Clint the Barbarian Slays Bus with Bare Hands

Clint the Barbarian Slays Bus with Bare Hands

Clint Eastwood has never starred in a sword-and-sorcery or heroic fantasy movie, and since he’s declared his retirement from acting with Gran Torino, chances are he never will. That’s too bad, since the leathery, iconic actor might have made an 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 overtly fantastic.

Except once. On a poster. A really damn awesome poster. And therein lies an interesting little tale of marketing and artwork.

In 1977, Eastwood had just come off two enormous 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 large cash flows, neither got the critical establishment excited. The Enforcer got reamed—hard. The Outlaws Josey Wales fared slightly better, but most reviwers 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 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 for favorite film.)

However, in 1977 the critical establishment still viewed Clint Eastwood as little more than a bankable but unartistic 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 who diverged somewhat 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 “Dirty Harry” persona.

It was an intriguing character, and Eastwood’s chemistry with Sondra Locke as the mob witness he has to escort to Phoenix is very good (this is easily Locke’s best screen performance), but The Gauntlet is otherwise steak ‘n’ potatoes Eastwood and a pretty rickety vehicle. Considering the Eastwood’s previous movie as director was the subtle and beautiful The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Gauntlet feels minor indeed.

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 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 teriffic, 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 had 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 didn’t need a film.

It arrived in the nick of time, since 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 the Warner Bros., and one of the 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 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 some 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 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 a mountain, flames still bursting from its wounds. Sondra Locke, her fraility 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 teriffic film. Go see it.

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