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Conforming with Clint Eastwood in an East Asian way

Quick! Who’s your favorite Clint Eastwood character? Harry Callahan? Philo Beddoe? The Man with No Name? Walt Kowalski?

A recent photograph of the American film actor Clint Eastwood.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Eastwood about to protect a Hmong family in Gran Torino.

As “an icon of American cultural production,” Eastwood’s image highlighted “Cold War Clint: How Asia Made a Hollywood Icon and How He Imagined Asia,” a presentation by Dr. Takashi Fujitani, history professor and director of the David Chu Program of Asia-Pacific Studies at the University of Toronto, sponsored by Critical Asian Studies, Asian-American Studies, and the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Minnesota on March 10, 2014. As the disgruntled Korean War veteran in “Gran Torino,” Eastwood embodied America’s cultural bias toward those East Asian cultural groups that have not formed nation states. His role also reflects white male melancholia over the increasing ineffectiveness of traditional warfare.

In addition to “Gran Torino,” Fujitani cited “Letters from Iwo Jima,” “Heartbreak Ridge,” and “Firebox” as demonstrating Eastwood’s justification of violence toward “dark” barbarians like the Hmong and Korean cultures which have not acquired the normative values of shared family love in the nation states of the West and of Japan to “show they are just like us.” Such “equivalence” allows the audience to sympathize with the plights of other races and to cheer Clint’s heroes for the sacrifices they make in their behalves.

Those films along with “Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby” also demonstrate “a melancholy sense of [the] failure of traditional male warfare” in repairing the characters’ psychological wounds and their inabilities to “put the war behind them.” These “male weepies,” as film critic Tania Modleski calls them, show the conflicts in “Korea and Vietnam are not resolved” unlike World War II. Eastwood’s characters are condemned to “continually reliving the losses” psychologically as a result.

As far back as “Dirty Harry,” film critics such as Roger Ebert condemned Eastwood’s films for their "fascist moral position[s]” on crime, violence, and race relations. Although Eastwood has distanced himself and his films on these issues as a self-proclaimed pacifist and emulator of Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa, the tone and themes of his movies haven’t changed in 40 years. As a cultural icon he has become associated with deadly force protection laws in Florida and Colorado. Whether that association is justified or not, there’s no disguising the sense of power Eastwood evokes whenever one of his characters goads another barbarian to “Go ahead. Make my day” in a gun battle.

In what instances do you think such violence is justified?

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