Where his holocaustic High Plains Drifter found rot in an order's still nascent roots, Clint Eastwood's subsequent Western effort is all about collective wound-licking. A veiled Vietnam inevitably looms large -- the Confederate shooting of the opening credits, tinted nearly supernatural blue by Bruce Surtees' color, evokes the Civil War epic, The Birth of a Nation, though it's the conflict overseas that hangs over the slaughter. Peaceful Missouri farmer Eastwood, bent over a plow, watches as his modest idyll is pillaged, raped, and burned by vile Northern Redlegs, emerging as a dehumanized avenger, face and soul scarred by Union saber slash. The hunter becomes the hunted as the war ends and Eastwood turns outlaw, trailed by Blue Belly vermin Bill McKinney and doleful turncoat John Vernon while sailing a maelstrom of bounty hunters, bush guerrillas, carpetbaggers, war-painted natives, and the ragtag hope for the future -- an aged Cheyenne chatterbox (Chief Dan George), a disgraced Navajo squaw (Paula Trueman), a mouthy, ancient pilgrim (Paula Trueman), and her pale granddaughter (Sondra Locke). Who can tell how this rainbow brigade might have been wrangled by co-writer (and original director) Philip Kaufman (clues abound in The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid, his 1972 genre stab), but, under Eastwood's increasingly self-searching hand, the picture's budding commune becomes not just a Fordian refuge from civilization, but a way of finding chinks in his own Invincible Cowboy persona-armor. Eastwood's laconic gunslinger leaves a trail of bodies and tobacco spit throughout the film, but the trajectory lies in his questioning of the Man-of-No-Name mold though interaction with the more earthbound humans, most notably the old, dignified, open George ("They took my horse and made him surrender," he deadpans, decked in Abe Lincoln top hat). Shorn of avenger-mysticism, Eastwood looks to set new roots in a land mauled by the gunfire of treachery and corruption, a shameful past even the outsider cannot afford to forget. "We all died a little in that damn war," the bleeding cowboy says before riding into his freeze-framed sunset. With Sam Bottoms, Woodrow Parfley, Royal Dano, Matt Clark, and Will Sampson.
--- Fernando F. Croce