More than a decade before he acquired Oscar-worthy respectability, Clint Eastwood helmed & starred in this end-of-the-Civil War Western, a Janus-faced career move that looked back at his anarchic past and ahead to his violence-with-consequences future. Yet, the film is neither awkward transitional work nor unsatisfying compromise; the spirit is still untamed, the style still happily slips to vulgar, the outlook still too cockeyed for critical esteem, but with a new, rigorous control. For many, it was then, and remains now, his best Western. In the opening scenes, Eastwood loses his wife, son & homestead, then spends the rest of the film hunting down the Union renegades responsible. First with a Southern outfit, and after the war, on his own. Or, rather, in splendid accidental partnership with Chief Dan George’s loquacious ‘Civilized’ Indian. Scripter Philip Kaufman, originally set to direct, brings a wide-ranging tone that leapfrogs from heavy drama to character comedy, forcing Eastwood’s hand as director into fearless directions that push him to his technical limits and beyond. (Some of the action staging misses the old Don Siegel clarity.) But with its satisfying ‘rhyming’ plot arcs, excellent cast, fine Jerry Fielding score and handsome Bruce Surtees lensing, the film more than holds up, it’s improved in the can.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: There’s a lot of John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS/’56 in here, but the parallels aren’t pushed too hard. A decade on, Eastwood tried harnessing his PALE RIDER/’85 to George Steven’s SHANE/’53, adding a Messianic complex to drab & dreary result.