After its '70s pummeling, the American Dream is evoked at the new decade's dawn by no less an icon than Clint Eastwood, whose director-star status here is cannily self-reflexive -- as the titular self-styled cowboy-hero, Eastwood the star wrangles his vagabond Wild West show troupe as introspectively as Eastwood the auteur calibrates his mise en scène, in both cases to multilayered effect. His traveling group is, like the budding Outlaw Josey Wales commune, a group of societal rejects, a family of dropouts that accomodates disgraced old doctor Scatman Crothers, Vietnam draft dodger Sam Bottoms, hook-handed embezzler Bill McKinney, and Native American couple Dan Davis and Sierra Pecheur, all reenacting archetypes to dwindling audiences, sticking together by the fragile fabric of mythology. Into this batch drops snippy New York heiress Sondra Locke, off on an It Happened One Night route after fortune-grabbing husband Geoffrey Lewis drives off, a reluctant assistant at first but later ecstatically nuzzling Eastwood's manly chest. The screwball-comedy strand calls for the humble-the-bitch arc the director's enemies are so fond of trotting out for a macho dismissal, with Locke happily giving up autonomy to be spread-eagled on the show's wheel for Eastwood's phallic knife-throwing. A film of Carter reintegration, then, but far more complex than a reactionary skimming would reveal -- the Old West big-top is an arena for blurring the chasm between a nation's reality and its fraudulent self-image, as in Buffalo Bill and the Indians, yet Eastwood's is a richer and less cynical inquiry than Altman's. The references here are to the Ford of Wagon Master, or perhaps Renoir's life-as-theatre works -- the opening tune links cowboys to clowns, role-playing and make-up, Eastwood himself exposed as a New Jersey ex-con in search of illusions. The American Dream-as-performance, all its tensions and contradictions summed up by the ascending curtain-bow shot revealing a patchwork of U.S. flags, the circus tent holding up a shaky national fantasy. With Walter Barnes, Woodrow Parfrey, William Prince, and Hank Worden.
--- Fernando F. Croce