Directed by Clint Eastwood
Produced by Robert Daley
Written by Michael Butler and Dennis Shryack
Director Of Photography: Rexford Metz
Film Editors: Ferris Webster and Joel Cox
Music by Jerry Fielding
Cast: Clint Eastwood (Ben Shockley), Sondra Locke (Augustina “Gus” Mally), Pat Hingle (Josephson), William Prince (Blakelock), Bill McKinney (Constable), Michael Cavanaugh (Feyderspiel), Carole Cock (Waitress), Mara Corday (Jail Matron), Douglas McGrath (Bookie), Jeff Morris (Desk Sergeant)
The very idea of a guilty pleasure makes me mad — it’s a concept built on snobbery. You either like something or you don’t.
I don’t know why I like Clint Eastwood’s The Gauntlet (1977) so much. But I do. Sure, the plot’s got more holes than all the stuff that’s shot up in its 109 bullet-riddled minutes. But it plays like a road movie/cop picture hybrid (two of my favorite genres), with a little It Happened One Night (1934) thrown in for good measure. Frank Capra with a foul mouth and lots of bullets.
Like so many movies of the 70s, The Gauntlet was passed from star to star in an odd game of developmental hot potato. The first pairing was Marlon Brando and Barbra Streisand. Brando said no, and it went on to Steve McQueen. Streisand nixed McQueen and suggested Eastwood. He was game, and set to direct, but she eventually passed. It became a Malpaso film, with Sondra Locke as Clint’s costar. (Try imagining the movies that might’ve been sometime. McQueen driving the bus would’ve been cool, for sure, and Brando would’ve been great getting pounded by the bikers, but the rest of it seems just plain weird.)
Clint Eastwood: “It was written by Dennis Shryack and Michael Butler. It was in very good shape. There was a minor amount of rewriting, a lot if it deletions; I did it myself… A cop starts out to fly an extradited witness from Vegas back to Phoenix for trial. Everything goes wrong — there’s this group of people who don’t want him to get back. She’s a hooker, and he’s a cop who hates hookers, but they grow together as they go — via car, via foot, via motorcycle, via train, via bus, you name it. They’re just on the run.”
There’s an interesting subplot: Ben Shockley (Eastwood) was chosen for the job because he’s a washed-up drunk, fully expected to fail. Bookies in Vegas are even taking bets on it. Naturally, this awakens something in Shockley, and with his new-found determination and a beautiful Swiss & Wesson Model 66, he and his prisoner, Gus Malley (Sondra Locke), hit the road.
Like any road movie, The Gauntlet is episodic. Once Shockley and Malley are underway, action sequences pile up like spent shellcasings: they see their rental car explode, steal an ambulance and are chased by hoods, flee as her home is destroyed, kidnap a constable (Bill McKinney) who is machine-gunned by the bad guys, commondeer a chopper from a biker gang, are chased by a helicopter, hop a freight train only to be attacked by the chopper-less bikers, and finally hijack a bus for the final run to City Hall.
Some of these set pieces have a decidedly exaggerated quality to them — a house is shot so many times it collapses, Eastwood drives an armored bus for his climactic ride as the entire Phoenix police force opens fire on him (this is the gauntlet of the title). The Gauntlet requires a suspension of disbelief some people simply aren’t capable of.
Michael Butler: “The recurrent visual motif of over-the-top destructiveness in Gauntlet was entirely Clint’s idea and appears in no script. My initial reaction to it — the incessant fusillades that destroy the house, the cars — was dismay.”
As the bus makes its way through the streets of Phoenix and hundreds of cops riddle it with thousands of bullet holes, you can’t help but wonder why they don’t just shoot the tires. Well, that was in the original script — the tires give out but Shockley plows ahead, the rubber-less wheels of the bus chewing up the asphalt as it approaches City Hall. But the City of Phoenix didn’t want their downtown streets mutilated, not even for Clint Eastwood. So the city kept its pavement, and The Gauntlet lost a good deal of it plausibility. (Certainly, even in pre-CGI 1977, the asphalt-munching rims could’ve been accomplished through insert shots, careful framing and skilled editing. And just imagine the grinding, screeching sound design.)
Clint Eastwood: “It was kind of outrageous — the overkill aspect I played up a little more than it was in the script — but it was a nice two-people story and had that old-fashioned adventure, of two people of opposite philosophies and styles forced to travel together… The African Queen and that kind of thing.”
Some of the dialogue scenes between Eastwood and Locke work well. They’ve both been kicked around, and we pull for them — thanks to some real chemistry between the leads. They’d done The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) together and became an item while shooting The Gauntlet. Their bickering is fun at times, and their slowly-building respect for each other feels real. (The scene on the train, with Eastwood beaten and Locke assaulted by bikers, is hard to take.) But about two thirds of the way through the film, they go from adversaries to sweethearts all too abruptly — in a way, it’s as hard to swallow as the bulletproof tires.
The cast is excellent. William Prince is chilling as the bad guy. Bill McKinney is good as the hick constable. Pat Hingle from Hang ‘Em High (1968) is terrific, as always, as the one cop Eastwood can trust. And it’s great to see Mara Corday (above, who appeared with Eastwood in Tarantula back in 1955) in a small part.
Jerry Fielding’s jazz score for The Gauntlet features soloists Art Petter and Jon Faddis. It’s one of the film’s strong points, and I wish it’d been bumped up a bit in the mix. Fielding has a tough time competing with helicopters, motorcycles and thousands upon thousands of gunshots. The soundtrack LP, which I played to death, was reissued on CD a few years ago by Perseverance Records.
This post started off telling you how much I like this film, then spent paragraph after paragraph picking it apart. I think my inconsistency is a testament to how well Eastwood brings all these pieces together. He gives us likable characters, puts them in a series of exciting situations, and does it all at a pace that creates its own knucklehead logic. If we groan at how ridiculous one sequence is, we’re still eagerly awaiting the next amped-up obstacle in their journey. In that way, with The Gauntlet, Eastwood predicted what popular filmmaking would become 20 years in the future. If only I liked those movies as much as this one.
I remember Frank Frazetta’s great poster for The Gauntlet hanging in the lobby of the South Hills Twin in Cary, North Carolina, around Thanksgiving of 1977 (it opened at Christmas). So tough, so cool, so pulp-y. I was sold instantly, and it remains one of my favorite movie posters. Why Warner Bros. removed it from the Blu-ray package in favor of a generic close-up of Eastwood, I’ll never know. (When I upgrade this one from DVD to Blu-ray, I’ll do my shopping on eBay, where Frazetta-jacketed copies still turn up.)
Even with its over-the-top gunplay, turbocharged heroics and bad language, The Gauntlet seems almost quaint and restrained today. Time has been kind to it. I find it a pleasure. Without the slightest trace of guilt.
Sources: Clint: The Life And Legend by Patrick McGilligan; Conversations With Clint, edited by Kevin Avery