"I never considered myself a cowboy, because I wasn't," Clint Eastwood once said. "But I guess when I got into cowboy gear I looked enough like one to convince people that I was."
To put it mildly. For actors, more than most people, genetics is destiny. Historically, we may be sure, there were short, chubby, talkative cowhands. Bur not in the movies, where the classic western heroes have always been tall, thin, laconic--and flinty-eyed. Or perhaps one should say, Clinty-eyed. Anyway, he looked the part, and he gained his first featured roles (The First Traveling Saleslady, Ambush at Cimarron Pass), his first fame (as Rowdy Yates in television's Rawhide, the beginnings of international stardom (in the three spaghetti westerns he made with Sergio Leone) and his Academy Awards (for Unforgiven) by acting the cowboy.
When he went off to Italy to make A Fistful of Dollars, he was thinking "the western was in a dead place, encrusted with myth, poetry, stale pictorialism and simple moralizing." The thing that drew him to this unlikely, low-paying project was the quality that earned it and his other Leone films so much disapproval when they first appeared--their straightforward, darkly comic insistence on the primitive and entirely ignoble nature of frontier life.
Their impact on the genre was ultimately liberating--to Clint Eastwood as well as to others working in the form. In the first of the Leone films, Clint's character was styled as "a grizzled Christ figure" (to use critic Richard Corliss' phrase) who undergoes a calvary and a resurrection before bringing redemption--at the end of his gun barrel--to the hellish Mexican border town of San Miguel. In the first film Clint's Malpaso Productions produced, Hang 'Em High, his character, Jed Cooper, is hanged and left for dead in the movie's opening minutes. Rescued, he becomes a lawman who liberates an entire frontier territory from lynch law. In High Plains Drifter, the first western Clint directed, his character quite possibly represents a figure reincarnated to bring justice to a town every bit as evil as San Miguel. In Pale Rider, his Preacher is unquestionably such a figure--returned from the grave to defend the meek and the weak from their earthly tormentors. In the two most aspiring of the films he has directed, The Outlaw Josey Wales and Unforgiven, he plays a man broken in spirit who finds redemption through altruistic actions reluctantly undertaken (and in the latter, more ambiguously stated).
Some aspect of the western landscape obviously moves Clint Eastwood to thoughts of regeneration, for it is not a subject his other films take up. Perhaps such meditations can be traced back to his boyhood, when his parents took him to Yosemite, and he first "looked down into that valley" and was moved to something like a spiritual experience by the silence, the emptiness, the beauty of the place. If ever a man were lost and needed to find himself, it is in such a place that he might begin the search. For we find in his westerns, harsh and "realistic" as they are in tone, that a whispered yearning for--dare one use the word--transcendence can sometimes be heard.