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Clint the Barbarian Slays Bus with Bare Hands

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

Gauntlet PosterClint Eastwood never starred in or directed a sword-and-sorcery or heroic fantasy movie, and since he’s declared his retirement from acting with 2008’s Gran Torino, chances are he never will. That’s too bad, since the leathery, iconic actor might have made a nice fit into certain dark fantasy worlds. Michael Moorcock thought he would have made an excellent Eric John Stark; I agree. But Eastwood as a performer and director was more interested the realistic American landscape, and he never got near the world of the overtly fantastic.

Except once. On a poster. A really damn awesome poster. From one of the legendary fantasy artists. And therein lies an interesting little tale of marketing and artwork.

In 1977, Eastwood had just come off two large financial successes: The Enforcer, the third Dirty Harry film, and The Outlaw Josey Wales, a Western that he also directed. Although both films pulled in big box-office receipts, neither got the critical establishment excited. The Enforcer was reamed—hard (“Maggoty with non–ideas,” sniped The New York Times). The Outlaw Josey Wales fared slightly better, but most reviewers dismissed it. Rex Reed remarked that it “seems to last two days. Never before has so much time been devoted to such trivia.” I have never taken Reed seriously as a critic because of this review. On the other hand, Time magazine listed it as one of 1976’s Top Ten films. Eastwood has often said that The Outlaw Josey Wales is the film of which he is most proud, and today critics and fans fawn over the movie as the masterpiece that it is. (I don’t care much for The Enforcer myself—it’s the least entertaining of the Dirty Harry movies—but The Outlaw Josey Wales sits at the top of my short list of favorite films.)

However, in 1977 the critical establishment still viewed Clint Eastwood as hardly more than a bankable but non-artistic performer and fledgling director. He offered up the action goods for an enthusiastic red-blooded male American audience, but that was it. The Gauntlet looked like a movie where Eastwood gave his fans, and Warner Bros., exactly what they wanted from him without fuss, while also trying to please himself artistically with a character that diverged from his usual style. Phoenix police detective Ben Shockley is a no-account, a man without ambition and from whom nobody expects anything. He’s sliding into alcoholism and obsolescence. Eastwood has played other variations on this type of character since, but at the time it stood in marked contrast to his tough get-it-done “Dirty Harry” persona.

Shockley is an intriguing character, and Eastwood’s chemistry with Sondra Locke as the mob witness he has to escort to Phoenix is very good (this counts as Locke’s best screen performance), but The Gauntlet is otherwise steak ‘n’ potatoes Eastwood and a pretty rickety vehicle with some exaggerated thrills. Considering that Eastwood’s previous movie as director was the subtle and beautiful The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Gauntlet feels minor indeed. I do like Jerry Fielding’s run-down-n-dirty jazz score, however.

The movie’s highlight is also its weak spot, and one of the most derided sequences in the director’s career. Up against a corrupt police force that wants him and his witness dead, Ben Shockley informs the Police Commissioner (William Prince) of the exact route he is going to drive to reach Phoenix’s City Hall and deliver the witness as assigned. Police officers line up on the street in double file to gun Shockley down. Shockley drives a bus, hastily armored to withstand the assault, and powers it through the gauntlet of the title, with some 250,000 squibs going off. The scene is pyrotechnically terrific, edited brilliantly, but logically constructed of Swiss cheese and doesn’t stand up to a second of inspection. Why don’t the officers shoot the tires? Why do the cops line-up on both sides of the street, directly across from each other, so they can accidentally drill themselves? Why do the police even believe Shockley when he tells them which street he’s taking? And couldn’t they have just laid down a nail trap and be done with it?

If The Gauntlet has its share of problems, Eastwood knew how to overcome them in the public sphere. He had obtained the poster of a lifetime to sell the movie. A poster so good, it almost doesn’t need a film.

Gauntlet ArtworkIt arrived in the nick of time, since as the clock ticked down toward the December 21st opening date, it appeared that the marketing for The Gauntlet had gone seriously awry. Some early sneak previews were horrendously handled without any ads or prints to support them. These incidents almost sabotaged Eastwood’s relationship with Warner Bros., and a studio executives lost his job over the mishaps. But Clint had the magic sword of power in the trunk of his new Ferrari, bouncing over country roads on the way to Los Angeles.

It was artist Frank Frazetta’s sword-and-sorcery interpretation of Ben Shockley’s final stand before the bus. Eastwood and Locke had picked up the painting from Frazetta’s home in Connecticut and drove it back home to star in the marketing campaign. Warner Bros. had sunk serious money into this painting, but a lot was riding on this film—it was the most expensive Clint Eastwood film yet ($5 million) and the big holiday season release for the studio.

Frazetta doesn’t need any introduction to most readers of Black Gate. He’s the most respected and iconic artist of sword-and-sorcery, lost world adventure, and planetary romance, forever linked with Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Illustrating an urban cop-actioner seems like an off-road assignment for him, but he turned in something bombastically beautiful with his poster for The Gauntlet. Clint, looking like a gray-haired Conan bursting from a wife-beater T-shirt stands before a bus that sprawls like a slain dragon heaved onto the rocks of the slopes of Mount Doom, flames still bursting from its wounds. Sondra Locke, her frailty on screen transformed into buxom burgeoning, grips onto her muscular knight. The sky has turned red from the looting of some invading army perched out of sight. As Chief Dan George said in The Outlaw Josey Wales, “Hell is coming to breakfast.”

After staring at this poster, how could you not want to see this movie?

And so The Gauntlet was a hit.

David Anson in Newsweek remarked that the movie was “like a sword-and-sorcery epic recast in Southwestern drag.” Gee, wonder if the poster had any influence on him?

For most VHS, laserdisc, and DVD releases of The Gauntlet, Warner Bros. Home Video used a standard and less interesting poster image for the cover. I treasured my LP of the soundtrack by Jerry Fielding because it contained the Frazetta artwork in a large format on its sleeve. But the recent re-issuing of the movie on DVD has at last restored the great image of Eastwood the Barbarian among the rocky wastelands, his Valeria clutched to his side by his bloodied and heavily thewed arm, and the slain wreckge of a steel monster at his feet. Bring on the orc armies, the Mahars, and the hillmen of Vendhya!

P.S.: Gran Torino is a terrific film. Go see it.

P.P.S.: Here is what Clint, Sondra, and The Bus really look like:

Gauntlet Frame

9 Comments »

  1. The first Age of Video produced dozens of terrible direct-to-video films with painted covers by Boris or Ken Kelley or someone trying desperately to ape Frazetta.
    And those videos had one thing in common- the cover almost always depicted something that did not occur in the film, and if perchance it actually did, the painting was better looking than the film version by a factor of 230.
    While Frazetta’s Gauntlet is cooler than the film, the imbalance in quality isn’t quite so stunning. It’s an enjoyable drive-in movie with a really fine poster. And if you were Clint, wouldn’t you have had Frazetta paint you if you could? Sondra, too. Those are the most awesome ripped jeans ever.

    Comment by John Hocking - January 6, 2009 9:45 am

  2. Of those old “psuedo-Frazetta” covers that you’re talking about, Chris, I think the most extreme are the ones for the “Deathstalker” series. Compared to the awful films, the covers are hilarious overstatement. Anyone conned into seeing one of these things based on the covers would’ve felt mighty upset.

    Comment by Ryan Harvey - January 6, 2009 1:08 pm

  3. I enjoyed this article far more than the movie. Thanks! I did not know that the poster was by Frazetta, though it seems obvious looking at it now. I suspect that his artwork was responsible for the early onset of puberty among most adolescent males who saw his work.

    I never saw the chemistry between Eastwood and Locke, and thought every Eastwood movie in which she appeared suffered by her participation. Just remember how good Tyne Daly was as his doomed partner in one of the Dirty Harry movies (I can’t remember which). If only he’d fallen for Katherine Ross . . .

    Comment by David E. Harris - January 6, 2009 2:45 pm

  4. Tyne Daly was Eastwood’s partner in The Enforcer, and their chemistry is the best part of the film. Eastwood pushed for her casting, going against Warner Bros. execs who wanted someone more traditionally attractive.

    Comment by Ryan Harvey - January 6, 2009 3:27 pm

  5. In The Enforcer I like the on-foot chase where Eastwood is following the suspect over the rooftops and Daly is paralleling them on street level with a bag of explosives. Shows you don’t need cars for a great chase scene in San Francisco. Someone CC the memo to that Bullitt guy.

    I was not so crazy about The Gauntlet, basically for the reasons you cite.

    I like the Ansen quote, though: “like a sword-and-sorcery epic recast in Southwestern drag.” That would have been a damn fine movie: Dirty Harry vs. Mad Max or something like that.

    Comment by James Enge - January 6, 2009 8:35 pm

  6. For Eastwood in a S&S movie, you could watch A Fistful of Dollars to get it fresh in your mind, then watch The Warrior and the Sorceress. All you need to do is imagine David Carradine is Clint Eastwood, and you’re home free!

    Comment by Jeff Stehman - January 7, 2009 12:03 am

  7. Hey Ryan–

    It just occurred to me that there is a fantasy element in at least one of Eastwood’s movies: High Plains Drifter. But nothing supernatural happens onscreen, of course; it’s all implied.

    Comment by James Enge - January 7, 2009 2:39 am

  8. High Plains Drifter is one of my favorite movies, and it’s the best ever “Weird” Western. Clint fans like me love to argue over the supernaturalism in the story and how it operates until we get nasty and try to bullwhip each other. (Seriously, I’ve seen some nasty flame-wars on forums whenever someone posts something that begins with, “The Stranger is really supposed to be…”)

    Comment by Ryan Harvey - January 7, 2009 3:09 am

  9. There are some metaphysical musings in Pale Rider as well. And Richard Kiel makes a decent ogre.

    Comment by eeknight - January 7, 2009 4:53 pm


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