Jonathan Rosenbaum is fond of quoting British critic and curator Michael Witt on Godard; Witt writes that “If Godard… has repeatedly suggested that the cinema is likely to die more or less when he does, then he has, for a good ten or fifteen years, exploited his own body and its physical aging as illustrative and exemplary of the winding down of cinema as an art form.” Rosenbaum adds “Godard’s… own autobiography can be traced back to a more general impulse to ‘give cinema a body.’” These are highly suggestive ideas, linking one’s self intrinsically to the lifecycle of a very specific concept of a 20th-century art form, and which happens to be most fully embodied in an American context via the work of Clint Eastwood. No contemporary U.S. director has been as active for as long, nor as remarkably prolific, as Clint. The man has been in front of a camera for so much of his life that you can find images of him from every year aged 25 to (as of this writing) 92 years old. And while Eastwood has been associated with almost every genre under the sun as both actor and director, it seems likely that he (like John Ford) will forever be most closely tethered to the Western, that great American ideal that has persevered throughout the entire history of moving pictures. From low-budget, quickie television shows to the baroque excess of the Spaghetti Western to the highest echelon of Hollywood glamour (the Oscars, of course), Eastwood has either shaped or otherwise influenced the last 50 years of the genre. Taken as a loose trilogy of sorts, High Plains Drifter (1973), Pale Rider (1985), and Unforgiven (1992) reflect both the attitudes of the decades in which they were made as well as Eastwood’s ongoing interrogation of his own place within this canon.
One could write an entire book about the ways in which these films both intersect and diverge from one another, like a conversation spanning three decades. High Plains Drifter (discussed more thoroughly here) finds a nameless Eastwood arriving in a small town like an avenging angel of death, bending the corrupt townsfolk to his will before betraying them and leaving them all for dead. Pale Rider begins in much the same way, with Eastwood appearing like a specter and immediately linked to the apocalyptic Book of Revelations via another character’s voiceover narration. Except here, Eastwood becomes a protector of the community, defending it from the clutches of big business while attempting to make amends for some past transgression. In Drifter, it’s not so subtly suggested that he is the devil incarnate; in Rider, he’s more like a benevolent God (or angel of mercy, take your pick). In fact, Drifter and Rider become kind of inverse mirror images of each other: Drifter is a dusty film, full of reds, oranges, and browns, a sun-blasted color palette that ends with the town literally painted red and renamed Hell. Eastwood’s ghostly avenger exits in a cloud of dust, having raped and murdered his way through the populace. Rider is a cooler affair, whites and blue-greens and lush forests. Cinematographer Bruce Surtees shot both films, and gives each an entirely different hue and color temperature. Rather than a devil, Eastwood in Drifter plays a preacher, and arrives in a haze of fog through the woods.
Unforgiven, then, begins with a domesticated Eastwood, here finally given a name and some children. It’s a gradual progression of Clint’s own worldview, reflected in his propensity for finding makeshift families of misfits and outsiders that are in conflict with larger, more oppressive forces (see also The Outlaw Josey Wales). Eastwood isn’t generally considered a great thinker or intellectual, but he was/is a savvy self-promoter, and very careful about his own persona. It’s not the first time that Eastwood would showcase a self-reflexive awareness of the genre and his place in it; it was much remarked by critics upon its original release that Pale Rider borrowed liberally from George Stevens’ famous Shane, one of the great white elephants of the Western genre, and Drifter is as close to a Leone film as Clint would ever get. And of course, Unforgiven is extremely self-aware of its own mythic status. As Eastwood’s Bill Munny and his compatriots hunt down bounties, a parallel story finds a big city writer (Sal Rubinek) attempting to follow along with and write a book about an outlaw (Richard Harris). When the famous outlaw runs into a lawman even more murderous than himself — Gene Hackman’s Little Bill — the writer sees what real violence actually looks like. When Little Bill kills Munny’s best friend Ned (Morgan Freeman), Munny becomes vengeance incarnate, breaking his vow to stay sober and immediately gunning down Little Bill and anyone else that had a hand in Ned’s death. This is self-conscious stuff, explicitly commenting on the fictional Old West popularized by dime books and exaggeration versus the cold, hard reality of gunning a man down. Put another way, Unforgiven charts Eastwood’s transformation from the violent but benevolent Rider back into the mystical boogeyman of Drifter.
Pale Rider was both a risk and stab at critical rehabilitation for Eastwood; at the time, the Western was considered a moribund genre, old-fashioned and unpopular. Pale Rider proved the naysayers wrong, being both a sizable hit (alongside Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado, released the same year and also successful) and Eastwood’s ticket to a Cannes Film Festival world premiere. To use modern parlance, this was an attempt at a prestige picture. According to Eastwood biographer Richard Shickel, Unforgiven was no less calculated for prestige, as Eastwood packed the cast with big name stars and filmed for almost twice as long as his normal 4 – 5 week shooting schedule. Coming off a string of critical and/or commercial failures (Pink Cadillac; The Rookie; White Hunter Black Heart), Eastwood was determined to find success again and reestablish his superstar bona fides. Unforgiven proved more wildly successful than anyone could have imagined, its dark, somber tone acting as a kind of reverie for Clint’s oeuvre and the genre as a whole. There have, of course, been many more Westerns produced since 1992, many of them quite good, but none have captured the hearts and minds of audiences quite like Clint’s chilling masterpiece. It’s a doom-ridden apocalyptic fantasy for a fallen country approaching the end of a millennium, taking arguably the most important art form of the 20th century along with it. It’s the end of an era of sorts, a eulogy for the American Dream.