He was born on May 31, 1930, the son of Clinton Eastwood Sr., a steelworker and migrant worker who settled in Piedmont, California. Clinton Eastwood Jr. was hardly an instant star, but when he found his stoic style after years of stiff acting in the television hit “Rawhide” (1959-1966), he would give us “the Man with No Name” and Dirty Harry–antiheros who used dialogue more sparingly than they did their revolvers.
In 1951 Eastwood planned to go to Seattle University, but the Army had other plans. They drafted him, as the Korean War was then in full swing. But he never did have to carry an M1 Garand into battle like his character Walt Kowalski did in “Gran Torino” (2008). The Army appointed Eastwood lifeguard and swimming instructor. In the biography “Clint: The Life and Legend,” Patrick McGilligan wrote that Eastwood avoided being sent to combat by “romancing one of the daughters of a Fort Ord officer.”
After many un-credited parts, “Rawhide” gave Eastwood the time to develop as an actor. By 1963, Eastwood was ready for a bigger opportunity. It came when his co-star on “Rawhide,” Eric Fleming, turned down a part for a western called “A Fistful of Dollars” that would be directed in a remote region of Spain by the then little unknown Sergio Leone. When asked about the transition from TV western drama to playing the lead in “A Fistful of Dollars,” Eastwood said, “In ‘Rawhide’ I did get awfully tired of playing the conventional white hat. The hero who kisses old ladies and dogs and was kind to everybody. I decided it was time to be an antihero.”
The film started the “spaghetti Western” phenomenon, with Eastwood’s character changing the American image of the Western hero from one with a white hat and altruistic intentions to one with a morally ambiguous foundation and selfish goals.
Eastwood, when asked about playing the Man with No Name character, said “I wanted to play it with an economy of words and create this whole feeling through attitude and movement. It was just the kind of character I had envisioned for a long time, keep to the mystery and allude to what happened in the past. It came about after the frustration of doing ‘Rawhide’ for so long. I felt the less he said, the stronger he became and the more he grew in the imagination of the audience.”
The Man with No Name had a gun, and he was snake fast and deadly with his revolver, but he wasn’t good or bad. He was a new kind of hero for the Western genre. He didn’t have John Wayne’s moral code. He was out for himself, not for some greater good. The old-school hero would patriotically go to war and believe, despite the messiness and gross immorality of war, that somehow he was fighting for something good, and so he was good. This Man with No Name antihero was apart and above those old values; he was going to get his.
In fact, John Wayne declined a role in “High Plains Drifter” (1973), a film directed by Eastwood, and after the film was released Wayne sent a letter to Eastwood in which he said, “The townspeople did not represent the true spirit of the American pioneer, the spirit that made America great.”
There had been a generational shift of the hero with the gun in the Western films from someone out on their own, yet trying to do good even if they weren’t certain what was good, to someone who only cared what was good for them.
The antihero Eastwood played was dark, but also freeing. He had the traits of the nineteenth century’s Byronic hero, as modeled by Lord Byron. The Byronic hero was summed up by Byron’s ex-lover Lady Caroline Lamb as being “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” He was a morally ambiguous character that influenced nineteenth century authors, such as Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff, a character in “Wuthering Heights,” and the Phantom in the Gaston Leroux novel “The Phantom of the Opera.” The Byronic hero typically had a high level of intelligence; was cunning, sophisticated, and able to be introspective; had a mysterious magnetism and charisma, and struggled with integrity and his power of seduction.
The Byronic hero is the precursor to today’s antihero. The word “anti-hero” is actually a 20th-century invention. The 1940 edition of Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary listed “anti-hero,” but didn’t define it. The 2004 American Heritage Dictionary of the American Language defined anti-hero as “a main character in a dramatic or narrative work who is characterized by a lack of traditional heroic qualities, such as idealism or courage.”
Eastwood would later take this character, clothe him in a suit jacket, and put a Smith & Wesson Model 29 in his hands and have him hunt down bad guys on the streets of San Francisco as Harry Callahan, aka “Dirty Harry.” He was out for justice, but it was often a vigilante justice as determined by Harry, not by some judge and jury.
Dirty Harry said things like: “I know what you’re thinking, ‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’ Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself. But, being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do you, punk?”
Audiences cheered and no one forgets lines like that said with Eastwood’s dry, penetrating style. How this has affected our view of guns is complicated. Characters like this show us we might just one day find ourselves alone with a bad guy and the only thing that can save us is an impartial thing made from steel and packing gunpowder. That’s a very independent feeling; it’s a pro-gun feeling. But the darkness of the character also has a chilling affect.
Despite all their dalliances off the moral path, these antiheroes perfected by Eastwood explore the complexity of being human, of trying to navigate a too-often treacherous world. And he hasn’t stopped there. Eastwood directed “American Sniper” (2014), a film that explores these moral boundaries in ways some find very uncomfortable, but that are still critical to dealing with the realities of this sometimes-mad world.
Actually, Eastwood’s exploration of ethics has drawn a lot of critical analysis from academics who have explored his portrayal of justice, mercy, and even assisted suicide in the boxing drama “Million Dollar Baby” (2004).
We can’t think of guns and how they relate to American individualism and even heroism today without thinking of Clint Eastwood’s deep body of work.
Happy birthday Clint!