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John Wayne and Clint Eastwood: Their Western Heroes

In modern American culture the cowboy is more of a faded relic but his legacy is that of a hero, an end-all be-all champion of the masses using a six shooter as the method of choice in solving problems. The western hero, a fancy name for Cowboy that I will be using throughout, is an easy target to stereotype; for the most part western heroes are interchangeable between the nigh-formulaic films that made them famous. The two men that rose above the others and came to stereotype the western hero, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood,Wayne pre-1960 and Eastwood post-1960, both became standard stereotypical cowboys by redefining the conventions they stereotyped. Depending on when one was born, when one thinks of the Western Hero, the cowboy, they will almost always have the spitting image of one of these two men within his head. John Wayne had successfully and stereotypically portrayed the western hero during his early career, but by the 1960’s he was fading out of style, only having three or four noteworthy westerns since 1959 (note that at that time he was switching to war time movies of various kinds). At the same time, Rawhide, one of the most popular TV Western shows of all time, was gaining popularity starring a young heart-throb named Clint Eastwood. Eastwood gained international acclaim under Sergio Leone’s skilled directing, and became a hero of a different breed under Leone’s influence and his own directing.

Wayne’s stereotype is that of the traditional cowboy, where Eastwood has three stereotypes that many viewers fail to distinguish between because of two reasons; the first is because of the long-standing John Wayne stereotype and because Eastwood acts and directs the three stereotypes out as indistinguishable as possible. The Traditional Western Hero, as defined by the traditional western, traditionally starring John Wayne, straddles the border of civilization and savagery and civility; the western hero is a savage champion of civilization, a mild-mannered man of violence, and a stout reminder that Theodore Roosevelt’s “speak softly and carry a big stick” philosophy was a viable solution to problems. He stands equally within the savage world and the civilized world; the west and the east, and respects the skills and abilities of both sides. John Ford is the man mostly responsible for this image of Wayne. The other image of Wayne, that follows the same conventions as the Traditional Hero but results in different means, is Howard Hawk’s presentation of Wayne in three of his Westerns, Red River, Rio Bravo, and El Dorado.

This image of Wayne can be contrasted (and only occasionally compared) to the three images defined by Eastwood: The Man with No Name, The Hero of Divine Retribution, and The Reluctant Hero. Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name hero, portrayed by Eastwood in the Spaghetti Western trilogy criticizes the traditional hero as an over-idealized romantic icon. He redefines the western hero as a bounty hunter only out for the interests of himself, and if he helps civilization along the way, well then lucky for civilization that it didn’t stand in the way instead. The Man with No Name uses his fast gun, sharp aim, and superior intelligence to tackle slightly more realistic show down situations, usually involving more than two people (or more and more frequently in Leone’s and Eastwood’s movies, a group of increasing numbers vs. Eastwood), rather than the romantic ideal of a one on one show down at high noon on main street.

Eastwood takes the influences of Leone as well as many of Japan’s samurai and ghost films to create two new types of western heroes in the 1970’s and 80’s. The Hero of Divine Retribution is Eastwood’s first creation, in his third directorial effort of High Plains Drifter. This character also takes shape in Pale Rider, Eastwood’s remake of the classic western, Shane. This character can sometimes be interpreted as a Heaven-sent Angel of Death and Revenge. The qualities of this hero encompass Leone’s Man with No Name and also include the trait of ‘everyone guilty will suffer.’ The second Eastwood creation, The Reluctant Hero, is seen in his two arguably best films, The Outlaw Josey Wales and Unforgiven. This hero, like the last one, derives obvious influences from somewhere else. Unlike Divine Retribution, however, The Reluctant Hero derives his qualities from the Traditional Hero. The Reluctant Hero attempts to be The Man with No Name, but fails, and consciously helps society rather than coincidently helping it (or consciously destroying it). It is worth noting that the hero in Pale Rider has many of the traits of the Reluctant Hero as well as his defined role as Divine Retribution.

Western convention does not quite agree that Eastwood’s heroes are valid as Western Heroes, but allows Wayne to posses the attribute of a ‘classic cowboy’ and be the stereotypical Western Hero. Through the variations of the heroes played by both men, however, it can be seen that their heroes are valid due to circumstance. You cannot place an Eastwood hero into a Wayne film, or vice versa, yet Eastwood, through Leone’s and his own conventions, redefines the Western Hero to include himself, making him a valid Traditional Western Hero. This is only possible because Wayne, mostly under the direction of Howard Hawks, makes slight adjustments to comment upon but not critique the Traditional Hero. To make things simple, here are a few lists of traits that define the types of Western Heroes; sources include notes from a class taught by Joe Miller at the University of Maryland and my own observations while watching the films:


The Traditional Hero:

  1. The Traditional Hero must be noble in character and must restrain from using violence; he must never draw his gun first and never pick a fight, especially with weaker men.
  2. The Traditional Hero must never act in self interest; all his actions should be in the best interests of the community, of the progress of society.
  3. The Traditional Hero must be fair and treat everyone equally within their abilities, especially women, children, and peoples of other races.
  4. The Traditional Hero must (try to) be aware of everything around him and understand every side in a dispute he becomes involved in.
  5. The Traditional Hero comes from the savage world and uses his skills to help society progress even when that society has no place for him within it (thus after helping it, he retreats back to the savage world). He must possess the abilities to exist simultaneously within both worlds, but must fight for a society in which he doesn’t belong.
  6. The Traditional Hero must never go back on his word.

The Man with No Name:

  1. No Name must be more skilled than all others, but is not with out his weaknesses.
  2. No Name will put himself above others and does not distinguish between those below him. He cares only for himself and aides people when it will benefit him.
  3. No Name must destroy all obstacles in the way of his goal.
  4. No Name will use his superior gun skills and intelligence to get him out of tough situations, frequently employing underhanded trickery or manipulation of others.

The Hero of Divine Retribution:

  1. Divine Retribution will be more skilled than others, and show no weaknesses.
  2. Divine Retribution will punish all guilty parties, whether they know he knows they’re guilty or not.
  3. Divine Retribution will employ manipulation of others and underhanded trickery to punish the guilty without mercy.

The Reluctant Hero:

  1. The Reluctant Hero will seek revenge for the innocent, rather than protecting the innocent from harm.
  2. The Reluctant Hero will not be more skilled than anyone at the beginning of the film, but will be more skilled than everyone by the end.
  3. The Reluctant Hero will aide civilization because no one else will, or is able to.


John Wayne under John Ford

In 1939, director John Ford took a childish genre, the Western, and a child cowboy hero, John Wayne, and changed them both into cultural icons for generations to come in one broad swoop. More surprisingly he only needed one movie to do it with; Stagecoach. Ford and Wayne paired up many times afterwards, but it was Wayne’s stellar performance as one of the most righteous Traditional Hero that changed the genre. Wayne’s character is an outlaw who joins a group of travelers within a stagecoach in which several social class ideals and traditions are represented within the characters. Old Eastern (east of the Mississippi River that is) traditions are represented by a banker, a gambler from the old south, and an army officer’s pregnant wife. Western values are represented by Wayne, an alcoholic doctor, and a woman accused of being a prostitute. The conflict between the two sets of values is fairly obvious, although it is easier to say that characters are in opposition with each other rather than their values. The gambler is conflicted against John Wayne, the banker with the doctor, and the two women conflict each other. At the core, Wayne, our hero, and to a lesser extent the doctor and “prostitute,” treat everyone equally as humans, where the three characters representing eastern values hold contempt for those they have conflicting opinions about; the gambler and the officer’s wife being most open about their contempt. In the movie, Wayne uses his gun fighting skills to help defend the stagecoach, the symbol of civilization, despite being an outlaw and under no obligation to help out. One of the defining traits of a Traditional Hero is that ‘a cowboy must never go back on his word,’ and in Stagecoach, Wayne swears revenge on three brothers for one reason or another and despite running out of ammo during an Indian attack, had saved three bullets for each of the brothers he swore to kill when his character was introduced.

Another classic John Ford/John Wayne movie is Fort Apache. In Fort Apache, Wayne plays a second-in-command Captain who is familiar with, and trusted by, the Apache tribe. The man in charge, however, is an easterner who was once a general, but has since been demoted to Lt. Colonel in charge of Fort Apache. In this movie Ford had hoped to reconstruct the heroic story of General Custer and Custer’s Last Stand, de-mythifying it into an obvious military blunder. Wayne’s character in the movie is a stereotypical definition of the Traditional Hero in this movie; he respects everyone, from the women to the apache to the eastern military tradition that he disagrees with. He is civilized enough to be able to dance at social events, but is savage enough to brave going into Apache territory with only his translator and no weapons. Shirley Temple also stars in the movie (at the very attractive age of 16), and is portrayed as the symbol of civilization. The fort is more of a military town, where families of officers live, to help the progress of civilization. The Lt. Colonel does not aide to protect this progress, because he decides to foolishly charge directly into an Apache trap and looses the battle with them immediately. The Lt. Colonel upholds the traditions of the East, assuming that the United States Government is the authoritative voice on all matters, and as its representative, he has final authority on all matters regardless of who is involved and whether they’re Indians or not (because obviously the Indians are going to care very little for the U.S. and its government). To contrast this, Wayne’s character upholds the traditions of the west, not underestimating his enemies and refraining from violence in order to protect the progress of civilization, he demonstrates this by not telling the soldiers in his command to charge into battle, even though his commanding officer’s troops are being trodden on, and also by commanding a younger officer, who happens to want to marry Shirley Temple’s character, to deliver a message, thereby getting him away from danger and into safety which would help him create a family later (and that family is shown at the end of the movie).

In a later Ford/Wayne team-up, The Searchers, John Ford plays the role of a slightly flawed Traditional Hero, that is, he has all the values of a Traditional Hero except one, he is racist against Indians. Because of his extreme hatred for the savage, he swears to kill his niece simply because she had been too ‘corrupted’ by the Indian culture. This hatred against that which is savage manifests itself as the savage skills required to be a traditional hero in Wayne’s character. But by the end of the movie, his manifested hatred for the savage makes him no longer able to be a part of the progress of civilization. Instead of defending civilization against the savage using his guns, he helps the progress of social change by excluding himself from the civilized world. Had this been a conscious choice by Wayne’s character, he could be considered heroic, but because he descends so far into the savage, he would have not been accepted whether he wanted to join civility or not. In the last shot he is about to walk through the door of the house, but turns away, knowing his ideology and his descent to savagism makes him unwelcome. This can be inferred as a return to wilderness that is classic to the Traditional Hero, but it is not, Wayne would not aide the society by being openly racist, despite some members of the society being racist, but discreetly so.


John Wayne under Howard Hawks

Howard Hawks was one of the most versatile and best directors of his age. He teamed up with John Wayne for four westerns and each one is a classic. In 1949 they teamed up to create Red River, a classic tale about Texas’ first cattle drive. In this movie John Wayne is a cattle driver that helps push the frontier, the line of civilization, to Texas. He’s fast with a gun, fast enough to enforce his ways over others without consequences. He embodies the Traditional Hero at the beginning of the movie through the fact that he is an active participant in the extension of the frontier and defeats Indians. However, the time line of the movie is such that John Wayne is a Traditional Hero in the past, a hero of the frontier. The majority of the movie happens after the frontier is pushed further west than Texas, when Wayne becomes a poor cattle rancher with the largest herd in Texas. In a heroic attempt to survive and further help the progress of civilization, he undertakes the first and largest cattle drive. Despite once being a Traditional Hero, he descends from that pinnacle to that of an antagonist for the rising hero of the film, Montgomery Clift’s character. This subtlety of a descended hero is a radical idea. The Traditional Hero represents a set of standard ideas that are present through a time line of phases of the frontier: The Hero of the frontier, the Hero of the cattle ranchers, the Hero of the settlers, and the Hero of law and justice. Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis covers this idea, and states that each type of hero has two choices as the frontier line moves: assimilation or movement. John Wayne’s character in Red River is one of the Heroes of the cattle ranchers, and by the time setting of the movie, he is a relic of the past in need of replacement and shouldn’t fit in the society he created; his character is too stubborn. The Frontier Thesis, via the classic Shane, demonstrates that out dated heroes become antagonists to the rising heroes, just as Wayne’s selfish character becomes antagonist to Clift’s civil minded character.

Hawk’s next western with Wayne was Rio Bravo, a work that is a reaction to the classic western High Noon. In High Noon, a Traditional Hero of settlement is threatened a few years later by the criminals he put in jail. Unskilled to face the threat he faces, he turns to the community he once saved. The community rejects him, urging him to suppress his own urge to be a hero (again). The community is therefore unworthy of the hero since it is unwilling to defend itself (in other words, civilization is unworthy of a hero because it rejects its own progression). In direct reaction to this, Hawks presents Wayne’s character in a similar situation where the ‘good guys’ are waiting the attack of the ‘bad guys.’ In the movie, several people offer to help Wayne, but the first one that does so is killed twenty minutes later, so Wayne denies any further help from anyone that doesn’t have a tin badge. Wayne defends the community by forcing it to not progress.


Clint Eastwood under Sergio Leone

The term ‘Spaghetti Western’ came about as a response to Europe’s imitation of the Western genre. They were called ‘Spaghetti’ came from the fact that these films were often shot in Italian or Spanish locations and had the financial backing from numerous European countries. The most famous and inarguably three of the best Spaghetti Westerns are a result of a single man, Sergio Leone. Before Leone, Spaghetti Westerns had little to no attention in America and were some of the worst of the worst Westerns. But when Leone took Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epic Yojimbo and turned it, almost word for word, into a western starring a rising TV Star named Clint Eastwood, he gave a name to Spaghetti Westerns, himself, and especially Clint Eastwood, who would eventually become synonymous with John Wayne in terms of influence on the Western Hero. The Yojimbo rip of A Fistful of Dollars was the first in a trilogy of movies where Leone and Eastwood would team up. Leone brilliantly directed, changing much of how westerns were viewed, with extreme close ups and stunning landscape shots. Eastwood similarly performed equally as brilliant as The Man with No Name, a term coined in America for his character in the trilogy, and for the type of hero Eastwood would become to stereotype. With Eastwood as The Man with No Name, Leone critiqued the Traditional Hero’s moral ethic and purpose within the western.

In the trilogy, the No Name hero would come to epitomize the bounty hunter and outlaw, as opposed to John Wayne’s typical lawman or military officer. Instead of serving his country, like Wayne’s characters, Eastwood’s Man with No Name served no one but himself, and this is reflected in his actions. In A Fistful of Dollars, Eastwood’s character wanders into a Mexican town where two crime bosses are at an uneasy stalemate for the gun and liquor market. To be able to pay a bill he owes at the tavern and inn, the No Name Hero employs himself to one family and then the other, playing them off each other to make the most money he can. In the process of selling murders to each side and dishing up death, he uses somewhat underhanded tricks to get ahead and kill his opposition. He uses two dead soldiers to create a showdown between the two crime families, using the time they are fighting to search for hidden gold in one of the bases. Another trick he uses to defeat one of the mob bosses is to create make-shift armor to protect himself from the other man’s rifle; pistols would never win against rifles in a quick draw, so instead of using his superior skills, he used his intelligence to think of a trick to succeed. Despite ridding a town of two crime bosses, Eastwood never has the community in mind while he does it; the only thing he worries about is money. This ideology of the Man with No Name extends to the two later movies of the trilogy. In For a Few Dollars More, Eastwood’s character teams up with another bounty hunter to capture a team of bank robbers. Capturing the bank robbers would have upheld civilization and the progression of the frontier, but Eastwood’s interest does not lay with defending civilization, it lays with the bounties on the gang’s heads. His underhanded tricks continue in that movie too; he joins the gang, to get inside of them and have an advantage over them before the final shoot out; he steals the bank money to create confusion and distrust between the gang, and then takes it with him when he collects the bodies of the gang, and the viewer is left to question whether he will return the million dollars to the proper authorities or keep it for himself. In The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, the masterpiece of Leone and Eastwood’s cooperation, the true colors of the Man with No Name come through. He plays with criminal’s lives, turning them in for a bounty but shooting the hanging rope, freeing the criminal, but only for a little while before Eastwood repeats the process, in full cooperation with the criminal. The eventual plot of the movie is that Eastwood, the bounty hunter Eastwood teamed up with from the previous movie, and an outlaw Eastwood joins up with initially are all in a race to get hidden gold in a graveyard.

The concept of community, which was previously a predefined environment and predetermined condition for the Traditional Hero, is suspiciously absent from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. The most ‘community’ and ‘civilization’ are a Prisoner of War camp and a town wrecked with mortar bombardment, clear messages concerning Leone’s critic of the Traditional Hero. The defense of civilization and progress is also one of the crowning points of the Traditional Hero, but for the Man with No Name, if civilization were to stand in his way of profit, then civilization must fall. This is shown in the gradual regression of Eastwood’s character in the trilogy. In A Fistful of Dollars, he frees a town from the grip of terror for profit and frees a woman from the bonds of being a hostage and returns her to her family. Eastwood’s character captures bank robbers for profit, as previously mentioned, in For a Few Dollars More. And in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Eastwood’s Man with No Name has only the negligible community oriented goal of comforting a dying soldier. However, civilization stands in the way of Eastwood’s golden goal by the symbolic usage of the Civil War and in response, Eastwood destroys a bridge, a symbol of civilization and progress.


Eastwood’s Eastwood

Eastwood began his directing career five years after his success in Leone’s films. During this period he starred in mostly unremarkable films while studying directing and gaining influence from Japanese samurai films and ghost stories. By 1973, he was ready to present a new type of western hero into the genre, that of the Hero of Divine Retribution. The film he presented the new kind of hero in was High Plains Drifter, and is heavily influenced by Japanese ghost stories. The initial scenes are of Clint Eastwood’s character riding out of a fog-like heat wave, down from the mountains; a typical theme used in the ghost stories. Eastwood’s character is never formally named and no explanation on his origins or past is present in the movie, so there is much speculation and theory, leaving the ‘Divine’ part up to the viewer. The town he travels into hires him out to protect it from some freed convicts out for revenge on the town (after he kills the ones they had hired a year ago for just such an occasion). As the movie progresses, it is learned that the town’s occupants are harboring a dark secret; they allowed their sheriff to be killed by the convicts so that their secret gold mine on federal land will remain a secret. Frequent flash-backs hint of this, but later on it is explicitly stated. The sheriff tries to convince Eastwood to defend the town, but Eastwood wants to know why the sheriff can’t do it himself. The sheriff argues that he is incompetent, and Eastwood is paid for his defense of the town with ‘anything he wants,’ and he uses this to his advantage. He uses this clause of his contract to figuratively (and in one case literally) ‘rape’ the town’s guilty occupants. He has them paint the town red and renames it “Hell,” and prepares a picnic for the convicts returning to the town. He trains the townspeople to defend themselves in an ambush style defense, but at the critical moment when the convicts are entering town, Eastwood leaves town heading the opposite direction. The townspeople, confused, afraid, and hopeless without their hired gun, are massacred by the convicts, who burn much of the town by that night. Eastwood’s Hero of Divine Retribution hero allows this to happen because of the town’s guilt involving the ruthless murder of the former sheriff. Eastwood returns to town that night, and with out ever being seen, he kills the three convicts. Everyone guilty is punished by Divine Retribution.

This hero type is adopted and reformed slightly in Eastwood’s remaking of the classic western Shane called Pale Rider. The Hero of Divine Retribution is, in Pale Rider, a much more human character, contrasting the supernatural-ness of of High Plains Drifter. Eastwood plays a wandering Preacher with a mysterious past who puts it upon himself to help a small community of pan miners. The image of the Hero of Divine Retribution comes from the fact that Eastwood’s character is a preacher, and that his arrival in town corresponds to the reading of Revelation 6:2-8, which reflect the apocalypse and the coming of Death. Beyond that, there is little to suggest supernatural tendencies in Eastwood’s character until the final shoot-out. The Divine Retribution is clearly notable when Eastwood as the Preacher is able to shoot six hired guns by hiding from them and striking when they are vulnerable; a tactic similar to what the Man with No Name hero would use.

The second type of hero Eastwood created was the Reluctant Hero. This hero takes the place of the Traditional Hero in the Traditional Hero’s absence. Eastwood employs the Reluctant Hero in two of his best works, The Outlaw Josey Wales and Unforgiven. In both of these movies, Eastwood begins as a family man, unskilled in the ways of the gun. They are not Traditional Heroes or any other kind of hero. In The Outlaw Josey Wales, Eastwood’s character is prompted into action when a Union Raiding Party burns his house and kills his wife and son. He seeks revenge for them through the confederate army, seeking to kill those that took his livelihood away. When his unit surrenders to the Union at the end of the Civil War, Eastwood does not, and as an outlaw looks to join up with other Confederates who had not surrendered in Texas. He aides a fatally wounded companion in his guerilla squad because the boy is unable to take care of himself and because the boy ran to Eastwood in his time of need. After the boy dies, Eastwood uses his body to distract Union gaurds and sneak into Indian Territory. There Eastwood’s decision not to surrender attracts an old Cherokee Indian that is bitter about having to move off his native lands after becoming ‘civilized.’ Eastwood allows the Cherokee to join because he was able to sneak up on the Indian, proving that he is of no threat and completely hopeless in taking care of himself. Eastwood goes to get the Cherokee a horse and this directly results in an abused Apache squaw joining the two, though she doesn’t speak English, she devotes herself to Eastwood’s character for saving her from a raping which he did because the men raping her were the only ones with horses. Along the way Eastwood allows two settlers to join him because they are defenseless and raided by commancheros before he rescues them. And the only reason he rescues those two women is because the old Cherokee Indian gets himself captured by the same commancheros. They are the final additions of the group that would become Eastwood’s new family as he decides not to surrender, but not to continue fighting either. He settles in an old ranch left behind by one of the settler’s sons, progressing civilization. His revenge for his wife and child is completed at the end of the movie, and he is allowed to fad into the backdrop of American society on the frontier with his new family. The traditional hero assimilated.

In Unforgiven, Eastwood plays a family man that, in the need to provide for his children, decides to take up a bounty offered by a group of prostitutes for the murder of two men responsible for the mutilation of one hooker’s face. Despite most western conventions, the hookers are the moral authorities of the movie, and therefore the innocent and therefore Eastwood’s character becomes the protector of the Innocent, despite the local law authority forbidding the bounty and deciding the matter closed between the two men after a payment of horses to the brothel owner. Eastwood’s character was once an immoral gunfighter, but his late wife reformed him from that, taking his liquor away from him. The loss of his booze and the natural progression of age make him unskilled, unable to even saddle and mount a horse properly. Within the movie, he is unable to kill a man, requiring more than one shot and relying on the man bleeding to death rather than Eastwood shooting him dead. And during that scene, he shows physical remorse for his actions, despite seeking revenge for the innocent hookers. Eastwood learns of his long time partner’s death at the hands of the local power-loving lawman, whom at one point in time would be seen as a just hero of law and order, but is now an unreasonable bully. Because of the painful loss, and because his partner was innocent of any crime (despite what the lawman believed) Eastwood drinks some whiskey, and doesn’t stop. The final, most memorable scene of the movie is Eastwood gunning down 5 men, some in cold blood, with out moving or flinching, as he would have in days long past all in the name of defending the innocent; even in death.



John Wayne and Clint Eastwood present very different takes on the Western Hero. Both, through slight variations on stereotypical roles, were able to greatly extend the definition of what the Western Hero is. John Ford’s imagery of the savagely skilled nobleman with a six shooter (or rifle) and a horse, the very image of John Wayne, had in his time been greatly altered, especially through the efforts of Howard Hawks. Leone’s presentation of Eastwood has become what many will relate all of Eastwood’s later work back to, despite Eastwood’s own conscious effort to redefine the stereotype he became in the trilogy. When one traces the work of Eastwood and Wayne, they trace the very evolution of the Western Hero. Because of Howard Hawks’ alterations to Ford’s archetypical Wayne character, this allows Leone’s Eastwood character to become legitimate as a Western Hero. By legitimizing Eastwood as a sort of anti-hero one allows room to include the representation of the Western Hero outside of the Western, being John Wayne’s WWII and Korean and Vietnam movies later in his career (reflecting his cavalry stereotype from Ford’s Cavalry trilogy); Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character, and almost every single hero in very standard action movies. Including roles like Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien, Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo character, and Sam Neill’s role in Jurassic Park as Dr. Allen Grant. The extension of the Western Hero into non-western genres, specifically Detective and Action-Adventure films, means that any Western Hero of a Western is a valid western hero, no matter the type.

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