Clint Eastwood’s Journey from ‘Unforgiven’ to ‘Gran Torino’

You recall that I have sometimes spoken of the ‘Myth of Redemptive violence’? This is the creation myth that derives from Babylon, where the world (something that has been created) is viewed as the product of a heavenly battle between the god Marduk and the Dragon Tiamat. This myth is replayed in the classical form of every Western and Action movie from ‘gunfight at the OK Corral to Sylvester Stallone’s ‘Rambo’ series and Bruce Willis’ ‘Die Hard’ series.


Last Sunday I watched Clint Eastwood in the movie ‘Un-forgiven.’ This movie depicts the ‘Myth of Redemptive violence.’ A retired hired gun (Clint Eastwood as William Munny) is recalled from being a farmer on a failing farm to do ‘one last job’ involving the killing of two cowboys who have mutilated a prostitute. A sub-plot involves Clint Eastwood in the killing of the town’s sheriff who prevents guns from being brought into his town, but who enforces this law with ruthless violence.


So at one level the movie is unremarkable. It reinforces the pattern that violence can solve our problems. It is presented as having solved the problem of guns in the town, and it solves the problem of revenge on the part of the prostitutes. It is the threat of the return of William Munny that keeps the prostitutes safe, and the town at peace.


Some of the themes in the movie began to intrigue me. What is it about the ‘Gunslinger who gives it up but is called out one more time to use violence.’ The movie clearly depicts the failure of William Munny’s life as a farmer. He is constantly in the mud unsuccessfully trying to separate pigs with fever and those without. As a former agriculturalist, I know that no one with pigs ever separates them that way. He talks about the fact that his wife (now dead) reformed him. But does he need her around to convince him that being a gunslinger is not the best form of life for a man? It reminds me of the classic book on the stereotyping of women as ‘Damned Whores and God’s Police’. Women ought not be forced into the ‘civilising of men’ category as their main usefulness.


And the acceptance of ‘going back’ to kill once more after having given it up. This happens a lot in Spy movies, and crime movies, as well as westerns. How can he live with himself after having given up this way of life? Why doesn’t he go off to a course in Agriculture? Why doesn’t he get killed as a sign to us the viewers that this way of life is not going to pay. (There is a touch of this when the young gunslinger who convinces him to go to do the killing actually does kill someone and admits that this was his first time. He hates it and goes away never to do this again.)


I know a couple of stories of real people who have been called back to a life that they have given up. One of them I met in prison after he had been sentenced to another eight years for armed robbery. He was in difficulty paying his mortgage and said that the robbing of a supermarket was a solution that he knew. So he went back. The end of his movie was eight years in prison.


Another person was a star footballer. He became a Christian at a Pentecostal Church and decided that football was a ‘god’ so he gave up the worship of that idol. He was lured back, and his life went down hill from there.


This is what it means to be ‘un-forgiven’. To be un-forgiven means not being free to make a new start. In the Clint Eastwood movie, he is just able to renounce his farming life, go back to killing for a while and then go back to farming. This does not ring true to me, because of the cost to him of renouncing the values his wife taught him. The questions for me are ‘Could he have had the strength to do something different and stay a farmer?’ and ‘Why did they not show us the effects on him of such a life?’ These effects were shown on those around him (The two companions he had both suffered as a result) but William Munny was able to simply move on and become successful in business in another town, as the postscript tells us. This does not ring true.


The other movie I have recently seen which is Clint Eastwood’s last acting role is as Walt Kowalski in ‘Gran Torino’ This movie depicts Clint Eastwood as living alone and alienated from nearly everyone but with a great car (the Gran Torino). An Asian family moves next door and after initially hating them he is won over by their hospitality. But then the ‘problem’ of the movie arises. Other young people are tormenting the daughter of the Asian family. Clint Eastwood drives them off and you think ‘Here we go again, the myth of redemptive violence once more. ‘ But then the movie takes a twist that marks it out for me. The danger and violence of the youths escalates. What is Clint Eastwood going to do? You would expect that he will take the law into his own hands because as is natural the forces of primeval chaos reign, and normal police are ineffectual. This movie is different. Walt Kowalski discovers that he has terminal lung cancer. This gives him the alternative. He goes over to the youth’s house, and is shot dead by them. He reasons that he is a ‘dead man’ any way, and that this is a solution. The police come in and remove the youths. The Asian family is safe, Walt has saved the day, but here is the difference from the myth of redemptive violence: he saves the others at the cost of his own life.


Is this like Jesus? Has Clint Eastwood’s sense of things moved on so that we no longer have the myth of redemptive violence but instead the myth of redemptive sacrifice? I think that we are moving in that direction but not quite.


Two questions arise for me. First, would it have made a difference if Walt Kowalski was not already dying of cancer? The movie would have depicted a more genuine sacrifice. What he did was a giving up of something for others, but what he gave up was only the time between this death and his natural death from cancer. What is true is that Clint Eastwood in this movie places himself as the one killed to change things, rather than does the killing to change things. This is a step forward, but it still leaves open for me the question of the place of violence in ‘changing things’ either as being done, or done to. The structure of violence remains.


What do e think about Jesus’ death? Was it sacrificial in the sense of the old temple sacrifices that involve violence and the spilling of blood to satisfy God’s justice and wrath as some would have us believe? If this is so, then we are still in the structures of violence as earning our salvation. There has to be another picture for both these scenes. Clint Eastwood in not replaying Jesus’ sacrifice here I think.


But what is it? I am reading a book on leadership at the moment. One story in this book involves a mother who wants her children to do the homework. The mother says to the children ‘I will pay myself a dollar for every time I want to mention the homework to you, but do not.’ The kids see the pot filling, and their marks falling. The children begin to take responsibility for the homework. This is redemption, not by violence or from within the double bind of mother and children and homework. This story establishes a new paradigm of behaviour that is outside the old ways. This is what I think Jesus’ death does. This is what I think Gran Torino is groping after, but does not quite reach. It is interesting though to watch Clint Eastwood’s movement through his movies, and to reflect on what it might mean for Christians.


About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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