RANGER AGAINST WAR: The Duke of Death <

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Duke of Death

 People seldom go to the trouble of
the surface of things to find the inner truth 
--The Shop Around the Corner (1941)

Informers inform, burglars burgle,
murderers murder, lovers love 
--Breathless (1960)

The way your head works
is God's own private mystery 
--Wild at Heart (1990)

[We said we were done with American Sniper; never say "never".]

Pity that American Sniper director Clint Eastwood took the advice of Kyle's widow to omit the sniper's killing at the hands of a fellow soldier on the gun range. It would have been a Hollywood-perfect wrap and would have provided far more nuance than the final cut allowed, but Mrs. Kyle wanted the happy, if not correct ending ("This is going to be how my children remember their father, so I want you to get it right.") Presumably, she will leave out the means of Kyle's demise from her family lore, as well.

Eastwood has long explored the ideas of revenge and reconciliation. His most recent films chasten the  braggarts and he is not kind to the too-proud gunman-for-hire, the Chris Kyle's of the world.

His first foray into complexity began with The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). The protagonist Wales must reckon with his enemies, lest his life become one of relentless murder ("...the war is over. I reckon we all lost a little bit in that damn war.") A life of revenge is supplanted by one of necessary reconciliation. It was a message to a war-weary nation which did not win in another war.

In Unforgiven (1992), Eastwood's gunman William Munny returns to killing to avenge the knifing of a prostitute. The past always creeps up, and Munny cannot holster his guns for long. Despite the aging gunman's desire to leave his murderous ways, the film ends in an orgy of violence.

Instead of a simple matter of avenging one wrong, he becomes caught in a spider web requiring the final revenge killings for the killing of his friend. The viewer is left to wonder if the best that can be hoped for in this Old Testament eye for an eye world is that someone might avenge Munny's death one day.

An interesting side story in Unforgiven is that of Richard Harris's English Bob ("The Duke of Death"). He is a foreigner of vague British background who repurposes himself in the American West after writing a book embellishing his prowess in the art of killing. His bragging earns him a serious whipping by the town's sheriff (Gene Hackman), as Bob must be taken down a notch for his braggadocio.

The Duke does not realize his hypocrisy:  "A plague on you. A plague on the whole stinking lot of ya, without morals or laws. And all you whores got no laws. You got no honor. It's no wonder you all emigrated to America, because they wouldn't have you in England. You're a lot of savages, that's what you all are. A bunch of bloody savages." The irony is that English Bob is the same as "the savages", though he imagines himself otherwise.

In Flags of Our Fathers (2006), Eastwood follows the stories of the men who raised the flag at Mt. Surabatchi on Iwo Jima in World War II. The character singled out for censure is the money-grubbing Rene Gagnon, who attempts to exploit his chance appearance in Joe Rosenthal's iconic photo to raise his social and economic position . 

Eastwood's sympathy is reserved for Ira Hayes, who was unable to surmount his combat trauma and could not reckon that with the celebrity thrust upon him. Hayes died drunk in a ditch of water some years after the war and his exploitation as a U.S. Bond salesman.

His treatment of gun fighters Josey Wales, William Munny, English Bob and Gene Gagnon differ from that of Chris Kyle. Kyle is every bit the self-promoter as English Bob or Gene Gagnon, but there is no repercussion that accrues to him because of Eastwood's restricted ending.

If Eastwood had shown the death of Kyle at the hands of another soldier, he would have been consistent in his message -- the past catches up with you. Unfortunately, in his decision to omit the story's end he delivers a film lacking in his previous gravitas.

After Seal team member Robert O'Neill decided to go public about his killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden (following Matt Bissonette's firsthand account of the operation in his book, "No Easy Day"), Rear Admiral Brian Losey, head of the Naval Special Warfare Command, condemned the pair's decision. He warned serving members of special operations forces that Navy leaders "will not abide willful or selfish disregard for our core values in return for public notoriety and financial gain."

Director Eastwood has detracted from his oeuvre's message that braggadocio in killing is neither noble nor an action without consequence. Had he hewed to the actual storyline, he would have maintained his consistent and solid position.

--Jim and Lisa

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

And there was Grande Torino in which Eastwood had killed as a soldier in Korea, but then redeems himself (and saves a young life) by allowing himself to be martyred.

It's a great Eastwood movie, IMO.


Wednesday, February 18, 2015 at 9:15:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger Grung_e_Gene said...

High Plaines Drifter (1973) also deals with murder revenge guilt and retribution with the message that every killing had a consequence. It might be Eastwoods best work.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015 at 9:29:00 PM GMT-5  
Anonymous mike said...

Jim and Lisa: Good insights.

And what about Dirty Harry and his spaghetti westerns? But I guess Clint was just reading someone else's script during those movies, you think? But maybe after starring in so many of those films the play-acting started to seem real to him.

BTW I think it was Rene Gagnon, not Gene. And long before Eastwood made the movie, James Bradley the author of the book trashed Gagnon. So perhaps Eastwood was just following the script.

I did like "Letters from Iwo Jima" which was Eastwood's sequel to "Flags of our Fathers". His best I thought.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015 at 9:45:00 PM GMT-5  
Anonymous jim hruska said...

i view DH and the spaghettis as pure fantasy. The movies we zeroed in on had a message beyond the violence.
You are correct on the Rene name.
I don't know how that got past the 2 of us.Eastwood saw fit to also put a bad light on Gagnon.I always thought this was initially due to him being a runner and not a line doggy.
btw Hitler was also a runner.
Letters was a fine movie. Soon we will pub an interview we did with LTG Snowden USMC retired and he is big in reconciliation with former enemies, which i think Letters was all about since it humanized the Japanese fighters.
Unfortunately CE didn't even attempt to do so with the persons killed by Kyle.

Thursday, February 19, 2015 at 11:45:00 AM GMT-5  

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