Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Clint Eastwood's Morality Check

In this age of media oversaturation, we sometimes hear that we've become jaded about the future. It is reflected in our choices of popular culture. As teenagers, we play bang-'em-up, shoot-'em-up video games. We tune to mass entertainment that is geared to a high body count (stand tall, "Walking Dead") or procedural of the week (the alphabet soup shows like "NCIS" and "CSI"), or the reality genre that allows us to laugh at the misfortunes or idiosyncracies of others.

But looking back at movies made more than a quarter century ago, we have nothing on jadedness. Many of those films cast a dark, cynical eye on society. Today, we may watch historical movies about the political battle to free the slaves in "Lincoln" or the subterfuge surrounding helping hostages escape Iran through a fake movie production in "Argo."  But these are not really commentaries on modern society.

I happened to see one of Clint Eastwood's early films, 1968's "Hang 'em High." At the time, Eastwood was primarily known as a leading actor in Italian director Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns, usually playing a man with no name who is pretty good at shooting a gun. But he decided to start his own production company and take his reductionist take on the action hero to America. The result was one of the top-selling movies of 1968, "Hang 'em High," directed by Ted Post and starring Clint as another mysterious stranger who takes revenge into his own hands.

But here's where the story takes a novel twist. In this movie, Eastwood's character, Jed Cooper, is almost lynched by a gang of outlaws and features a rope burn stretching across his neck, which he discreetly covers with his high-collared, starched black shirts and black T's. Eastwood is of course gunning for revenge on those who have wronged him.

But he runs into a judge in Oklahoma, at the time the territory wants to become a state. To impress the federal authorities, Judge Fenton (played by Pat Hingle), who runs the territory, must convince the government that the open spaces of Oklahoma are also safe for its citizens and free of untamed criminals. He enlists the edgy Eastwood as a deputy marshall and tells him he is free to track down those seven outlaws who have done his wrong.

There is one condition: Eastwood must bring them to Judge Fenton alive and not go on a killing spree. Eastwood tries and sometimes succeeds, killing a few when they turn their guns on him but finally bringing to Fenton several of the outlaws, including a rustler/murderer played by Bruce Dern with anger coming out his pores.

Fenton turns the tables and hangs Dern and several others, some for the simplest of crimes. It turns out that he wants to impress the federal authorities that Oklahoma will be a law-abiding state where criminals will fear death at every turn. In a key scene, Fenton tells Eastwood's Copper that if it weren't for his hangings, lynch mobs would roam the streets. It is better for the law, like Fenton's hanging judge, to dispense Western justice than for mob rule to enforce its own misguided judgment.

Eastwood remains conflicted, even at the movie's end. He wants his revenge, but he also wants to see justice served. The moral conundrum is not neatly resolved, even as it raises questions about capital punishment and the machinations by politicians at the expense of some citizens.

This is a tale set in the Old West but it is a vision that is still debated today. In the late 1960s, with the Vietnam War outraging many citizens and protests sprouting like the peace signs seen everywhere, the movies mirrored that turbulent time. Of course, Eastwood's conservative politics today are well-known; he's the guy who talked to the chair at the Republican convention.

But in 1968, one could make a case that even Eastwood seemed a bit undecided in his politics. His first self-produced film, one that helped propel his career to superstardom, is also one that can spark heated political debate.

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