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. …

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