by Robert Alpert
Cut, no. 20, May 1979, pp. 3-5
Clint Eastwood forged his identity and image as an actor principally through two roles: the Spaghetti Gunfighter (beginning with Sergio Leone's FISTFUL OF DOLLARS in 1964) and Harry Callahan (who had his debut as Donald Siegel's 1971 DIRTY HARRY). In the process he has become an authentic U.S. archetype, at once embodying and projecting the myth of the macho man with whom his audiences can identify, the loner who sets things right with belligerence, viciousness, and a quiet but efficient vengeance. The interest of the films in which Eastwood is both star and director — PLAY MISTY FOR ME (1971), HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973), THE EIGER SANCTION (1975), and THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES (1976) — stems largely from his self-conscious, and at times ironic, manipulation of his by now intertwined ego and mythology. For example, in PLAY MISTY FOR ME a sexually aggressive woman tries, unsuccessfully, to intrude upon Eastwood's self-satisfied absorption with himself. HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER is so stylized and allegorized that it parodies the western superhero that Eastwood plays.
THE GAUNTLET, Eastwood's latest directorial effort, displays a tension between what we expect of Eastwood and how, in fact, he acts. The title refers specifically to a supposedly "impassable barrier" of gunfire through which Eastwood must pass in a bus mounted with four-inch steel plating. But the entire film is a series of gauntlets, an extended test to prove that Eastwood, who plays a Phoenix cop named Ben Shockley, is man enough to "get the job done." His job is to extradite from Las Vegas to Phoenix one Gus Mally (Sondra Locke), supposedly a "nothing witness for a nothing trial" but actually a call girl who will testify that Phoenix Police Department Commissioner Blakelock (William Prince) is tied in with the mob. Both the mob and the police try to kill Shockley and Mally, who have been set up by Blakelock. They are shot at by a pursuing cop car, chased after by a helicopter, and nearly beaten up by three bikers. Shockley's one-time police partner Josephson (Pat Mingle) is sniped dead in his arms. Finally, he and Mally pass through the aforementioned "impassable barrier."
The film's self-consciousness is apparent not only from the too-numerous gauntlets and the over-graphic violence but also from so much (politely) foul language, so many (pseudo-) hip speeches, and so many clichés that the film seems saturated. The self-consciousness extends to a recall of moments from recent movie history: THE WILD BUNCH ("Let's go!" Rally tells Shockley as they head out for the last gauntlet), biker movies (gang rape on a train), James Bond movies (helicopter chase), KLUTE (the high-paid, smart hooker). BONNIE AND CLYDE and BADLANDS (outlaw couple on the run), disaster moves (total devastation of a bus) and so on.
The ironic self-consciousness extends as well to Eastwood's macho image. Shockley displays the typical Eastwood bravura but lacks the intelligence to understand or the ability to overcome his dilemma. His self-image as a man of importance is at odds with what he actually is — a dumb cop who resents his getting nowhere in life. He can be tough with Mally, slapping her and then telling her curtly, "My name is Shockley and we have a plane to catch … so pack your lipstick." But then he's both bewildered and ineffectual when informed that Mally's papers are still being processed. The dramatic "coup" in the film is that Mally is by far the smarter of the two. She figures out who has set them up, manages to escape easily from a surrounded house, predicts an ambush, and so forth. Mally, like Josephsen, is Shockley's Hawksian buddy and social compass who also "nag, nag, nags" him. Her sex role reversal is symbolized by the opening joke where the Las Vegas police say they have no guy in their jail named Mally. That Mally has to plead for her intelligence — "I really do have a college degree" — tends to emphasize his idiocy.
The film's comedy is premised on this unexpected, ironic reversal of roles. Shockley, the macho cop, believes in the clichés about following the rules. Mally, on the ether hand, satirizes Shockley's viewpoint, educating him to the "realities" of life. Shockley makes fun of Mally for graduating from Finch College only to become a prostitute. However, she, and Eastwood, have the last word:
However, if THE GAUNTLET self-consciously reverses certain of our expectations, it nevertheless reaffirms the macho individualism that we associate with Eastwood. The film's criticism is directed at Shockley rather than at the macho male per se, at Shockley's conformity rather than at Eastwood's loner mentality. Beneath the seeming irony of her role, Mally actually confirms Eastwood's mythology.
It is a critical cliché to refer to Eastwood's gun as a surrogate penis with which he proves how much of a man he is. It also doesn't take much psychoanalytic insight to realize that Eastwood's violent displays of firepower symbolically compensate (whether consciously or unconsciously) for both his inability to express himself (other than in one- or two-word sentences) and his denial of needs and feelings for others. While his hostility appears to be directed outward, Eastwood is emotionally turned inward and perversely masochistic.
THE GAUNTLET, a comic treatment of Eastwood's macho image, more accurately depicts this underlying direction of Eastwood's emotions. Most of the time the guns are turned against him and the objects in which he finds himself, climaxing with the bus. The film also plainly shows Eastwood as acutely sexually shy. Shockley poses as a man of some sexual bravado, joking with Josephson about Shirley, the Phoenix P.D. sex object whom he was "servicing," and casually numbering Mally, the whore, on a scale of one to ten. However, Shockley is plainly embarrassed by the Las Vegas constable's dirty jokes and by the work that a seemingly "nice girl" like Mally does for a living, telling her at one point that she should try to "look normal." In addition, the film shows the sexual self-loathing and discomfort felt by Eastwood for his body. When Mally tells Shockley, "I love you for your mind," he responds by slapping her face. She then kicks his groin and adds, "Sorry, I just had to jog your thinking." The joke is double-edged. While Shockley may be mature — or puritanical — enough to be repelled by the constable's adolescent, locker-room humor, Eastwood's awareness here is no less repulsive for its self-inflicted phallic violence.
It is extremely revealing that a woman biker is portrayed as the most repulsive character in the film, notwithstanding the relatively small part she has, and that it is particularly against her that Shockley directs his greatest violence. She has all the attributes of the two male bikers, her role paralleling Mally's. She embodies Eastwood's worst fears about women eventually turning against him. Because she enjoys beating Shockley up, Eastwood can justify having Shockley let loose on her Eastwood's hatred for women, who threaten his need for dominance. "You wouldn't hit a woman?" she whines. Shockley smashes her in the face, his fist coming straight out at the camera, and thereby at us, to emphasize Eastwood's sense of relief. (This same point of view shot climaxes PLAY MISTY FOR ME. There Eastwood in one blow disposes of "crazy" Jessica Walter, who dared to intrude on Eastwood's sexual space.)
Mally is no less safe from Eastwood's fear, which so easily turns to violent hatred. In the same train scene Mally taunts the two male bikers for not being "men" since they pay more attention to Shockley than to her. She thereby "invites" her own rape. Supposedly she is proving her attachment to Shockley by sacrificing herself to these sexual animals. However, there is also an overriding sense of the woman having been put in her place. The lingering camera on the aggressiveness of the rape and the wild revenge the rape provokes in Shockley convey the impression of Eastwood as simultaneously savior and rapist of Mally. He relishes the violence done Mally but can only express his hatred through the violence he does the rapists.
Eastwood is a typically American misogynist. He may at times be shy and respectful toward women, but he plainly also hates women for his dependence on them. The most he can do, as with Mally, is to "neutralize" women by turning them into Hawksian buddies. Notwithstanding her seeming independence, Mally is entirely defined in Eastwood's self-image of male competence. In her rite of passage she proves herself with Shockley's gun by using it to shoot at a pursuing cop car and later by killing Commissioner Blakelock. There is a sexist bias at work, in that she must prove herself on his terms rather than develop her own identity. Mally has all the independence of the movie chiché whore who poses no threat to the little boy hero, who is too immature to do anything other than flaunt himself and play at being an adult. While Mally and Shockley verbally spar with one another, there is no hint of a sexual encounter between them. The one time she tries to sexually arouse him, she does so in order to steal his gun, i.e., castrate him. At the end of the movie, he takes on faith her "abilities" in bed, again diffusing any hint of a sexual relationship between them in which her needs might be expressed.
Eastwood's sexist assumptions, his fear and dislike of women (other than an extension of his male ego), are reflected also in the subplot about Josephson. While Josephson, Shockley's ex-partner on the force, is denied our respect because of his subservience to Blakelock and the police bureaucracy, Eastwood makes clear to us that Josephson has done so for the benefit of his wife, Helen, and the kids, the classic male self-sacrifice which neatly avoids any personal responsibility. Helen, of course, is only the socially accepted counterpart to Shockley's Shirley. It is all women who are forever keeping apart Shockley and Josephson. The film's opening scene between Shockley and Josephson eulogizes the bygone days "on the bricks" of two men without women. If there is any person for whom Shockley feels real affection, it might be Josephson. His death triggers the greatest self-inflicted violence when the men on the force open fire on Shockley's bus. Eastwood would never admit his attraction toward a male buddy. As always, his inability to express himself results only in masochistic pain.
Eastwood's individualism is a form of adolescent egotism that solipsistically denies anything outside of itself, including the sexually "alien" woman and the sexual "perversity" of a relationship with a man. Mally is the compromise. However, she, like all women, threatens to become the domesticating housewife to whom the U.S. male fears he will lose control. Thus the source of sexual tension, Eastwood's adoration for Mally, is constantly on the verge of turning into hatred for her. This sexist duality was long ago epitomized in U.S. movies by Buster Keaton in his SEVEN CHANCES. There a similar adoration was transformed into the visual nightmare of Keaton chased by the furies of women who were (like Shirley was for Shockley) after him only "for his money." Eastwood fears and hates women no less than he does himself
Eastwood has said that the "girl's part [sic]" in THE GAUNTLET isn't just token window dressing"; it's equal to, if not greater than, Shockley's. (1) However, Mally's part only seems to equal Shockley's. As the movie's advertisements put it, Eastwood is the "man in the middle," and the movie reflects his viewpoint. Mally articulates a certain cynicism which Eastwood may feel, but, in so doing, she acts as foil to Shockley, who is the true hero of the movie and in whom Eastwood wants us to believe, despite suggestions to the contrary.
There is one telling scene, the quietest one in a film of otherwise nonstop action. It occurs in the model room where Shockley and Mally announce their plans for the future just before they hijack the bus. Mally sits silhouetted against a window, a towel wrapped around her, as Shockley tells her, childlike, of his past and his dreams. He confesses that he hated cops as a kid but then later realized that they were "only doing their job." He grew to respect them since they were the only people who stood for something. (What they stood for is never clear.) Eventually he became a cop. But he also dreamt of meeting the right woman, having a kid, and, "most of all," breaking the right case. This is Shockley's "big case" and Mally is his "right woman." By driving her right up city hail steps in a hijacked bus, Shockley can earn both. In realistic terms this is nonsense since, as Mally points out, they could just as easily turn themselves in at some local precinct. But that would invest Shockley's fantasy with none of its seeming significance. When Mally decides to go along with him, she calls her mom back East and confides, "Who wants to be a secretary all her life?" We are supposed to laugh, knowingly. What does a woman do who is tired of being a secretary? Mally announces her marriage.
Henceforth Mally is a secondary character without even a facade of cynicism.
Mally's decision — as well as Eastwood's — to go along with Shockley is a negative "why not" rather than an affirmation of anything. After all, where are they going? The idea of settling on some land "near the Canyon" is plainly a fantasy, a variation on the U.S. nineteenth-century dream about going west and starting anew. This is why the remainder of the film is both nonsensical and pathetic — although more honest in saying directly what Eastwood believes. Shockley's dream corresponds only to the myths fleetingly evoked on the movie screen itself. Despite his apparent cynicism, Eastwood is a middle-class sentimentalist. His dream is as politically feasible as the notion that growing gardens à la Voltaire will accomplish anything. The rest of the film plays out Shockley's decision and Mally's evasion of what it means.
Notwithstanding the self-consciousness with which Eastwood treats the macho mythology, supposedly represented by Shockley's idiocy, Eastwood still believes in the viability of a mythology which did, after all, make him rich and famous. He could not have portrayed the macho so consistently without it corresponding to his own identity. Eastwood is a materialist, and his individualism is more an offshoot of, than a viable alternative to, the conformity which his materialist world demands and for which he supposedly expresses contempt. His individualism offers only an illusory escape for an elitist few who can momentarily purchase that piece of land "near the Canyon."
Eastwood questions his hero's values so as to reaffirm those values in the movie's ending. Shockley and Mally head off to Phoenix in their armored bus. The music is keyed up — the extra frisson of the final showdown — and Josephson is killed to add yet another touch of vengeance. The final gauntlet will be a vindication of Shockley's dream in which Mally says she believes:
Theirs is the American fantasy about settling down into the privacy of owning land and thinking everything will fall into place. Shockley (and Eastwood) wants to get off "the bricks," to have his Helen and the kids; and Mally, the middle-class, supposedly disaffected woman, who sees no politic alternative, goes along. This is why her decision to trust Assistant D.A. Feyderspiel, whom Josephson said couldn't convict Hitler) is so jarring. She's lost her social intelligence and become the "nag, nag, nagging" wife. She is Eastwood's cliché, the passive instrument who helps him drive through the gauntlet.
Eastwood has claimed that it's unclear whether Shockley and Mally will stay together after the movie is over. (2) However, this is less significant than that the film presents no alternative to Shockley's dream. The film is all the more politica1ly reactionary for the social cynicism it displayed. Mally, the sternly anti-sentimental cynic, falls for the sentiment. Eastwood's individualism is contemptible, for it promises a release from the pressures of social conformity but only further isolates us from others who could relieve us from our sense of separateness. Eastwood's unbridled egotism necessarily results in materialism. He seeks refuge in property, land, rather than turn to people and admit that they are somehow like him.
It is not surprising that the ending of THE GAUNTLET is as dissatisfying in its resolution as are the misted-over endings to THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES and THE HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER. In the context of bureaucratic corruption and conformity which surrounds Shockley — from the Vegas constables on the take to the pretty gold-and-white helmeted Phoenix cops who are seen milling around in the film's final shot — Eastwood's radical individualism, expressed by Shockley's endurance of the gauntlets, seems a relief. This is Eastwood's politically positive side and probably what accounts for his commercial success. He appears to offer a response to a world in which the average person's identity seems beside the point. However, Eastwood/ Shockley's response plainly leads nowhere and accomplishes nothing. The drive through downtown Phoenix eventually results in the death of the two "villains" of the film — Commissioner Blakelock and Assistant D.A. Feyderspiel. However, both the mob and the passivity of Shockley's fellow cops remain. Shockley's action is socially useless.
The fact is that it is not the "villains" of the film which oppress Shockley but Eastwood's ideology of individualism. By isolating each of us, Eastwood's myth of the individual makes change less likely and ironically the individual more manageable. It offers, at best, a temporary high. It leaves us with nothing tangible. Other directors obsessed with the ritualistic importance of getting the job done at least had faith in some value which justified (if fleetingly) their work. But Eastwood is a kind of Russ Meyer of the action film. Both are self-conscious poseurs who are caught in the self-destructive contradictions of their values but who ultimately believe in those values. Mally only appears to be a tough, cynical whore who puts down the macho mentality emotionally stultifying Shockley. She is actually Eastwood's fantasy virgin who submits to Shockley's egotistical pride at getting the job done. Eastwood continues to believe in the myth of individualism triumphing over the system. Therefore the ending: the nuclear "couple" in which the woman is the object over which the macho man exercises his control.
1. Richard Thompson and Tim Hunter, "Clint Eastwood, Auteur," Film Comment, January-February 1978, p. 32.