Sara Anson Vaux is director of fellowships and Fulbright Program adviser at Northwestern University, where she also teaches film in the religious studies department. Here Vaux shows why Clint Eastwood should be known for more than the “spaghetti westerns” and Dirty Harry shoot-em-ups that made him famous. He should also be seen as an intellectual filmmaker with an ethical agenda. Vaux explores this topic fully in her forthcoming book, The Ethical Vision of Clint Eastwood.
Clint Eastwood’s movies caught my fancy in part through the westerns I saw by the dozens when I was a child, and in part through the films of four European movie directors I encountered years later, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Robert Bresson, and the Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. These men, like Clint Eastwood, capture the anguish of everyday life through their visual storytelling.
Growing up in Indiana made me equal parts amateur historian and sports fanatic. In my seventeen years in South Bend, the arts flourished and the schools opened their doors to war refugees. During those years, I gravitated toward stories about people who attempt to survive at the edges of society. Through my parents, who were schoolteachers that sheltered and encouraged thousands of children over their careers, I learned to open my heart to all ethnic and religious backgrounds and to work toward the well-being of the poorest among us — the concerns of the filmmakers I have come to love.
Eastwood the storyteller captures the spirit of the tales my parents used to tell me: a war bride brought to a strange country and cut off from a life of beauty; the young man who fled poverty to strike it rich in Oklahoma or the gold fields of California but was soon bankrupt and stranded; the young athlete whose relentless work on the basketball court or the boxing gym hid physical hunger; and the young soldier who went to Korea, Iwo Jima, or the western front to “kill the enemy” but found only shattered bodies and other boys as young as he. Watch Eastwood’s films, Bridges of Madison County, Honkytonk Man, and Million Dollar Baby, and war movies as modest as Heartbreak Ridge or as explosive as Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, and Gran Torino, and you will wonder how we can continue to send soldiers to Iraq or Afghanistan for multiple tours of duty or fail to feed, clothe, or take care of families left out of America’s economic boom.
Eastwood continues to appeal both as The Man With No Name from the Spaghetti westerns and as the first-class director of Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby. When I think about the ways religion and film (my academic field) intersect, I always return to Eastwood and to my favorite European directors, who focus on human community as a place where religion and ethics are tested. I think of Decalogue (Kieślowski), Diary of a Country Priest, Au hasard Balthazar (Bresson), and The Son (the Dardennes) — movies that urge viewers to think about the ethical choices they must make in everyday life.
Eastwood, Kieślowski, Bresson, and the Dardennes all center their films on basic human concerns: suffering, justice, mercy, and forgiveness. All focus the viewer’s attention on the lives of men, women, and children left out of mainstream society — the vulnerable, vagabonds, immigrants, and “fools” left out of a social order that favors wealth, power, and status for a few and forgets the divine command to love others. Now, in 2011, Eastwood again brings them to life with vivid images in Mystic River, Invictus, or Hereafter — films that will touch us no matter how often we have seen Eastwood’s movies.