When President Trump slimed Omarosa Manigault Newman by calling her a “dog,” and then stripped former CIA Director John Brennan of his security clearance, he evoked not only Nixon’s infamous “enemies list,” but a score of revenge heroes who have demanded a pound of flesh in movies and TV shows.
The revenge hero is relatively new to the pop culture party. In the palmy days after World II, the two words never cozied up to each other, because our bipartisan, consensus ideology frowned upon revenge. It was a crime against the rule of law.
The prohibition against revenge lay at the heart of the western, the genre that dominated our screens for decades. It was inscribed in the so-called Code of the West, which prohibited the Shanes, Lone Rangers and Riflemen from drawing first, shooting bad guys in the back and killing unarmed men. Way back in 1955, in the first season of “Gunsmoke,” Marshal Matt Dillon saved a killer from a mob trying to lynch him for a crime he didn’t commit.
In the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, much of what we had been taught — trust in government, in the law, in our elders — imploded. Extreme culture, dominated by the far right and far left, filled the vacuum in the center and mocked the institutions of authority and their agents. The feds, police, schools, churches were either MIA or corrupt, and therefore real men had no choice but to take the law into their own hands.
More than anyone else, it was Clint Eastwood who put the Code of the West to rest, in an unmarked grave on Boot Hill, by normalizing vigilante violence. Eastwood tells a story about director Don Siegel, who asked John Wayne to plug a man in the back in 1976’s “The Shootist.” Although he occasionally played avengers, Wayne was old-school, and he snapped: “I don’t shoot people in the back!” Siegel replied: “Clint Eastwood would.” He was right. Eastwood would, and he did.
“My editor said, ‘Boy, you shot him in the back,’” Eastwood once recalled, speaking of the 1976 film “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” “I said, ‘Yeah, you do what you have to do to get the job done.’ So, yeah, I used to shoot them in the back all the time.”
To avenge a pal, Eastwood kills the sheriff of Nowheresville, Wyoming, in 1992’s “Unforgiven.” Afterward, he threatens the witnesses, saying, “Any sumbitch takes a shot at me, I’m not only gonna kill him, but I’m gonna kill his wife, all his friends, and burn his damn house down.” He would have, too. Revenge may have been teetering on the knife edge of murder, but Eastwood was comfortable with dialogue like this, because he knew his fans would swallow anything he did and like it.
Trump once told his biographer Tim O’Brien that Eastwood was “the greatest movie star.” He even tried to mimic the actor’s trademark squint. Like Eastwood’s characters, Trump does not hesitate to shoot enemies and former friends in the back. He’s done it to Stephen Bannon and Michael Cohen, not to mention American allies such as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Eastwood made it easier for Trump to say, many years later, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, okay, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?”
If breaking the law to enforce the law seems like a paradox, the James Bond franchise found an elegant way out: MI6, the DMV of British secret intelligence, issued him a license to kill. In “Dr. No,” the very first film in the series, Bond shot, i.e., executed, a nefarious geologist knowing full well that his gun was empty.
Charles Bronson, Mel Gibson and Kiefer Sutherland followed suit, the latter in Fox’s long-running “24.” In 2014’s “John Wick,” Keanu Reeves stacks up bodies to revenge the death of his dog. A straight-arrow FBI agent in NBC’s hit show “The Blacklist” says this to a Russian mobster he’s interrogating: “I used to be a real Boy Scout. Followed all the rules. Then my fiancee gets murdered right in front of me. The guy who did it, the only way I could get him was to forget all the rules. The path I took, there wasn’t any rules.” (Including grammatical ones, apparently.)
Such is the appeal of revenge movies that they have morphed into revenge series. Vigilante violence is ho-hum. We’re no longer shocked, because extreme culture has prepared us to greet it with a pump of the fist, and stand-your-ground laws have practically made shooting unarmed people a civic duty. Eastwood would be proud. Where he went, Trump follows.