problematic rape sequence in this film that is both jarring and regressive in nature – the film would be far better if an alternative choice had been made.

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

The Western has a long tradition of protagonists who sit outside the boundaries of normal societal existence, instead choosing (or being destined) to roam from place to place. Shane (1953), The Searchers (1956), and High Plains Drifter are just a few significant examples. In Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales, he continues to pursue his interest in material that opens up and inverts such conventions.

Here, Eastwood plays Josey Wales, a farmer whose family are murdered by Union soldiers. He joins the Confederates in search of revenge, but the following years of war only add to his burden. When the war comes to an end, his fellow soldiers attempt to surrender, but they are massacred leaving only Wales alive. The paradigm of the Western is thus inverted, and as a witness to this callous act, Wales must now outrun the Unionists who wish to take his life. While on the run, he finds himself picking up numerous travel-companions along the way, who begin to form a ragtag substitute family that take the place of those that he has lost. In other words, the narrative tradition of the loner out for revenge becomes the tale of a man outrunning the consequences of his failed revenge, whose journey brings him towards a sense of family and belonging.

Interestingly, Eastwood was not the director originally intended to helm this film (although the film was a product of Eastwood’s own production company, Malpaso Productions). Philip Kaufman was the original director, but was fired early-on due to creative differences with Eastwood about Kaufman’s approach to direction (and, some suggest, due to their competing interest in cast member, Sandra Locke). Eastwood has since expressed regret about this incident, suggesting that he should not have brought in another director when he had such strong feelings about how the film should be made.

Pale Rider (1985)

Eastwood’s third Western as director is an interesting film, largely inspired by Shane, that seems to stand as a rather odd and oppositional companion piece to his own High Plains Drifter. If Drifter is a film about a negative force sent to exact revenge against a town of corrupted human beings, Rider is about a positive force sent to protect a community of righteous human beings. But both films share the implication that their protagonists are not necessarily individuals so much as they are impenetrable instruments of divine will.

Unforgiven (1992)

There were two films that did much to reposition Eastwood’s reputation from that of a Hollywood action hero to one of American’s cinema’s leading auteurs. The first was the Charlie Parker biopic, Bird (1988), Eastwood’s first foray into the world of historical representation, and the second was Unforgiven, Eastwood’s (most likely) final directorial and acting entry into the Western genre.

Clint Eastwood UnforgivenEastwood plays William Munny, a former gunslinger with a history of violence that we are led to believe is less than admirable. Munny has long since abandoned his evil ways for the love of a good woman. Unfortunately, she has died, leaving him with two young children and a farm populated by diseased pigs. Things aren’t looking great, so when a young man shows up offering Munny the opportunity to join him in collecting the bounty on three violent rapists, it’s difficult to refuse. Enter Morgan Freeman, Munny’s old partner in crime, who comes along for the ride primarily to keep his friend from getting himself killed.

But things aren’t always what they appear, and the lines of morality are soon superbly blurred by David Webb Peoples’ near-perfect script. The villains turn out to be more human than one might expect, and the sheriff (Gene Hackman) who sees over the town in which they reside is capable of extreme brutality in defence of his own notions of law and order. Meanwhile, a charlatan gunslinger (Richard Harris) shows up in town with his own biographer (Saul Rubinek), whose insistence on elevating his muse to the level of mythological Western hero is perhaps the film’s most obvious parody of the genre itself. This is a film without clear delineations between the good, the bad, and the ugly. And it is a film in which violence is shown to have true consequence.

There are those who might argue that Eastwood’s attempt to deconstruct the violent mythology of the Western and juxtapose it with the very real consequences of said violence ultimately reverts back to the myth it wishes to critique in the final act. After all, few can doubt the vicarious thrill of the film’s final chilling moments. I’d suggest that good art shouldn’t function quite so didactically as that, and that this conclusion works to remind viewers of their own complicity in the cinematic celebration of violence. To my mind, this is Eastwood’s masterpiece.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

14 thoughts on “Clint Eastwood and the Western: A Film Primer

  1. Hi James,life long fan of Clint. My fave has always been TG TB & TU,not only for the music but for a movie made in 1966 the story line never fails to please. I watch it at least twice a year. I wonder how a modern remake of this film would go,not necessarily in western form.

  2. Very enjoyable article – you’ve nicely captured the essence of Eastwood’s key westerns. I’m a serious fan of Unforgiven, particularly as it portrays masculinity from both a young (Schofield Kid) and an old (Will and Ned) aspect, bringing much needed human drama to the genre by adding some realistic life altering decisions for the characters to deal with in their own way. For me this elevates it above all others, as it carefully deconstructs western violence, and then rebuilds it within a greater moral context.

  3. I have all of Clints westerns,and yes i agree Unforgiven is his best,i love all his work,acting and directing,Kellys heros,yes it deserves its place,as does Gran Toreno,even make my day,hey Clint is good.

  4. I was expecting this one at some stage James, and I wasn’t disappointed of course. A skillful and obviously affectionate look at a large part of Eastwood’s career, and as usual, near-perfect in execution.

    As someone considerably older, my own view on the ‘Spaghetti’ westerns does not follow the usual acclaim that I read almost everywhere. I hated them at the time, and still find them hard to watch now. I will never be convinced that they are even particularly good films, let alone great ones. I thought that the scripts were poor, the acting suspect at best, and I never bought into the jarring music, loved by fans and critics over the years. Just me then…

    Unlike Simon, I rate ‘Josey Wales’ as his best western. ( OK it is set in the Civil War so perhaps not a ‘true’ western, I know) The cast (with the exception of Sondra Locke) are all perfect, and the wittiness alongside the violence just seems to work so well. The script has some of my favourite western lines; ‘Dying ain’t much of a living boy’ included. It also gives positive roles to the Native American actors, and they even get to be amusing.
    I am an Eastwood fan generally, despite the supposed ‘fascist’ connotations of some of his work. (Surely redeemed in ‘Gran Torino’?) I just have a problem with a lot of the westerns.
    Thanks for a very interesting article as always James. Best wishes, Pete.

  5. Excellent, James–some really good movies here in this thorough examination… and some bizarre ones, too (Two Mules for Sister Sara … what a strange film), as well as a critically acclaimed one that I’m in the minority on in terms of not liking: The Outlaw Josey Wales, which I’ve always found unpleasant. But The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, High Plains Drifter, Pale Rider, Unforgiven … all fine flicks.

    What do you think about Coogan’s Bluff as a fish-out-of-water western? Sure, it’s not set in the Old West, but he does have the attitude.

    • Thanks, Simon. I thought about Coogan’s Bluff (as well as ‘The Beguiled’ and ‘Bronco Billy’), but thought I’d focus on the more traditional and clear-cut Westerns in this example.

  6. Thanks, James, for the recent visit to my Westerns genre site….and this post about Eastwood and the Western is very comprehensive. You might be interested in a brief clip from an interview he gave to the American Film Institute about what, to his mind, makes a good Western….I did a post about at it at this link:

    All the best with this site and your PhD studies!


  7. James, you had me at “the adorable Eli Wallach.”

    I think High Plains Drifter is the most interesting Western he has made, though Josey Wales and Unforgiven are both quite good. A lot of the Eastwood-directed non-Westerns also deal very openly with the idea of masculinity, but the one that I always found fascinating (and a huge mess of an entertaining movie), is Kelly’s Heroes. The juxtaposition of Eastwood’s laconic stoic, Telly Savalas’ lovably gruff classic sergeant, and Donald Sutherland’s flower child killer — characters who seem to be acting in three separate movies — provides a spectrum of masculine heroes.

    • Thanks, Jon! I absolutely agree that most of Eastwood’s work has been about masculinity, but thought that sticking to the Western would narrow down the body of films to something I could work with for the sake of this piece. Kelly’s Heroes is a lot of fun!

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