(Music and Other Media)
Clint Eastwood - “Don’t Fence Me In”
You can really separate films in the Western genre into two major groups: those made before A Fistful of Dollars (“classic westerns”) and those made after it (“modern westerns”). Sure, that’s a little simplistic, but we’re taking a very broad, general look at the genre here. Essentially, A Fistful of Dollars marked an end to classic western tropes like the morally righteous hero, the savage Injuns, the climactic arrival of the cavalry, and other cliches that had been staples of the genre. Basically, it put the final nail in the coffin of strict Old Hollywood morality in Westerns.
To cite a specific example, A Fistful of Dollars was the first film to show a gun being fired and a person being hit in the same shot. Up until then, studio overseers and genre conventions required filmmakers to have a cut between the two. One shot would shot a gun being fired, then it would cut to another showing the person being hit. Sergio Leone, the director of A Fistful of Dollars, was Italian, and therefore didn’t have to meet those requirements (and likely wasn’t aware of them). So, he opens the film with a scene that climaxes with a shot of the film’s hero shooting and killing four men without any cut. It introduced both a new kind of Western hero and a new way of making a Western film.
But, in addition to Leone’s direction and writing, the man who played that film’s hero also deserves a lot of credit.
There are some acting roles that call for a certain type of person, and the lead of A Fistful of Dollars is one such part. He needs to be able get audiences on his side without being good, or moral, or heroic in any way whatsoever. The role calls for someone with a very particular sort of charisma, and Clint Eastwood hits that target perfectly. He can’t be the moral bastion like John Wayne or even a conflicted but ultimately heroic figure like Jimmy Stewart.1 He had to make the view like him even though he was fundamentally unlikable.
And that, finally, brings us to the track above. It comes from the album Rawhide’s Clint Eastwood Sings Cowboy Favorites, which was released the same year as A Fistful of Dollars. As its title suggests, Eastwood was then primarily known for his work on the television program Rawhide, which is couched firmly in the tropes of the Classic Western.2 It was primarily about cattle drives, and dispatching the various bandits, highwaymen, and ne’er-do-wells encountered on the trail. I mean, Eastwood’s character was named “Rowdy Yates.”
Years removed from A Fistful of Dollars, the record makes for slightly uncanny listening. It’s not that Clint doesn’t work within the confines of the elements of Classic Westerns. In fact, it’s just the opposite. On this record and in the series that inspired it, he actually works fairly well. His youth meant that he had to take the role of the impulsive youth who must learn about patience and honor from John Wayne or a diet-John-Wayne sort of figure. But I could certainly see an alternate history where he was born a few decades earlier and played lead roles in John Ford movies with aplomb.
In short, it might be strange at first to hear Eastwood on a record like this, but after that initial shock, it’s fairly impressive how smoothly he fits in here.
1. This is, of course, not to say that either of those actors’ Westerns were not great films in their own right. There’s a reason Wayne’s role in Stagecoach was endlessly imitated, and his later work in films like The Searchers and The Shootist proved he could provide a character with a degree of nuance and complexity, if he felt like it. Stewart is today more remembered for playing clean-cut, boy-next-door heroes, but many of his best films are the Westerns he made with the supremely underrated Anthony Mann.* In films like Winchester ‘73, The Naked Spur, and The Far Country, Stewart bridged the gap between the moral certainty of Wayne and the amorality of Eastwood. And together Wayne and Stewart made The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which belongs in the conversation for the best film the genre’s ever produced.
*(Mann’s films tended to be shockingly progressive. Several of his films pass the Bechdel test with flying colors, and he made a film about Native American protagonists fighting to save their land from corrupt white settlers. Those resume lines would be notable today, but Mann accomplished them in the 1950s.)
2. You’re probably more familiar with the theme song than the show itself.