Eastwood: Spirituality on Screen–Dramas, War Films, and Westerns

Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby,” one of the year’s best movies, is at heart a religious-spiritual work, centering on an old Catholic Irishman who searches for personal redemption in the brutal world of boxing.

I take spirituality to mean the struggle of faith and the search of meaning in an increasingly cruel, impersonal, indifferent, and violent universe. Indeed, in meaning, intensity, quality and impact, they are Christmas movies par excellence, on par with Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with which “Million Dollar Baby” shares several elements in common.

“Million Dollar Baby” is just the latest spiritual allegory from Eastwood, who over the past three decades has made some of the most complex morality and spiritual tales in American cinema. The essay focuses on four movies directed by and starring Eastwood: “High Plain Drifter” (1973), “Pale Rider” (1985), “Unforgiven” (1992), and “Million Dollars.” I begin with “High Plains Drifter,” which marks his directorial debut, and then proceed to show how in each decade Eastwood has made a movie that reflects his growing concerns with religious issues of the highest order: Redemption, meaning, and spirituality. For this reason, I recommend to watch these movies chronologically.

That three of the four movies are Westerns is no coincidence. Eastwood has single-handedly kept alive the once popular and now nearly dead genre. For a while it seemed as if Eastwood set out purposely to remind audiences of the historical and moral significance of the Western to American life. Eastwood’s deep love of and understanding for the genre shows in every frame of these Westerns. His care for the genre’s unique landscapes, both physical and moral, has placed him in the company of the Western’s greatest helmers, John Ford, Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, and Sam Peckinpah.

Despite what Sam Goldwyn said, “If you want to send a message, go to Western Union.” And despite Hollywood’s declarations of “religious neutrality,” shunning sermons as proper for the pulpit but not for the screen, American movies are replete with messages, both secular and religious, though they may be more covert than overt, manifest in the films’ subtexts rather than texts, influencing viewers’ subconscious and unconscious rather than conscious.

“High Plains Drifter,” Eastwood first helming, was a knockout. Directed with great panache, it synthesized the styles of Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, directors with whom Eastwood had worked frequently and who became his mentors. A morality tale carved out of the harsh Western desert, the story begins when a mysterious intruder called the Stranger emerges out of the desert heat. He rides into the small town of Lagos, where his presence becomes a threat to the mean and cowardly populace. After being attacked by three gunmen, he kills them coolly and efficiently. He then rents a hotel room, where the town’s dwarf, a disenfranchised member due to his size, attend to his needs.

At night, the Stranger is plagued by a recurring nightmare of a helpless man whipped to death by three sadistic criminals, while the townsfolk just stand by, doing nothing to stop them. The town’s council debates about how to handle the impending threat, represented by escaped convicts who are about to return to Lagos and destroy it. Desperate, the town’s leaders approach the Stranger, pleading with him to save the town from evil. He agrees to help them, but then proceeds to turn the town on its head by teaching self-defense and requesting some strange rituals, such as painting the town red and renaming it “Hell.”

An eerie, supernatural Western, “High Plains Drifter” takes Eastwood’s avenging Man With No Name to its logical extreme. Eastwood the star would later bury the character in his own Western, “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” only to have him rise like the Phoenix, and be redefined as a more human and compassionate hero.

“High Plains Drifter,” Eastwood’s homage to Sergio Leone, was bleak. In contrast, “Outlaw Josey Wales” begins with life (Eastwood’s family) and ends with life (Eastwood’s new communal family), with a long period of healing and rebuilding in between, allowing Eastwood to deconstruct the Man With No Name as a dramatic persona.
A transitional Western in Eastwood’s oeuvre, “Outlaw Josey Wales” is a curiously optimistic epic, deeply rooted in American history. As a hero, Wales is not a really loner. Instead of surrendering and assimilating into the rebuilt post-war society of carpetbaggers, Klansmen and dishonor, Wales and his clique create a new society, which adheres to the values of honor, respect, and love.

In “Pale” Rider,” Eastwood plays a character named the Preacher. The quite calm of a beautiful autumn day is interrupted by the thundering sound of hooves coming down the hillside. A cadre of men employed by powerful strip-miner Coy LaHood (Richard Dysart) rides into the small mining encampment and begins shooting up. In a merciless act of brutality, one of the terrorists kills the dog of young Megan Wheeler (Sydney Penny).

Burying her pet, Megan says a prayer, begging the Lord to send a savoir to defend her family. Sitting with her widowed mother (Carrie Snodgress), Megan reads from the Bible: “And I saw and behold a pale horse, and its rider’s name was death, and hell followed him.” In a breathtaking shot, a lone horseman (Eastwood), dressed as a preacher, rides into town. Carrying the stigmata of a ghost, Eastwood’s preacher arrives as the answer to a maiden’s prayer.

“Pale Rider” revolves around one of the genre’s oldest themes: an enigmatic knight errant who rides into town where he sides with the poor and decent folk against robber barons. At the end, the horseman rides back into the horizon, leaving a cleaner place behind him. Shot in classic style, with less of the baroque and mystical flourish of “High Plains Drifter,” the narrative raises moral issues that lift the film out of the routine. The story’s supernatural elements are incidental and handled in a restrained, subtle manner that enhances the fundamentally religious tale. I respectfully disagree with David Thomson, who lumps together “Pale Rider” with “Firefox” and “Sudden Impact,” and the dismisses all three pictures as “risk-free and mind-dulling meal tickets.”

Eastwood’s chef douevre, “Unforgiven,” is a revisionist Western about alcoholism, violence, and the myth of the romantic outlaw. Eastwood once again touches upon the subjects he has been drawn to in the past: ruptured families, bereft children, loner outlaws pushed to the brink, and decent rural folks.

“Unforgiven” presents a shaky, desperate version of The Man With No Name. The movie is basically “Dirty Harry” turned on its head. After decades, Harry, still above the law, has become a sadistic sheriff (Gene Hackman), whereas the villain Scorpio has evolved into Munny, the new reformed killer. By killing the sheriff, Eastwood purges the identity that has imprisoned him throughout his career.

The dark revisionist western “Unforgiven” extended Eastwood’s critical view, setting him in iconic relief as both actor and director. After decades of being considered a competent craftsman, he began to be considered a true artist, a spare, epic master of the Western genre, who made aging seem both acceptable but glamorous.

Eastwood plays William Munny, an aged, down on his luck hog farmer and a widower raising two children; in the first scene, the haggard-looking Munny is seen on his knees in the mud. Later, when he joins a young bounty hunter to avenge the villains who had cut a prostitute’s face, he says he’s doing it for the money, but we the viewers know otherwise. Haunted by his blood-soaked past, Munny emerges from retirement for one final bounty hunt that will redeem his honor. Dark and somber in thematics and visuals, the narrative deconstructs the glamour of violence and the mythic heroism of the gunslinger.

To prove the “Eastwood religious thesis,” it’s possible to add “Mystic River,” which Eastwood directed but didn’t star in, and “In the Line of Fire,” in which Eastwood starred but was directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Indeed, redemption as a central motif has marked many other Eastwood movies.

“In the Line of Fire” cast him as a loser, a crusty, morose alcoholic Secret Service agent. A truly flawed character, he gets an irresistible opportunity to make up for his past sins when he’s assigned to protect the President of the U.S. from a mad hitman. Eastwood is a lone-wolf cop, motivated less by his eagerness to preserve the law than by his need to regain self-esteem. The movie implied that no cause is greater, nobler, and worth fighting for, than personal honor.

Structured as a contempo Greek tragedy, “Mystic River” explores the interwoven history of three men, the terrible events that tainted their childhood and shaped their futures, and the irrevocable choices they are forced to make. Like “Unforgiven,” “Mystic River” is a meditation on the prevalence of violence in ordinary American lives. As Eastwood explained: “The viewers see the impact one violent act has had many years after the fact. It’s really a tragic circle–all three men have unresolved issues in their lives. They have all been traumatized by the past. They have all become damaged goods.” Damaged goods would describe many of Eastwood’s screen roles. And like “Million Dollar,” “Mystic River,” in its director’s words, is “about real people trying to come to terms with their own personal demons.”

Indeed, despite a formulaic first reel, “Million Dollar Baby” is a superlative drama that matches in intimacy, intensity, and symbiotic relationships Ingmar Bergman’s very best. The film blends deftly a routine boxing drama with a familial love story, set against the down-and-dirty world of a physically and psychologically demanding sport.

Eastwood plays Frankie Dunn, a trainer who’s managed some incredible fighters during a lifetime spent in the ring. He’s the owner of The Hit Pit, an old-school boxing gym in Los Angeles’ gritty downtown. In the wake of a painful estrangement from his daughter, Frankie is reluctant to let himself get close to anyone. His only friend is Scrap (Morgan Freeman), an ex-boxer who looks after his gym. Frankie has attended Mass almost every day for the past 23 years, seeking forgiveness that has eluded him; he divides his time between the disparate activities of training fighters and attending Mass. Unable to forgive himself for becoming estranged from his daughter, he sends her a letter every week, but the letters come back unopened.

The savoir of Frankie’s life is Maggie (Hilary Swank), a poor girl from the Ozarks, who finds in boxing her religious purpose. Untrained, at 31, she’s considered too old to begin a career, but she refuses to give up. With no education or familial support, boxing is Maggie’s only way out. Maggie sees Frankie as her savior, the only man who can help her achieve her ambition. The gym thus becomes a holy place, holier than a church for all the characters.

Over the years, Frankie has become ultra-conservative, unable to spot when his boxers are ready. Though he still trains fighters, he’s basically retired. Seeing only a disaster in training Maggie, Frankie refuses to even consider it. He’s a traditionalist who thinks of boxing the old-fashioned way. Frankie is a man in desperate need to overcome his biases and prejudices against people, including female boxers.

But Maggie refuses to take no’ for an answer. Scorned by the male boxers, the only encouragement she gets is from Scrap, an ex-fighter, who slyly throws Maggie small tips to improve her technique, while nudging Frankie in her direction. Scrap sees Maggie’s drive and passion, and the underdog in her as well. Scrap has a painful history of his own: His boxing career was crushed when he was blinded in one eye during a vicious bout, when Frankie was Scrap’s cut man. Frankie has never forgiven himself for not finding a way to stop the fight.

The turning point occurs on Maggie’s 32nd birthday, when Frankie begins to realize the pain and desperation underscoring her fervor. Vulnerable, he finally takes Maggie. The film then turns into a father/daughter love story, with Maggie as the daughter Frankie had lost, and Frankie as the father she had lost. Their relationship is by turns exasperating and inspiring, though they share a common spirit that transcends pain and loss. Frankie, Scrap, and Maggie find in each other a sense of family lost long ago. The new bond enables Frankie to redeem himself and experience a moral and emotional rebirth.
“Million Dollar Baby” is not a picture about boxing, but about relationships, and the unspoken but powerful feelings. Eastwood treats the film as a love story about a person who’s distressed about his non-existent relationship with his daughteror any other woman. “Million Dollar Baby” is a spiritual, even religious, movie about the redemption of an old Catholic disillusioned with the church and the lack of significant family relationship.

This chronology shows that progressively, Eastwood has chosen for his movies stories that are dramatically complex, morally troubling, emotionally ambiguous, and deeply religious in meanings. All of these movie have concerned religious themes, such as evil and its source, deliverance and redemption, self-sacrifice and the vision of a better human life.

Easwood’s Westerns function as a uniquely American cultural religion, a system that’s much less recognizably explicit but no less powerfully pervasive. They apply the same care and concern, time and place, as organized religion for ceremonies of value affirmation. Like other ritualistic dramas, resolution in these pictures takes the form of some special, quasi-divine force fighting against evil. The evil attack is eschatological, ushering in a final state of existence called “salvation” in Christianity.

Eastwood’s Westerns present a different type of ritual confirmation. They elevate representative roles to mythological proportions without straining credibility. A force like Superman strains credibility because his power is supernatural, whereas Eastwood (and John Wayne before him) raises human traits to quasi-divine sources of redeeming power.

In Westerns, the threatened unit is typically the family or the larger community. Normal family and community lives are disrupted by interlopers, criminal elements using brutal physical force. The villains are unattached and therefore uncivilized males, ruthless, unprincipled. The victims are innocent, basically good people. They may be impotent or afraid, but they are not really guilty. The deliverance frees them to live not a transformed life, but the naturally good life they would have lived had nothing previously intervened. The externality of evil is one of the most consistent characteristic of Westerns as ritualistic tales.

As for the source of goodness, they are individual avengers who recognize the incompetence of social institutions, such as the law, the police (the “Dirty Harry” movies), or the Catholic Church, to deal effectively and satisfyingly with personal and social problems. Hence, Eastwood’s Westerns mythologizes the single hero (or anti-hero) whose individuality combines the essentially human with some special power unavailable to ordinary humans. This special power is not supernatural or superhuman, but a desired ability, such as a quick draw, iron fist, uncanny coolness, and self-control in the face of evil incarnate.

More problematic is the necessity of the individual hero to dispatch the villain with violence, an act justified in these pictures by the righteousness of the cause and the combined inability of the official representatives of law and the stubbornness of the evil forces. The individual deliverer in Westerns’ ritual dramas bears a mysterious past, is “unmarried” and therefore “free” to come and go at will. The deliverance of the community is often a self-sacrificing deed that costs the hero’s death, or the death of his way of life and code of ethics. The delivering-hero may not be morally good but he has style and integrity. The villain, on the other hand, is the personification of evil whose contempt masks sadistic cruelty and heartlessness.

Eastwood is no doubt the last of the great Western heroes, and the only director committed to keeping that most uniquely American genre alive. He has spent more years deconstructing his violent screen persona than he had spent establishing it in Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti” Westerns and the “Dirty Harry” movies. It’s been a gradual but extremely rewarding process for both Eastwood the director-star and his audiences. Taken as a group, the films discussed in this essay both denote and connote the growing spiritual dimensions in Eastwood’s amazing oeuvre.