The Gauntlet is a fun Clint Eastwood action-thriller about a cop transporting a key witness across country to testify all the while being pursued by the mob. But I used to have my reservations. That was until a recent re-watch opened my eyes to the brilliance of its female protagonist is a sea of alpha males.
I’ve written how stupid The Gauntlet is. And it is a stupid movie at times. But being dense doesn’t necessarily make a bad movie. Bad characters maybe, but not a piece of work that should be dismissed outright. Clint Eastwood’s sixth film as director – released after The Outlaw Josey Wales – has remained an audience favourite if not a favourite of the critics. That’s what makes it a curious film to look back at, not least because amid the illogical plotting and surprising idiocy of the Eastwood character, there’s a wonderfully strong female protagonist beating at the film’s heart in the form of Sondra Locke’s Gus Mally.
Eastwood’s typical machismo is displayed by the gun he wields and the cowardly, patronising brute force he uses to curb Locke’s feisty call girl. So far, so 1970s man-is-king gender politics. But the girl he’s tasked with taking to court to testify as a witness in a case against the mob is no pushover. In fact, Mally is by far the most intelligent character of the film. Indeed, as the only fully formed female character she more than stands tall amongst a cast of testosterone-fuelled “cops and robbers”, revealing herself to be the only one who genuinely has a handle on what’s actually happening.
Whether by design or oversight, Eastwood’s cop Ben Shockley is constantly playing catch-up. Mally’s the one controlling their destiny as the mob pursues them across country in order to silent her. Locke’s performance is fabulous throughout. Her takedown of a foul-mouthed cop who tries to belittle her for prostituting herself is brilliant; the bullied turning bully to great effect.
Similarly, while she displays far more brains than any of the male characters, she also has the wherewithal to get her male co-star out of a pickle. It isn’t the prince riding in to save the princess here. One scene sees Shockley beaten and tied up by a biker gang only for Mally to turn the tables with a few tricks of her own. This allows Shockley to gather himself, escape, and find his gun, putting the cop and his witness back in charge of the situation.
It goes to show how opinion can change over time. I’m not saying I was wrong about Locke’s character when I saw the film the first time but my interpretation of her character has certainly changed. I criticised her for seemingly dense questions and withholding information (that could be argued is a convenient way for the writers to deliver their various dramatic gear changes) but an alternative view, the one I’m taking now, is that she rightly distrusts Shockley, playing down her street smarts at first, then later remaining wary about what information to divulge.
In a film littered with stupidity on the part of writers Michael Butler and Dennis Shryack, Mally is a surprising gem. A discovery that’s worth savouring. A female character that not only bosses the film but dominates in a sea of alpha males. Eastwood must be given credit for giving Locke the stage to bring out the character’s beguiling sexuality with the smarts and physical toughness to stand tall despite the odds stacking up against her (literally!).
Eastwood claims he gives strong female roles to actresses but Locke herself has criticised this claim. His former real life partner who, when writing the comments in her autobiography, had long-since had a rather acrimonious split from the actor-writer-director, might just be aiming a keyboard warrior punch in his direction. Then again she might have a point when you look at the various types of female characters Eastwood presents: often in his early films, psychotic killers and hookers. But unlike other works where he allowed masculinity to be celebrated, The Gauntlet presents it as lacking in favour of the female protagonist as the conflict’s solution. Indeed, in the final shoot-out, it is Mally not Shockley who takes down the bad guy.