Clintonomics makes their day: will Dirty Harry become The Forgiven?: As the anti-violence crusaders march on Hollywood, a man with a smoking gun strides towards the Oscars. Simon Garfield reports

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In two weeks Clint Eastwood straps on the bow tie, gets out the tux and goes in search of a little bounty. Unforgiven, his latest film, has been nominated for nine Academy Awards, including best actor (Eastwood), best director (Eastwood), best film (produced by Eastwood). The movie, a huge draw at the box office, is an extremely brutal Western - sadistic violence, graphic pain.

Eastwood, still cool at 62, rich beyond avarice, would kill for these Oscars, and craves the respectability they endow. The Academy has never rewarded him before, which may seem a little strange, given the length of his career and his box-office appeal. But Clint knows why: despite his arty biopics of Charlie Parker and John Huston, despite his comedy films, he's still Mr Blow-'Em-Away to you and me. He's a mythical bloke: we don't think, yeah, Eastwood, what an intelligent director of 16 films] We think of The Man with no Name, the Fascistic enforcer, the avenging loner with the hardware and the mean one-liners. This is a lousy image to have in today's Hollywood.

In today's Hollywood he must repent. You can't win Oscars by shooting people all day and never saying sorry. So last month he submitted himself to the interview couch for Psychology Today, where he tells readers that he's sorry if his cowboys and cops encourage audiences to go out and slay people in their lunch hours; he's sorry if he's a hero to psychopaths. 'I wouldn't like it at all if some kid said he shot somebody because of me. I've had people come up and ask me to sign their guns. I've done it once or twice for law- enforcement officials, but when (other) people do that - and there have been quite a few lately - I always tell them no. I'd have to live with it inside of me.'

The timing of this statement is not haphazard; neither are his comments that his movie is not really about killing or sadism, but about the failure of morality, and indirectly about the beating of Rodney King.

These claims come at a time when the film critic Michael Medved stalks Los Angeles peddling a reactionary book called Hollywood vs America, which is also about the failure of morality. Medved's book has had a big impact, because it purports to show that Hollywood is evil, produces movies that corrupt and deprave and desensitise, and generally puts gunplay before family values.

Some of this makes sense: if Hollywood wants us to believe that the likes of Malcolm X and Gandhi have an uplifting moral effect, then why won't they acknowledge that Lethal Weapon and Terminator may send a young audience to the gun store? But much of Medved's argument is based on aesthetic rather than moral judgements (he just doesn't like psychologically complex modern urban dramas as much as The Sound of Music).

Anyway, this is the new moral panic, widespread and perplexingly politically sound; even John Major wants a piece of the pie (he suspects a causal effect between screen violence and urban crime, which would be a neat excuse if it wasn't also unprovable). Anthony Hopkins has stepped into the fray, saying he's going to think long and hard before he takes the dollars for eating more humans in a sequel to The Silence of the Lambs. Michael Caine has said he's lost count of the films he's turned down because he finds the violence objectionable.

Hollywood studios may be running a little scared. The Clinton spirit of concern for our future generation may be rubbing off. Political correctness appears to have bust out all over, but mostly it's lip-service. We won't be seeing as many environmental movies in future, because they didn't make much money. Jonathan Demme's next film after The Silence of the Lambs is Philadelphia, Hollywood's first big-budget Aids drama; if it doesn't make money it may be its last.

Let's look at the films of our would-be Oscar hero, Clint Eastwood. Clint's a good gauge in this debate because through three decades he's defined and informed the acceptable (or unacceptable) levels of screen violence, and his work has been a prime inspiration for the futuristic zombie gunplay works of Paul Verhoeven (RoboCop) and the other 'heartless' punk directors who crack the loudest Hollywood whips today.

Jean-Claude Van Damme, the video- store chart-buster who's become an archetype of the new no-brain brutalism, said in a predictably monosyllabic exchange recently: 'I'm the Western hero of now. You know, I do what a man's gotta do. If something or somebody needs cleaning up, I'm around.'

For Van Damme, of course, cleaning up means termination, not censorship.

There's always been Clint to rail against, and people have always railed hard. And we've always achieved nothing. You read the cuttings and you're awash in old-style moral outrage - real bleeding- heart, protect-our-kids stuff. Which makes you wonder: is the new moral panic the same as the old moral panic, but in Dolby?

Clint never really listened to the panic before. He always got back in the saddle, always reached for his magnum again. Why? Public taste demanded it. Eastwood and Hollywood like a contented public; big bucks.

Our first encounter with Eastwood was on television, saddling up for the parched cattle trails of Rawhide. He was a romantic and clean fella; he made a lot of dust, but not many entry wounds. Actually there wasn't much killing at all, such was the time spent on moral dilemmas of loyalty, brotherhood, courage. It was the Old West television loved. Family viewing.

In 1963 Sergio Leone, a young director who prided himself on making Italian Westerns devoid of social conscience or goodness of any kind, saw Clint Eastwood in Rawhide and recognised the sort of man he was seeking for his next shoot-'em-up. In an interview years later he explained the difference between Eastwood and Robert De Niro: 'They don't even belong to the same profession. Robert De Niro throws himself into this or that role, putting on a personality the way someone else may put on his coat, naturally and with elegance, while Clint Eastwood throws himself into a suit of armour and lowers the visor with a rusty clang . . . Eastwood moves like a sleepwalker between explosions and hails of bullets, and he is always the same - a block of marble. Bobby, first of all, is an actor. Clint, first of all, is a star. Bobby suffers, Clint yawns.'

Clint yawned a little in A Fistful of Dollars, his first starring role, but mostly he just killed people. Clint was your classic Stranger. In trying to set one small-town gang against another and get rich in the process, he forged a new breed of hero, though you had to be nuts to find it heroic.

He changed the course of the Western, because it sure wasn't John Wayne up there in the saddle. The Eastwood character just shot people at random, this gang, that gang, bang bang bang, four or five at a time. He made some money, brought a young family together, and quit town, what was left of it. Everyone but the undertaker and bell-ringer were dead.

This is a terrible film, even if you love killing. Its apologists lay claim to irony, but I'd plump for cheapness and nastiness. As in the film's two sequels, Eastwood never lifts the visor; emotional as vegetables. But the dumb violence is hardly inspirational. You don't want to be like a block of marble, do you, son?

Most critics were repulsed when A Fistful of Dollars was released here in 1967. 'It is quite simply sadism,' wrote Alexander Walker in the Evening Standard. 'And sadism of a cold, repugnant type.'

'It was made with the express intention of creating a new cruelty cult,' wailed the Morning Star. 'The formula - brutality without reason: blood and butchery for their own sake; a 'hero' who stirs things up for the sole purpose of extracting the maximum amount of slaughter from the plot.'

No irony detected there, then.

In 1972 Clint brought his cowboy to the big city and turned him into a cop. Eastwood became 'Dirty' Harry Callahan, a West Coast policeman who'd had enough of pussying around. When a psychopathic killer kidnaps young girls and holds the city to ransom, Dirty Harry is convinced that the mayor's willingness to pay the dollars 200,000 ransom is symptomatic of the liberal way society is heading, and sets out alone with his magnum.

Christopher Frayling, professor of cultural history at the Royal College of Art and an Eastwood biographer, says: 'San Francisco, which has always been the cutting edge of culture, becomes the new frontier. Why people got so upset about those Dirty Harry films is because they had characters who resembled human beings, and a surface realism, and that makes the violence more disturbing.'

In Eastwood's later American Westerns, particularly The Outlaw Josey Wales, even his cowboy heroes had a more liberal down-home tinge, and didn't kill people for nothing. But between 1972 and 1988 you just couldn't stop him playing those mean cops who took the law into their own hands. Eastwood said at the time: 'They're realistic guys, because it's a real tough world. People want to feel that with society broken down, someone up there is still fighting for them.' That was in 1973, not 1993.

In another interview he said: 'You've got violence in life. It's nothing new. Guns are better than being hacked to death with a sword like medieval times. I take out all my anger, feelings in a film . . . as the audience takes out theirs in viewing it.'

The audience then relives it in pubs and playgrounds, reciting the dialogue like mantras: 'You've got to ask youself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do you, punk?'

And very occasionally things go further. In 1989 Okalahoma legislators, clearly impressed by Sudden Impact, voted for a law known as the Make My Day Bill, which let residents kill anyone who set foot in their apartment. All you needed was 'reasonable belief' that the intruder might use force.

In the same year Leeds Crown Court heard the tale of an 18-year-old who blasted his best friend in the head when his father's pistol went off accidentally in a 'party prank'. Before the shooting the teenager brandished the pistol and shouted 'Bang Bang] Make my day]'

Many commentators approved of Dirty Harry at the time. While the Financial Times called it 'exceptionally unappetising' and the Sun believed that 'this fantasy of carnage, with the camera gloating over flesh wounds, is sick', the Times and the Sunday Times praised the film: 'ingenious twists of plot, a splendid chase or two . . . the action is tight, precise, immaculately staged . . .'

In the United States, Time called Dirty Harry 'the kind of movie that brightens up Hollywood's tarnished name'. Reviewing Magnum Force, the sequel (a good cops/bad cops blow-out that inspired both the Lethal Weapon and comic Beverly Hills Cop series), Pauline Kael observed in the New Yorker: 'With a Clint Eastwood, the action film can - indeed must - drop the pretence that human life has any value . . . The John Wayne figure . . . has been replaced by a man who essentially stands for nothing but violence. Eastwood has no other death, because he has no other appeal. The concept of the good guy has collapsed simultaneously in our society and in our movies.'

I met Clint Eastwood on the promo trail at the 1990 Edinburgh Festival. It was one of those round-table jobs, three or four journalists and one Clint, sitting around talking about image, violence, the Gulf crisis - anything but his worthy new film, White Hunter, Black Heart. He wore a suit that resembled industrial carpet; he put in a thoughtful, wary show.

'That's not me up there on the screen,' he said. 'I would play any role if I thought it was suitable. I wouldn't care if it was the most despicable . . . if it was Adolf Hitler, and it was proper casting, it would be a fascinating role to play.'

He joked about the Gulf crisis: 'The golf crisis? Phew, I'm sure glad I'm not in charge of that one.'

He said he was a friend of Reagan's (Reagan was fond of quoting his 'make my day' speech to Congress), and a 'loose' Bush supporter who 'stuck out for the rights of the individual'. He said a lot of people had encourgaed him to stand for President, including the reactionary radio talk-show host who subsequently ran a daily spoof serial called Gulf War Won with Eastwood cast as George Bush.

But Eastwood said he'd had enough of politics as mayor of Carmel. (Carmel is an idyllic conservative Californian town; heaven help the local developer who wanted to move a lamp post.)

Then he talked of this Western he was going to make, one that was to confound the long-standing Hollywood wisdom that the Western was dead and do better than Pale Rider (his 1985 cowboy comeback, which was another tough and cynical lone-stranger-with-a-mission thing). He said he'd bought the script of this new film a few years back, and that it was called The William Munny Killings. This sounded a little violent and top-shelf, but it was an improvement on the original title, The Cut Whore Murders, which was real driller-killer territory.

Today we know it as Unforgiven, the Oscar favourite (the film will probably also pick up some Bafta awards next weekend). Eastwood plays Munny, a reformed alcoholic and murderer. He swears he won't kill or drink again, but the reward on the heads of two men who slashed the face of a prostitute brings him back to evil ways. This is his 'failure of morality'; he doesn't want to kill anyone, but he's broke, and he's got two small children, and his hogs have got the fever. He doesn't stop at the slashers; at the end of movie the town's gone again.

We've had this story before, but seldom has Eastwood displayed so much emotional depth or respect for PC; at one point he even apologises to his horse for the terrible weather. Most of the characters are more complex and rounded than we're used to; that they

are also held responsible for their violent actions may account for the film's 15 certificate.

But Eastwood will repent only so far. He doesn't actually regret his earlier, less responsible flicks (how can you regret the bulk of your career? And of course Charles Bronson and Sam Peckinpah ensured he wasn't killing alone.) These days he just hopes that people will follow him and think about morality more. You could call it Operation Restore Hope.

Is he spitting in the wind? The hottest ticket in the US this week is for Falling Down, a movie in which Michael Douglas plays an ordinary Joe who loses his job and decides to get his own back. So he goes out and beats up a Korean grocer, shoots a Latino street gang, terrorises a burger joint and blows up a construction site with a rocket launcher. Morality becomes so blurred that even the hero gets confused: 'I'm the bad guy?' he asks at the end.

And then there's Nowhere to Run, in which Jean-Claude Van Damme plays a 'mysterious, lone fugitive', and Trespass, in which Ice-T and Ice Cube display enough hardware to flatten a town, just like in the old West.

Eastwood may not thank you for reminding him of this. Hell, these days he won't even sign your hand gun.

(Photograph omitted)