Clint Eastwood came to international attention in Sergio Leone’s trilogy of spaghetti Westerns as a nameless protagonist wrapped in a dirty serape, a cigarillo clenched between his teeth. During his half-century-long career, Eastwood has been praised, loathed and appropriated by people as diverse as Pauline Kael and Ronald Reagan. Over time “Dirty Harry” has become better known for the more than 30 films he has directed, including Oscar winners Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby.
Clint Eastwood became an icon for two signature roles: the Man with No Name in Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy and “Dirty” Harry Callahan in the five-movie franchise that began with 1971’s Dirty Harry. Although one character is nameless and the other is so well known his name has become vernacular for righteous vigilantism, the roles have much in common. Both are violent but principled antiheroes who break laws and rack up high body counts (Dirty Harry kills 43 criminals over the course of his celluloid career), often in the aid of the weak and powerless.
Although we may think of this character type as uniquely American—and Eastwood did begin to sculpt his strong-jawed cowboy look in the Wild West television show Rawhide—both film series were influenced by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. The first of the Leone Westerns, Fistful of Dollars (1964), was based on Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), and the screenwriter for Dirty Harry, John Milius, claims to have used Kurosawa’s lone gunmen as inspiration for his title character. When Eastwood played another gruff vigilante with a soft spot for the oppressed in Gran Torino (2008), his growled “Get off my lawn” echoed Dirty Harry’s “Make my day.”
In Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone’s 1964 A Fistful of Dollars, Clint Eastwood seems like the typical Western loner. But this half-bandit gunslinger, known as the Man with No Name, lives by his own morals, which are most often motivated by revenge. Nearly 30 years later Eastwood directed his 16th turn behind the camera, Unforgiven, in which the Man with No Name grows into the weary William Munny, a retired gunfighter who has lost his taste for killing. Violence is no longer honored, and the landscape portrayed so lovingly in traditional Westerns is a brutal, sadistic, heartless place. Munny still kills but not with ease or swagger. He understands that revenge and murder exact a personal toll; there’s no walking away unscathed.
With Unforgiven, Eastwood went from squinting character actor to acclaimed director. He had broken his own mold, and filmgoers began to appreciate him as a skilled and sensitive director, as well as an actor who could stretch beyond the flawed vigilante. Eastwood dedicated Unforgiven to the men who had directed him—and made him famous as a big-gunned hero—in the Dollars and Dirty Harry movies (Leone and Don Siegel, respectively).
The response to Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy ranged from high praise to ridicule to outrage. Los Angeles Times movie critic Charles Champlin called The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) “The Bad, the Dull and the Interminable.” In a 1968 New York Times review entitled “Zane Grey Meets the Marquis de Sade,” critic Renata Adler called the same film “The Burn, the Gouge and the Mangle” and particularly criticized its incessant, sadistic violence. Even the few nonviolent moments, she notes, include discussions about the results of violence, as when a character explains, “Sergeant, gangrene is eating my leg away. Also my eye.”
Critic Pauline Kael saw the violence in the Dollars trilogy as the beginning of a new amorality in film. In a New Yorker review of Magnum Force (1974), the second Dirty Harry film, Kael posited, “It was the spaghetti Westerns (which made Clint Eastwood a star) that first eliminated the morality-play dimension and turned the Western into pure, violent reverie.… [They] stripped the form of its cultural burden of morality.”
As with most films starring Clint Eastwood in the 1980s, the Dirty Harry movies were alternately praised and loathed by critics while generating huge box office returns. Pauline Kael wrote that Magnum Force (1974) took its title “from the giant’s phallus—the long-barreled Magnum .44—that Eastwood flourishes.” Skewering Eastwood himself, she noted, “He isn’t an actor, so one could hardly call him a bad actor.”
Regardless of Kael’s opinion, Harry Callahan’s hard-nosed rule-bending police inspector appeared in five films (1971–1988), made an indelible mark on the action hero genre, boosted Smith & Wesson gun sales and earned $228 million domestically. The franchise gave us the classic one-liners “Go ahead, make my day” and “Do you feel lucky, punk?”—the latter a misquote from “I know what you’re thinking: ‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’… But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?” Callahan spurred an era of action-movie signature catchphrases, including Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “I’ll be back” and “Hasta la vista, baby,” from the Terminator films.
The violence of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns was widely criticized, but not until the Dirty Harry films did things get political. The movies were called fascist and right-wing, while politicians advocating for gun rights embraced the Magnum-toting vigilante. Many states passed Castle Doctrine laws, which gave citizens the right to use deadly force to protect their property and were often called “Make My Day Laws”—a reference to “Dirty” Harry Callahan’s signature line.
Ronald Reagan invoked the line in a 1985 speech. “I have my veto pen drawn and ready for any tax increase that Congress might even think of sending up,” he quipped. “I have only one thing to say to the tax increasers: Go ahead, make my day.” Eight years after appearing in Every Which Way But Loose with an orangutan sidekick, Eastwood ran for mayor of Carmel, California; Reagan, who had costarred with a chimpanzee in 1951’s Bedtime for Bonzo, joked, “What makes him think a middle-aged actor who’s played with a chimp could have a future in politics?” Unlike his fellow Californian, Eastwood may not have had the nation’s top speechwriters, as evidenced by his rant to an empty chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention.
Clint Eastwood’s 25th directorial effort, Million Dollar Baby, garnered largely positive reviews and won the Oscar for best picture and best director. Many critics noted Eastwood’s “feminist” sensibility, with the lead role, a female boxer played by Hillary Swank, showing the strength and integrity Eastwood frequently displayed in his own roles. Critics have noted the women in Eastwood’s movies are often fighters who have been grievously injured and are battling back against the odds.
Yet Million Dollar Baby incurred protests from disability rights activists, as one of its story lines concerns the euthanasia of a character who is paralyzed. Right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh chimed in, calling the film “liberal propaganda” and accusing Eastwood of suggesting the disabled should be killed. Limbaugh and other far-right pundits attempted to ruin the film’s box office take by publicizing the ending. Critic Frank Rich noted in The New York Times, “As Mr. Eastwood has pointed out, advance knowledge of the story’s ending did nothing to deter the audience for The Passion of the Christ,” Mel Gibson’s film about the Crucifixion, released around the same time. As for Eastwood’s final act in Hollywood, it’s anyone’s guess when this stalwart will hang up his pistols.