May 08, 2010

THE GAUNTLET (1977) - Clint Eastwood does action comedy

(1977, USA)

Clint takes on the awesome firepower of... the Arizona police force!

Clint Eastwood has worked long and hard both in front of and behind the camera. While he first proved his directing skills with Play Misty For Me way back in 1971, his seventies thrillers gave way to more personal, less successful films in the eighties.

To keep going, he often fell back on his Dirty Harry image, which he does with The Gauntlet, but cleverly so. From the publicity, his character looks like another tough cop. But he plays an under-achiever, an alcoholic has-been who's coasting towards retirement, still a long way off.

When the loser of the force, Ben Shockley (Eastwood), gets an assignment so simple even he can't screw it up, he's slow to realise his situation. The prostitute (Sondra Locke) he's sent to escort from Vegas to Phoenix is scared and paranoid, but what could she know? As soon as they start the trip home, he's surprised when it seems everyone is out to kill them, by every means necessary!

While this is often a logic-stretching action film, it's also tongue-in-cheek, hinted at by the Frank Frazetta poster art, showing a superman cop, his clothes in tatters, looking like Conan The Barbarian, (Frazetta also painted the famous series of Conan paperback covers). In terms of tone, this could be Die Hard in the desert, but ten years before John McClane's first movie.

While it's Clint doing mainstream comedy action, it doesn't pull its punches - there's death, despair, rape! What Clint often doesn't get credit for is his continually careful scripting of women characters - as realistic, strong and equal. They show up the men and play on their weaknesses. His character also has a different moral core to John McClane. However dire the situation, he doesn't seem to kill anyone!

The paradox of Dirty Harry is that Harry Callaghan is a cop in a judicial system that's so restrictive, he can only get the job done by breaking the law. In The Gauntlet, the police force are again under fire. Besides Shockley and his buddy in the force (Pat Hingle), the law are shown as either corrupt, depraved or blindly following orders. The majority of cops appear as a huge, mindless execution party with no restraint over the use of excessive force. But this isn't a direct comment about the police (this is years before Waco), rather a typical story of a hero facing impossible odds.

At the time, the publicity for The Gauntlet was based on the action scenes, boasting 'the most number of bullet hits in a single scene', as an entire house is literally shot to pieces by hundreds of rounds. While the special effects crew planted thousands of squibs (explosive charges buried in the set to simulate bullet hits), don't tell me it wasn't easier just to shoot the hell out of everything.

Now I could watch helicopters all day long. It's a thrill to watch them lift straight up and hover. Cinematically they enable chase scenes over any terrain, as well as water (my favourite helicopter scenes include Apocalypse Now, The Spy Who Loved Me and Shaft's Big Score). The Gauntlet has a fantastic action centrepiece with some breath-taking stunt flying as Clint is chased through the mountains by a sharp-shooting assassin. Don't tell me that it's more dangerous than it looks - flying low through mountain canyons, electricity pylons and telephone poles.

The Gauntlet is even better than I remembered. Seeing it in the cinema as a teenager, I wanted more action and more blood. Seeing it now, the action is fun, but verges on the ridiculous. It's the sparky dialogue between Eastwood and Sondra Locke that keeps it continually entertaining.

What Clint did next was drift between orangutan comedies (Every Which Way But Loose and sequel), more Dirty Harry sequels and assorted cop thrillers, thinking in Russian in Firefox, and directing personal flops like Bronco Billy and Honkytonk Man. I'm summarising wildly, he's always one to watch, but I don't think he got the recognition he deserved until The Unforgiven.

Why his orang-utan movies of this era are better remembered than The Gauntlet is beyond me. But somebody likes it, because it's now on Blu-Ray.

The Gauntlet Blu-Ray gets inspected at DVD Beaver here.

Here's an interesting aspect of The Gauntlet highlighted here on Some Came Running.


  1. I remember my magazine of choice at the time, Films and Filming, giving THE GAUNTLET 3 stars, and then being a touch disappointed by the film itself, though that didn't stop me from buying it on laserdisc where again I felt it was far from top tier Clint. Maybe I need to pick up the Bluray (I passed on the DVD) to give it one last shot.

    I've actually been revisiting a few of Clint's mid-period films recently and most of them stand up quite well. The likes of HONKYTONK MAN and PIN CADILLAC seem like almost forgotton works now, and were barely acknowledged at the time, but they are perfectly fine for what they are. Even WHITE HUNTER BLACK HEART - which I seem to recall got an inexplicably good review from Time Out - makes for decent small screen viewing. But I haven't worked myself up to rewatching the EVERY WHICH WAY films again...heck, I didn't even see them at the time despite being a big Clint fan. Seeing them on TV, they played okay, but one thing putting me off is that they not only co-star an orangutan but they also co-star Sondra Locke.

    Is the presence of Sondra Locke a problem with THE GAUNTLET? I have to say, I never though she had much screen presence and now there almost seems to be real life issues that can't help but intrude upon the films she made with read Sondra's book though. I wonder how it affects BRONCO BILLY which I really loved at the time of its release?

    The comparison you make with Bruce Willis is an interesting one. I do remember thinking back in the 80's that Bruce was the only possible contender for being the "Clint" for the next generation. It hasn't quite worked out that way and Bruce has never bettered the first DIE HARD but the recent-ish 16 BLOCKS might be something that could be compared to THE GAUNTLET. Speaking of Bruce, I must see SUNSET again, a film I thought very under-rated at the time.

  2. I've never had the courage to go as far as Honkytonk Man or Pink Cadillac. The orangutan movie, which directly followed The Gauntlet, considerably damaged my esteem of Clint for many years. He'd been a sure bet, as a name on a movie poster, up till then.

  3. The Gauntlet is an excellent film & one that's always struck me as long overdue for reappraisal.

    It IS rather like a prototype Die Hard, not least in the way it convincingly sells a series of increasingly outlandish situations to the audience.

    Eastwood & Locke were never better than here. They have a genuine onscreen chemistry to the point where you find yourself genuinely rooting for them & the road trip in which they first have to recognize the other as an equal before they can admit their true feelings, gives the film a satisfying emotional counterbalance to all the explosions & bullets flying around.

    As for Eastwood, he is clearly sending up his Dirty Harry persona here, playing the dimmest cop in what must be the whole of America. It's typical of Clint & it's something he's done repeatedly throughout his career (think of Clint's redundant Marine officer in 'Heartbreak Ridge') & it's great fun to watch.

    But perhaps more than anything the most praise should go to Eastwood the director, who, prior to The Gauntlet, had specialized in either small scale contemporary genre pieces or the westerns he had spent more than a decade learning the business in.

    The Gauntlet was something new; a big, modern action adventure with big set pieces & a budding antagonism-romance between its two leads. Nothing Eastwood had ever done before was on this scale & he pulled it off superbly. He not only nailed the relationship between himself & Locke but also delivered a series of terrific setpieces (& I totally agree with your praise for the helicopter chase - it's great) & it served notice to those paying attention that here was a director far more ambitious - & more than capable of delivering on that ambition - than anything in his previous work had suggested.

  4. Great comments, Rob, particularly that last paragraph.

    I'm always reluctant to praise a movie too highly, partly so as not to build up expectations too much, but also because I lack the confidence that anyone will agree!

  5. HONKYTONK MAN is an appealing low-key drama; John McIntire is especially good, making you wish he was in it more. I liked it better than the recent over-praised GRAN TORINO.

    PINK CADILLAC is, like THE GAUNTLET, a comedy-thriller, and I thought the chemistry between Clint and Bernadette Peters better than that between Clint and Sondra despite the fact that they were in a relationship at the time. Or perhaps Peters is just that much better an actress and comedienne than Locke? For some reason I didn't see PC on the big was one of the very few I missed seeing at the cinema from JOE KIDD onwards, the others being the EVERY WHICH WAY's, FIREFOX and CITY HEAT.

    Anyway, you really should have no qualms about checking out both HONKYTONK MAN and PINK CADILLAC. Next up on my list of Clint's to revisit is HEARTBREAK RIDGE, which i picked up a cheap DVD of. But when are we going to get a Bluray of THE EIGER SANCTION is what I want to know!

  6. Are we talking about watching everything that Clint directed (which sounds tempting), or just everything he's ever been in?

  7. If Clint's in it, then I'm there. I value him more as a "star" than as a director. Ever since I first saw FISTFUL OF DOLLARS on BBC1 on a Monday night at 9:25 after the news (they showed so many great, even life-changing films in that slot) Clint has been number 1 for me.

    That said, I like his directorial work as well...he's one of the few real filmmakers still working, though I much prefer his 70's efforts such BREEZY to his critically acclaimed films of the 2000's which find myself admiring rather than warming to them.

    On a GAUNTLET note: RIP Frank Frazetta.

  8. Damn! Frank Frazetta just passed away?

  9. Mark, I'd second your suggestion of a revisit of Clint's directorial work which, with the exceptions of Firefox & The Rookie, are always worthwhile.

    Aside from anything else, looking back helps place Eastwood's recent run of amazing work into perspective & reveals not that his recent great movies sprang from nowhere but that this guy was making consistently undervalued work since he began directing in 1970. He's averaged one or two great movies a decade but, astonishingly, tripled that average in the last decade & bolstered it along the way with a string of work varying from good to excellent. And very few genuinely bad movies (& you really should give Every Which Way But Loose (1978) a look. It's a very entertaining film & interesting in ways that only Clint seemed willing to pursue. Go see it & then we'll talk).

    The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) for me is at least as good a film as Unforgiven (1992), if not better. It's certainly my favourite Eastwood western & even a routine genre piece like Heartbreak Ridge (1986) can be enjoyed as both a tale of a grizzled old vet whipping a slacker platoon into shape & as Clint satirising his tough guy persona to hilarious effect.

    This shooting down of his persona is something that evidently fascinates Eastwood because he goes back to it repeatedly throughout his career but always with variation.

    In the excellent White Hunter, Black Heart (1990), it's much less about Eastwood impersonating John Huston than it is Eastwood playing a character loosely modelled on Huston, & one in which Clint's persona gradually takes over, slyly inviting us to identify with him only for the director to then completely tear him down.

    When Bird premiered at Cannes it was the screenwriter William Goldman who astutely remarked that if the same film had Woody Allen's name as director on it the critics would have rushed to acclaim it as the masterwork it so evidently was. But because it was Eastwood the cop, the star of all those action movies who directed it, how could they possibly take him seriously?

    And yet, he kept on making movies, following his instincts, restlessly looking as an actor for roles that reflect his age & as a director for subjects that challenge him, to the point where Eastwood's status as American cinema's greatest living director - something interestingly affirmed last year by the Cannes festival organisers when they awarded Eastwood a special Palme D'or, one of only two granted by the festival in its lifetime, the other went to Ingmar Bergman - seems well deserved & refects the consensus about Eastwood in high-end film circles.

    Earlier this year Gran Torino won Best Foreign Film at both the Japanese & French Academy Awards. These are the two countries that, along with the US, have the strongest history of great filmmaking & a film culture unmatched by any other. It made for a nice pat on the back.

    Clint's come a long way but I think it's important to remember that he didn't just start making great movies in the last decade, nor was Unforgiven some sort of one off, he was always a significant directorial talent, right from the very beginning.