In this, the latest edition of Director Versus we’re examining two of the finest films of action hero turned master director, Clint Eastwood. Having made his name in Sergio Leone’s ‘Spaghetti Westerns,’ Eastwood’s career has since increased tenfold in variety and quality- seeing him defy all expectation. Here we pit two of Eastwood’s greatest films (choosing them was immensely difficult in itself,) Unforgiven (1992,) and Gran Torino (2008,) against each other.
Eastwood himself was originally only cast by Sergio Leone as the iconic ‘man with no name’ because the film’s budget wasn’t large enough to cast the preferred man, James Coburn- but that turned out to be a remarkable stroke of luck for the discerning Western fan. Eastwood’s most modern Western, Unforgiven, (which he both directed and starred in,) is arguably the pinnacle of his career defining relationship with the Western genre. Since making the film Eastwood has largely diversified into other genres but Unforgiven signalled an evolution of the Wild-West films. In place of the mysterious strangers, merciless bandits and heroic Sheriffs of traditional Westerns were three dimensional characters with their own vulnerabilities. Characters that developed meaningfully alongside the plot and really made the viewer think. While most of Eastwood’s early Westerns are very enjoyable in their own right, Unforgiven offered thoughtful depth in a genre that is often accused of lacking it and for this Eastwood has to be praised.
Eastwood is accompanied by Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris, all excel in their roles.
The big names in Unforgiven also contribute to its status as a truly classic film- Eastwood is accompanied by Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris, all excel in their roles and all play characters that surprise and grip the viewer. Gene Hackman plays ‘Little Bill’ the hard-nosed Sheriff of Big Whisky, the town in which most of the film’s events take place. Arguably he is the villain of the piece as his refusal to dish out a sufficiently harsh punishment to two men, (who assaulted a prostitute with a knife,) sets the wheels in motion for the rest of the film’s plot. The assaulted woman and her friends offer a reward for the two men’s lives and Little Bill lets loose his vicious streak on any who attempt to collect on the bounty. After his initially patriarchal treatment of the assault, which reeks of injustice, Little Bill’s other contributions to the plot aren’t so black and white and that’s the beauty of Unforgiven, so little is. This defies the stereotypical Western layout and the viewer is left to debate to themselves who the real villain is- William Munny’s (Eastwood,) horrendously dark past faces off against Little Bill’s violent, despotic reign of Big Whisky.
Gran Torino though, also directed by and starring Eastwood, is an altogether different proposition. Lonely, ageing, Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski (Eastwood,) initially clashes with his Hmong-American neighbours before, accidentally, becoming their protector in the face of a vicious local gang. Gran Torino though is far from an action film, don’t expect Clint to be sliding over car bonnets and blazing away at gangsters with a sub-machine gun. Instead the film delicately examines Walt’s personal problems, including his inherently anti-social nature, his alienation from his family and his attempts to handle the death of his wife. Walt’s age, isolation and worsening illness make him a highly vulnerable protagonist, at the same time though the film shows us his strength and heroism as he becomes the ultimate underdog in facing up to the power of the gang on behalf of his neighbours.
Gran Torino eases the viewer subtly through the changes in Walt’s life and outlook and as a result is a massively emotional experience.
The film also conveys Walt’s personal development fantastically and this is one of the elements that really make Gran Torino stand out from the crowd. He gradually and believably learns to challenge his old attitudes and essentially becomes a wiser, more accepting and happier person. This is impressively masterminded by Eastwood as so many films are guilty of being heavy handed in this particular kind of character development, but Gran Torino eases the viewer subtly through the changes in Walt’s life and outlook and as a result is a massively emotional experience. The film is harrowing in places, sometimes because of stark violence and injustice and sometimes simply because Walt’s original, lonely existence can’t help but bring about deep pangs of sympathy. Overall though Gran Torino is arguably the most emotive film Clint Eastwood has ever made and is made masterfully. It rings out as a simultaneous tribute to his acting, his directorial skill and to the new diversity of storytelling that he has adopted in his more modern films.
Want more on Clint? Try our article- Clint Eastwood in the 21st Century.
Unforgiven and Gran Torino are so difficult to split and present two very different, immensely enjoyable viewing experiences. Overall though, while Gran Torino is the perfect exemplar of Eastwood’s diversification and continued quality and is, ultimately, a fantastic film- Unforgiven is arguably more of an all-round classic. It’s fantastic cocktail of action, star quality, fantastic writing and a gritty, dark atmosphere. Unforgiven also essentially defied a genre, adding three dimensional characters where there were so few and stirring bucket fulls of masterfully extracted raw emotion to boot. Splitting these films is splitting hairs, but overall, it has to be Unforgiven.
By George Storr