American Sniper and the Wild West.
A few weeks ago I went to see American Sniper and quite enjoyed it. Thinking nothing of it, I posted a quick mention on my Twitter saying as such and promptly forgot all about it.
Then, last week, I went for a couple of beers with some buddies and one mentioned that he had seen this tweet and was disturbed by it. My other friends were equally appalled and this took me back somewhat. Had I not seen the criticism online? Did I not realise that this film was merely American propaganda? Was I in some way supportive of the jingoistic republican mouthpiece that the director had become? One of my friends even compared it to the Nazi propaganda film in Inglorious Basterds.
Now I have to stress that this was not entirely a serious discussion. My friends had seen a chink in my armour and were going to ruthlessly ridicule me about it. Without question there was certainly an element of humorous wind-up within the conversation. The Glasgow Banter can be a cruel mistress.
Either way it made me think back to the film and think about what its motives were. Was it really a piece of right wing neo-con propaganda or was it just a boys own war movie?
It was at that point I realised it was neither.
American Sniper is simply a Western, albeit a modern one set in Iraq.
Now I have to state that I have a great deal of respect for Clint Eastwood. My father was a huge fan and I grew up watching late night repeats of his back catalogue on television with my dad. They are very much male orientated films and I have many fond memories of staying up well past my bedtime to watch Dirty Harry, The Outlaw Josie Wales, High Plains Drifter, Thunderbolt & Lightfoot or even Bronco Billy.
My dad had been a boxer when young and always instilled in me a necessity to be a man. Sitting on that sofa, often till the early hours of the morning, watching those films, was almost a lesson from him to me. These are the types of films that men watch. This is what it means to be a man.
Even though I had very little hair on my chin and even less on my chest I think I got the message. What I also got was a genuine love of Clint Eastwood films, especially those from the Western genre.
So it was with this in mind that I approached my thoughts on American Sniper. If the film had been made by anyone else I am not sure that this argument would have stood up.
It’s just a Western
Eastwood may have replaced the gunslingers revolver with a sniper rifle and swapped the poncho for a set of desert camo but the film is pure Western. The noble but troubled hero fighting a one dimensional evil villain could be straight out of a Sergio Leone film. His best friend gets killed; he fights his inner demons and eventually triumphs through a combination of steely determination and a skilled trigger finger. It’s Unforgiven with a lot more sand.
Sure there is a certain level of over the top patriotism going on but that is actually a strong part of the Western genre. Go back and watch pretty much any John Wayne, Gary Cooper or Glen Ford film and there is an obvious thread of American nationalism running through them. Remember The Alamo?
The Western is a defining part of American culture and they are quite allowed to continue its traditions even if it’s not entirely politically correct to do so in the modern world. No-one cares if a Bollywood film portrays it’s villain as some over preening British imperialist or if some French World War Two flick claims that all Germans are sadistic Nazi’s.
In the Western genre it’s the Native American Indians that are the bad guys and it just so happens that in American Sniper they have been conveniently swapped out for Iraqi’s. Good guys and bad guys is an oversimplification of the complex political, religious and ethnic issues within the Middle East but without it the Western genre simply does not work.
Don’t try to see this film as some kind of political treatise. It’s not. It’s just an old fashioned Western with cowboys and indians and much like every other Western ever made the bad guys aren’t white.
Give the guy a break
If this film had been made by some young up and coming director then it would have been fair game to rip him a new one.
It was not.
It was made by an eighty something director who has a long and very well respected history in the Western genre. Likewise he is a director that has clearly shown in the past that he was at least once capable of making films that are both thought provoking and artistic. Million Dollar Baby, Bird and Mystic River to name but a few.
Can we really be critical of a man that has simply gone back and made a film in the style of something he knows so well? He still had the bottle to set it in a modern and somewhat controversial setting, even if he has been incapable of capturing both sides of that situation.
There may be a patriotic undercurrent from a man that has swung to the right in old age. He wouldn’t be the first and he certainly won’t be the last to suffer that fate. If he was still around I would point you in the direction of my own father as evidence.
It is equally fair to say that his motivations might have been to give the young American men who fought in the war something to be proud of, much like John Wayne did during the Vietnam War. Not very popular then and outside of the US it is much the same story now.
It might also be the case that as a man of advancing years the only films he can remember how to make are the ones that he is most familiar with. He might forget what day of the week it is but he sure as hell is not going to forget how to make a Western.
Either way, the only person who really knows the answer is Clint himself and he is famous for not telling. Hollywood has a long history of creating films that are unsympathetic to anyone not wearing a stars and stripes top hat and this film will not be the last to do so.
Providing you park your brain in the corral and relinquish your political correctness with the deputy’s office it is actually a very enjoyable film. Just remember, at all times, that it’s just a Western.