Here at MostlyFilm, we have celebrated International Women’s Day before, and the question has been asked, possibly, but when are you going to celebrate International MEN’S Day? Well, the wait is over! We asked our contributors to reflect on masculinity in some of their favourite films, and this is what they came up with. We band of bros, we happy few ect ect.
Every Which Way But Loose by Niall Anderson
Panned on its initial release, and still considered an outlier in the great man’s flinty and unsmiling canon, 1978’s Every Which Way But Loose will eventually come to be seen as the quintessential Clint Eastwood film. Where his early movies are hymns to redemptive violence, and the later ones meditations on what violence costs the violent man, Every Which Way But Loose asks the fundamental question that haunts all of Eastwood’s films: what separates man from beast?
The film’s genius lies in externalising Eastwood’s beast in the form of a 150-pound orang-utan called Clyde. Over the course of the film, Clyde becomes Eastwood’s male id: indulging in all the instinctive roughhousing and crudeness that, we infer, Eastwood’s character has forsworn in the name of honour. The grounding psychic influence of Clyde allows a new style of manliness to enter the Eastwoodian archetype: a looser, friendlier, broadly less murderous manliness. Eastwood had flirted with this mode before (in 1969’s Paint Your Wagon), but in Every Which Way But Loose it approaches a kind of masculine Zen. Liberated by his externalised primate id, Eastwood is able to throw the film’s climactic fight in the name of love and male solidarity. The film ends with Clyde throwing an arm around Eastwood, as if to claim him, but you can see from the reticence of Eastwood’s smile that he has mastered the animal part of him for good. Had Eastwood’s film career ended on that point, it would have stood as an instant summation of everything Eastwood has to say about the American male.
Road House by Indy Datta
Rowdy Herrington’s contemporary western (or southern, if you prefer) from 1989 wasn’t a huge success on its original release, got mediocre to bad reviews and was nominated for several Razzie awards – but the film has endured,suspended uneasily between camp classic (it was adapted as an off-Broadway musical in 2003) and genuine exploitation favourite, to the extent that a remake is currently in the works, with Patrick Swayze’s zen-asskicker protagonist slated to be replaced by a woman, martial artist Ronda Rousey.
It turns out, on revisiting the film for the first time in many years (and seeing Dean Cundey’s handsome ‘Scope cinematography unhacked about for the first time) that Road House still works both as an unpretentious slice of DTV-plus mayhem and, if not a camp classic, a probably inadvertently interestingly feminine take on masculinity, at least to begin with. The contrast between Swayze’s lithe dancer’s physique, and the BBQ-bulked bellies of bad guy Ben Gazzara’s redneck goons is echoed in their respective ethics and, ultimately, their fighting styles; take no prisoners full frontal assault bested in the end by an eastern-influenced creed – don’t cast the first blow, use your enemy’s strength against him.
And at first you might, as does none-more 80’s love interest Doctor Kelly Lynch, mistake Swayze’s Dalton for some kind of poetry-reading pacifist. But of course, you can only push a real man so far (and in this case, the villains’ last mistake was probably taking out Dalton’s real true love, the prettier and skinnier Wade Garrett, played with scenery-chewing relish by Sam Elliott’s hair) before he has to stop playing around and throw down hard. The film flirts with Dalton’s reversion to violent type being a revelation of the true darkness of his repressed id, but in the end, as the locals chuckle glibly about covering up multiple homicides and Doctor Kelly Lynch has made her accommodation with the possibility that her boyfriend might one morning tear out her oesophagus if she looks at him funny, such insights seem… fragile.
Southern Comfort by Fogger
As the UK stag-do industry proves, there’s nothing deemed more manly than getting together a great-bunch-of-lads and going paintballing. An afternoon wearing pretend military costumes, charging through woods and waving guns around – all enlivened by ‘banter’ – is the modern Alpha Male’s activity of choice. It’s also the basic setup of Walter Hill’s muddy, bloody masterpiece Southern Comfort, albeit with the location moved from a forest in Sussex to the Louisiana bayou and stag-do japes swapped for National Guard duty.
Scored by Ry Cooder, and blessed with a straightforward narrative and Hill’s typically unflashy direction (before the ‘80s kicked in proper and he made the madcap Streets of Fire), the film is as lean as George Foreman’s grilling machine. And while its Vietnam War allusions were probably more resonant in 1980, thirty years later Southern Comfort stands tall as both a celebration of manliness and the fact that men can be inherently stupid.
The all-male cast of characters provides a snapshot of the hairier sex. Lewis Smith’s guffawing, mean-spirited village idiot, Fred Ward’s charismatic but bullying meathead, Les Lannom’s rule-abiding yet ineffectual leader, Powers Boothe’s reluctant outsider – basically these are the same men you see vying for Sir Alan Sugar’s approval in The Apprentice or vomiting in pub car parks on a Saturday night. And here they’re the USA’s last line of defence.
On a weekend training exercise, the group runs into problems in the swamps when they ‘borrow’ a boat from the Cajun locals. When its owner shows up, a bit miffed, they shoot at him. It’s all a big laddish joke, of course, because they’re firing blanks (BANTZ!), but Mr Cajun doesn’t know that. Soon, he’s fired back and one of the Guardsmen is dead. Understandably, this is something of a mood-killer.
The movie, until this point all sumptuous nature photography and wise-cracking dialogue about prostitutes, steps up a gear. Can our collection of wannabe-men actually man up? The answer is no. They panic. They argue. They get lost. Before long they’ve blown up a Cajun house for no discernible reason and start fighting (and killing) each other. Their manliness is exposed as a being wafer-thin.
Meanwhile, their Cajun enemies keep picking them off, laying traps in the water and trussing up corpses in the trees. Hill creates probably the first slasher flick that doesn’t involve cheerleaders.
The Cajuns find it easy sport because they’re basically better at being men. It’s only in the film’s climax that the tables are turned. Tired, hungry, splattered in mud and staring down the barrel of a gun, Powers Boothe stabs his enemy in the bollocks. Effectively castrating someone is the most manly thing any of the guardsmen have done all weekend.
So there’s an easy lesson that 21st-century men can learn from Southern Comfort’s man-ifesto: if you go paintballing, don’t upset the locals. And take a big fuck-off knife with you.
Hard Boiled by Mr Moth
More shots are fired during Hard Boiled than during the Second World War. There is a shootout that lasts longer than the Battle of Stalingrad, and has a higher body count. The hero is, get this, a maverick cop who doesn’t play by the rules. He has a toothpick in his mouth AT ALL TIMES, except when he’s playing the saxophone or drinking Tequila (his name is Tequila and he drinks Tequila a lot. You think he’s got the silliest name until you realise one of the antagonists is called Mad Dog and, stunningly, the other hero is called Alan). He shoots bad guys while holding a super-cute newborn baby. GOD THIS FILM IS AMAZING.
Hard Boiled is the last of John Woo’s Hong Kong action flicks, and by god does he go out with a bang. None, but none, of his Hollywood movies can hold a candle to it. In essence, it is structured around three enormous gunfights – one an undercover arms bust that goes badly wrong, the second a mob takeover that is rudely interrupted by Tequila (Chow Yun Fat) as a one-man army taking down all sides. The third, occupying fully three quarters of an hour at the end of the film, is an incredible rampage through a hospital with Tequila teaming up with Alan (Tony Leung) against Mad Dog (Philip Kwok) and the rest of Johnny Wong’s goons.
Goons! They are goons, too – nameless henchmen sent in to soak up bullets, and they do the job perfectly. Some people might say that Die Hard is a better model for this sort of “Building under siege, bunch of hostages” scenario, but Die Hard tries too much to give the baddies personality and each one needs to be taken out in a specific way. Not so here. Two main bad guys and everyone else is there to shake about while squibs burst under their immaculate 90s blousons.
Oh and the hostages are frequently gunned down, too. They might be shuffling around in hospital gowns but dammit they’re in the way! But rest assured the babies are safe. The maternity ward is emptied by a highly skilled SWAT team who are kept out of the action by this diversion. It’s the best move in the film – it allows Tequila and Alan space to be a two-man army while shutting down “Yeah but where was the backup?” questions. Mate, they were lowering babies down a bucket chain while the real men were firing every single bullet manufactured to date.