In my discussion of The Chronicles of Riddick on this site (which I have retitled The Evolving American Myth, Part 1: The Chronicles of Riddick), I refer to the story of Percival, one of the Arthurian Romances, and to the vision of an inner moral sense in each individual. I trace this inner moral sense through The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Stage Coach, The Natural, Wanted, Contagion, etc., and then Raymond Chandler’s “The Simple Art of Murder:”
“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.”
And then a thousand movies, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Shane, Dirty Harry, The Bourne Identity, Salt, in which the protagonist acts with integrity out of inner authenticity, brings down a corrupt world, and, for a time, sets things right.
How has this male figure come down to us today? The model of masculinity that we saw in John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and others in the western movies of the 1950s was very much rooted in the character of the men who fought in the Second World War, but by the 1960s, interest in that kind of masculinity had faded.
Between 1964 and 1966 Sergio Leone produced three movies staring Clint Eastwood titled A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Collectively known as the Man with No Name Trilogy, they define a genre called the Spaghetti Western. They are now classics, although not for the coherence of their plots, which are rambling, but for their atmospherics, their stylized violence, and for Eastwood’s quiet, stoic masculinity, updating that of characters in earlier westerns. While John Wayne and Jimmy Steward were often reclaiming their ranches from bad guys, the nihilistic characters in the Trilogy were more often getting the gold, bounty-hunting, killing for vengeance, and killing those who were annoying.
Then between 1971 and 1988 Clint Eastwood starred as Dirty Harry in a series of cop movies. Harry Callahan was an alienated, bitter San Francisco homicide inspector who was angry at the system for protecting the powerful while failing to protect and provide justice for the vulnerable. He personally made up the difference with his .44 Magnum. John Wayne clouded by anger.
And then something different. In the 1993 thriller, In the Line of Fire, directed by Wolfgang Petersen, Eastwood played Frank Horrigan, a Secret Service agent who had been riding on the bumper of John F. Kennedy’s car when Kennedy was assassinated. Horrigan should have jumped to take the second bullet, but he froze. He is the only living agent who lost a president, and he is in the wasteland, barred from the presidential detail, working counterfeiting. He uncovers a plot to assassinate the current president, and because the suspect is contacting him, he is assigned to the case. The suspect, Mitch Leary, played by John Malkovich, is a former CIA assassin whom the agency has turned against, and in revenge is planning to assassinate the president. Horrigan, a misogynist, starts dating a woman agent, and having come into a meaningful relationship with her (recall Percival and his relationship with Condiure), he is this time able to jump to take the bullet (he is wearing a vest), save the president, and take down Leary. Complexity.
And here we get something interesting with our bad guy. Leary is a bad guy, but also a Bodhisattva who sacrifices himself in order to give Horrigan a chance at redemption. You are not supposed to get a second chance, but Horrigan, like Percival, does.
But the characters Eastwood plays go through even more transformations. Can a Buddhist be a knight, can a Buddhist kill? In Pathways to Bliss, Joseph Campbell, recounts a tale of a certain samurai:
“His overlord had been killed, and his vow was, of course, absolute loyalty to this lord. And it was his duty now to kill the killer. Well, after considerable difficulties, he finally backs this fellow into a corner, and he is about to slay him with his katana, his sword, which is the symbol of his honor. And the chap in the corner is angry and terrified, and he spits on the samurai, who sheathes his sword and walks away.”
What happened? The samurai became angry, and to kill the villain out of anger would screw up the samurai’s future incarnations. You kill your opponent when it is what he needs to clear his reincarnating self, not out of your anger. The story has entered discussions of the animated television series, Star Wars: The Clone Wars. How might it come into our movies?
In 2008 Clint Eastwood produced, directed, and starred in Gran Torino. In his late seventies, he presents a different masculinity from that of the Man with no Name and Dirty Harry. He plays Walt Kowalski, a retired autoworker with lung cancer whose wife has just died. His neighborhood is being terrorized by youth gangs, the cops are ineffectual, and Kowalski is good with weapons from his war experience. At first he confronts the gang members, but that leads to the young woman he is protecting being raped. So he challenges the gang in such a way that they murder him in front of witnesses, leading to their elimination.
The “next generation,” the girl and her brother, to whom Kowalski leaves his classic car and more importantly his tools, will have good futures. Kowalski found the skillful means to right the situation on all counts. The boy he has been mentoring will find a role, the girl has become wiser, and Kowalski has overcome his racism (the girl and her brother are Hmong from Cambodia), avoided a slow death, and will be buried next to his wife. Here Eastwood’s character masters the Eastern notion of right action to bring about a just outcome.