The Clint Eastwood Directorial Retrospective – The 1980s

Moving swiftly(ish) onto part two of this Clint Eastwood directorial retrospective, this part will look at the seven films he made in the 1980s. Whilst it is quite likely my least favourite decade/era for his work, there are still a lot of interesting points and, well, we’ll always have Honkytonk Man above all else.

1980 was quite the productive year for Eastwood. He starred the sequel to one of his most popular films with Any Which Way You Can (which follows Every Which Way But Loose) to… some mild acclaim. It was a film that the audience seemed much more pleased with as opposed to the kind of critical reception that Eastwood had often had before. Moving swiftly on from that project, though, Eastwood produced and directed Bronco Billy – a film about a modern cowboy working for a circus/stunt show trying to make a living. Simply put, it is one of his weirdest films. Toeing the line between being a western, family comedy, tragedy, romance, action film… and it isn’t like it just goes through one of those genres at a time, it spends the entire runtime juggling between them all and never really settling. That isn’t to say that the film is as bad as that may make it sound – it really isn’t, it’s quite charming even if it is muddled. Eastwood’s titular Bronco Billy is incredibly likeable most of the time, whenever he acts like a hard-ass it still feels very innocent and just like Eastwood/Billy settling into his cowboy persona a little too comfortably and other than that, he spends the majority of his time just seeming passionate about how he portrays himself to others – like I said, it’s pretty damn bizarre and hard to understand. 

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What is most confusing, though, is the ending. This part will feature some mild spoilers, so if you’d want to go in completely blind, skip this paragraph, but it probably won’t damage how you view the film if you haven’t already seen it. Towards the end of the second act, something goes wrong during a show, causing the tent that the cast use to burn down. Now, keep in mind that up until now, the film seems to have been for the most part very anti-American, focusing on Eastwood as some kind of moral saviour in what basically feels like a filthy pit of immoral scumbags. Early on in the film, Sondra Locke (who becomes Eastwood’s assistant later on in the film) marries a man solely for the sake of getting inheritance from her father, and the man marrying her knows this. They get married, she denies him sex and when she wakes up the next morning, he has robbed her and is gone. Eventually, it is said that he murdered her (she has gone missing as she is with Eastwood travelling the country), he is arrested and then put into an asylum as it will make his sentence lighter. Doesn’t that all sound, you know, kind of negative? But what makes this so baffling, aside from the fact that the film still seems unsure whether it is aimed at children or not and then features a film where Sondra Locke’s character is almost raped until Bronco Billy comes to the rescue, is that in the final act, after the tent burns down, Bronco Billy and the gang go and visit a mental institution where they work (for free) once a year, doing a show. On top of the fact that this happens to be the one place in the world where Locke’s husband is (of course it is), what is even stranger is how this outlook of America as some filthy pit suddenly flips entirely. After the manager of the institution has his patients stitch up an entirely new tent for Bronco Billy and his performers, the group return to performing (after a little romantic bump in the road between Eastwood and Locke), and of course, seeing as it is the end of the film after all, everything goes beautifully and the crowd celebrates and Eastwood has enough money for everything to be beautiful and perfect once again, now with the additional bonus of his girlfriend in Sondra Locke. What makes this sudden, maybe overly positive flip even weirder is that, the camera backs out into a helicopter aerial shot that slowly backs away from the tent, and it is revealed that it’s a huge patchwork consistently of a hundred American flags, and as the triumphant music plays, it is not-so-subtly suggested that, if it wasn’t for America, Eastwood would have nothing! It’s absolutely bizarre, even more so given the fact that so much of his ‘70s work took the similar anti-patriotic stance. 

(You can see the American flag tent in the image below…)

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Next up was Firefox, a film that barely feels like Eastwood was involved, despite the fact that he directed, produced and starred in it. This one is really difficult to describe. It seems to be focused almost solely on getting around to the final forty minute aerial climax, but even then, the CGI has now aged so poorly that it’s difficult to take the majority of it even slightly seriously. It’s strangely paced, vaguely entertaining and just leaves a bit of a bad taste in your mouth… I can only really recommend this to Eastwood completionists, and even then I’m reluctant.

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Thankfully, next is a real saving grace in Honkytonk Man, released in the same year as Firefox and a film that Eastwood so clearly held close to his heart that it’s difficult not to completely fall for this one. With Eastwood completely switching up his game again, I remember my first viewing of this one being just fascinating. His directorial style changed completely, into something he had never really done before. His one other more tender film up to this point, Breezy, had been shot in a mostly observational, verite way with all of the film’s charm emanating from the characters and the way that they reacted to one another/their surroundings. Here, however, Eastwood’s way with the camera just completely changes – the mood comes from the camera for the first time, something he would continue to do, or at least try to, many times over the coming years. Honkytonk Man is beautiful, and understanding the context and some of the behind the scenes certainly helps to emphasise this. Eastwood explains in Piano Blues (more on that one later!), a documentary he made about… the piano blues… that the blues had always been a huge part of his life, since childhood. The casting of his son, Kyle Eastwood, in the supporting role and the setting during the 1930s (when Clint would have been slightly younger than Kyle Eastwood’s Whit is here, which leads me to believe that this is a story as much about Clint’s discovery of the blues during the Great Depression as it is a fictional story about a musician) also both help to make Eastwood’s own connection to the film much clearer.

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Often cited as one of his best performances, Clint plays Red Stovall, a country singer who takes his nephew (Kyle Eastwood) on the road with him for a while. It’s as simple as it sounds – a gentle, beautiful portrait of the 1930s blues scene with many tender moments shared between the two, as well as any supporting characters who wander in and out of the film throughout. The ending is maybe Eastwood’s finest closer (it’s hard to say, though… The Bridges Of Madison County is pretty monstrous too), with it really bringing back the bittersweet tinge that stained the majority of the film preceding it and then emphasised it tenfold. In fact, the ending is mostly just bitter… 

What is also interesting is how Eastwood would come back to do a similar kind of father and son figure film a decade later with A Perfect World (also one of my favourites), however, we’ll have to return to that one in the next part. Though the title and poster alone may serve as deterrents, Honkytonk Man is seriously worth your time. It is one of Eastwood’s most tender, most emotionally expressive, most beautiful films, and even for those who only really care for his work as an actor, it’s worth seeing for his brilliant performance. I still remember kicking myself as soon as this finished for having underestimated and avoided it for as long as I did.

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Next on the agenda, Sudden Impact. The fourth entry into the Dirty Harry series, which had been quietly carrying on in the background during the last twelve years (this one was released in 1983), and the first entry that Eastwood directed, follows a young rape victim (played by Sondra Locke) and Dirty Harry’s pursuit of her when she decides to enact revenge on those who attacked her and her younger sister. With Eastwood at the helm, this one really stands out in comparison to the other Dirty Harry films. Callahan himself is treat completely differently, and for the first time in the franchise the morality of the police is brought into question. It’s an outright ugly and dark film, too, which takes away from the usually sunny and quite cheerful previous entries and emphasises the fact that Eastwood is here to make the franchise his own (the influence of his style here can be spotted all over the place in the last Dirty Harry film, The Dead Pool, with much of that film also taking place at night, including the wonderfully silly final set piece).

Sudden Impact is, frankly, a rough watch at times. Eastwood has always been good at capturing trauma on screen, as I said with The Outlaw Josey Wales’ jaw-dropping opening sequence, and it shows here once again when, in flashback, we return to the rape sequence that set Sondra Locke on her revenge mission. Is Eastwood really the hero for trying to stop this woman? Should her violence be allowed as, after all, she was the victim first? It’s just crazy how Eastwood takes what was becoming a gradually sillier franchise and completely grounds it again, forcing into question American law morality. Much of the violence in the film is stripped of fun here, too, leaving a nasty taste in your mouth instead of a kind of joy at seeing Callahan succeed. The violence feels empty, maybe not unnecessary but it feels gratuitous and saddening. A surprisingly good film, coming from a series that was slowly  dying. Whilst Sudden Impact didn’t seem to revive it for everyone, it certainly made me perk my ears up again. It’s far from perfect, but it is fascinating, especially when compared to the other Dirty Harry films that had been coming out over the previous twelve years.

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Two years later, Pale Rider released. The 1980’s wasn’t really a good time for westerns. With the Hollywood New Wave came the death of the western, and Star Wars has been the nail in the coffin, really – taking the characters and the story of a western (okay, it comes from Kurosawa, but samurai films are similar to westerns, too) and adapting it to a newer, more exciting (for many) setting. Pale Rider is mostly interesting contextually, looking at how Eastwood changed his portrayal of the western hero overtime, with moments such as The Stranger refusing sex with a young woman, which would have been normal at the time, and also the representation of the western protagonist as a kind of Devil, despite the fact that his character is a preacher. As the tagline says, ‘and Hell followed with him’, and it definitely does here, with some of Eastwood’s most satisfying action scenes to date featured throughout. It’s a good film, admittedly. It feels a little lacking when compared to Eastwood’s 70’s westerns, the high points of The Outlaw Josey Wales and High Plains Drifter, but it’s still worth watching. It’s one of the best westerns of the 1980’s, even if that isn’t really saying too much, all things considered.

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Next up, Heartbreak Ridge. Eastwood’s first shot at making a film involving the army (explicitly, at least), and it’s a mostly laid back one. Releasing one year before Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, this film honestly feels like the first half of Kubrick’s film made into one. It’s full of the typical Eastwood traits – bitter old man speaks through gritted teeth for the majority of the runtime – and it also follows the majority of the clichés of the typical army training film, with the one liners (“If I was half as ugly as you, sergeant major, I’d be a poster boy for a prophylactic.”, is a personal favourite), the camaraderie and the overall rather cloudy look at war which is admittedly a little hard to swallow. Many seem to be quite offended by this one in general, with Eastwood’s character being slightly more of a hardass than he usually is (now that’s saying something!) and often using… questionable slurs, being a manipulative ass and just being awkward, but it’s always played off in this innocent way, strangely. What I wasn’t expecting was the switch, which rears it head towards the end. The fun and games occasionally stopping to make way for this more nuanced look at how Eastwood’s mind has been warped by his experiences in the war, or at least, that’s what I took it as. It’s uncomfortable to see, with the film feeling like this collection of hazy memories frequently interrupted by these nightmarish moments of manipulation and trouble. It’s absolutely fascinating. It isn’t the most interesting of his military based films, but it was one hell of a way to kick things out of the gate. He ran before he walked. 

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Ending the decade on another intriguing detour, Bird came out in 1988. The film stars Forest Whitaker as Charlie Parker in a biopic that follows his drug addiction and alcoholism, his family life and his music with a close eye. The film feels quite directionless, meandering – sometimes in a good way, but sometimes it detracts from the emotional beats quite a bit. Sometimes the lacking focus on story leaves room for some beautiful character moments, such as the ending (my God! What a fantastic ending!), but other times it just makes the film feel much longer and aimless. It’s an intimate portrayal of Bird, one with plenty of scorn where necessary to the point that you can tell Eastwood respects him greatly. The focus on Chan, Parker’s wife, is also fascinating, but the potential that the film has to be a touching, important biopic is so often lost to the meandering plot. It remains a fascinating set up to Jersey Boys, a film Eastwood made about a group of singers later on, and also as the second time that Eastwood revealed his deep love for music after Honkytonk Man. This time wouldn’t be the last, either.

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However, that’s all for the 1980s. It wasn’t perfect, but it also gave way to many of Eastwood’s more interesting moments and maybe the most growth in his style in any given decade aside from the 2000s. I’ll be back soon with a piece on his work of the 1990s! Here is a picture of Eastwood on the set of Every Which Way But Loose to tide you over.

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