Icons and Subversion in the Westerns of Clint Eastwood

By Babiak, Peter E. S. | CineAction, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Icons and Subversion in the Westerns of Clint Eastwood


Babiak, Peter E. S., CineAction


Clint Eastwood's star image--the figure of the Gunslinger called "The Man With No Name" -- is rooted in the Western genre. Although later broadened to that of the man of violent vigilante action (by films such as the "Dirty Harry" series), the Gunslinger persona established by television's Rawhide and Sergio Leone's famous "Spaghetti Western Trilogy" represents the core of Eastwood's star image. Mainstream Hollywood Cinema tends to be inherently conservative, addressing social issues on a mythological level in order to demonstrate the legitimacy of the dominant social order (patriarchal capitalism) and its establishment. Eastwood's Gunslinger persona represents a specific cultural icon in that mythology. However, in the four Westerns that Eastwood both directs and stars in--High Plains Drifter (1972), The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Pale Rider (1985), and Unforgiven (1992)--the Gunslinger persona (which represents social instability) is consistently conflated with another easily recognized persona that is an agent of social stability. Eastwood manipulates the Gunslinger persona in this way as part of a revisionist agenda; he questions the legitimacy of the establishment of the dominant social order by dramatizing the impact of this process on those who are marginalized/silenced upon its completion.

The character that Eastwood portrays in each of his four Westerns is always initially identified with social stability, adopting the Gunslinger persona only in reaction to an initiating act of violence. The initiating act of violence in each of these Westerns reaffirms or entrenches the dominant social order and is usually sadistic. This arbitrary affirmation of the dominant social order spurs one of the film's characters to question the validity of the entire social system, in a manner aligned with the supernatural. This act of defiance precipitates a reincarnation of Eastwood's character who is reconstituted to represent a conflation of opposing iconic values. The Gunslinger persona (representing the dark, violent, socially unstable side of Classical Western mythology) is conflated with a persona (Town Marshall, Settler, Preacher, loving father and husband) who represents the peaceful side of Classical Western mythology that is associated with social stability. Eastwood then usually dramatizes the Gunsling er's redress of the initiating act of violence, facilitating the protection/removal of those marginalized. The dominant social order is then practically and ideologically dismantled by the Gunslinger.

Unlike Classical Westerns, Eastwood's Westerns are generally concerned with the disruption of the dominant social order, not its' foundation. Eastwood therefore distinguishes himself as one of the handful of American filmmakers who manages to maintain consistent commercial success while also consistently maintaining a critical stance in relation to patriarchal capitalism. Eastwood does this by structuring his films on many levels. In terms of their generic form, all four of the films to be discussed here are easily identifiable as Westerns in the tradition of John Ford or Sergio Leone (as opposed to the films of Michael Cimino or Arthur Penn). In terms of their narrative structure all four of the films are easily recognizable as falling into traditional categories--High Plains Drifter and Unforgiven are structured according to vengeance plots, The Outlaw Josey Wales is structured as a picaresque quest story, and Pale Rider is structured as a foundation myth. By utilizing easily recognizable generic forms and narrative structures, Eastwood guarantees the accessibility of these films to a popular audience. Eastwood further guarantees this accessibility by presenting his critique of patriarchal capitalism in a manner consistent with the popular social discourse of the period in which the films were released.

The following is a brief discussion of how Eastwood manipulates recognizable icons and narrative structures associated with mainstream Hollywood Cinema in order to produce meaning effects subversive the dominant ideology.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Icons and Subversion in the Westerns of Clint Eastwood
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.