Every Thursday, I revisit a film that I have strong memories of watching, to see how well my memories of it hold up to scrutiny, and whether the film is as good (or as bad) as I remember.
What I remember…
Like almost everyone who grew up in the eighties, the films I watched the most as a child were what had been recorded for me off the tv onto VHS tapes. [And before you panic, this isn’t going to descend into one of those terrible Generation X Facebook memes about kids today not having proper childhoods. Video was shite compared to streaming. Clearly] Anyway, there were films that we all watched regularly (Star Wars, Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones) and films that were slightly less ubiquitous. Two of the films that my sister and I watched a lot were the ‘Determiner Which Way’ films.
Which is not to claim they were obscure movies – Every Which Way But Loose was the second highest grossing film of 1978 and, adjusted for inflation, still one of the two hundred and fifty most financially successful movies of all time – but they didn’t have quite the same cut through with the youth market as Star Wars did. They did have the same reach with my dad though, who was partial to a film with an orangutan in it. They became a part of my childhood.
I remember the orangutan, and a biker gang. I remember the very long fist fight at the end of Any Which Way You Can that became a pop culture milestone, particularly in America (Homer Simpson vs Bart’s Bigger Brother, Peter Griffin and the chicken, it all started there). I remember moments but not much in the way of plot. I remember nothing about the Clint Eastwood character at all.
What I expected…
Before watching these films again, the question in my mind wasn’t ‘would they have aged badly?’ but ‘how badly would they have aged?’ Nobody wants to be the person who cancels an orangutan for getting embroiled in a libertarian road-trip comedy but I suspected I might have to.
What I found…
The first thing that surprised me was how different the two films were. While on the surface they are essentially the same movie, they have totally different moods. In Every Which Way But Loose, Philo Beddoe (Clint Eastwood) is a heel. Within minutes of the film starting he has picked a fight with a stranger for no reason, objectified several women, done a bit of weirdly aggressive littering, and generally just gone out of his way to be a bit of a dick. I know times have changed, but it’s hard to see what about him is supposed to appeal to an audience. He’s not a nice person at all.
I suspect he is supposed to be a fantasy – somebody’s platonic form of the libertarian ‘alpha male’ – the man who does whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and everyone else can go to hell. There was a lot of that in the air in 1978. The decade of Thatcher, Reagan, “Greed is good”, “There’s no such thing as society”, and all that bullshit was only months away. But if he is, he is also a cautionary tale [WARNING. SPOILERS FOR A FORTY-ODD YEAR OLD FILM COMING UP.] He doesn’t get the girl (played by Sondra Locke, whose character is, depending on your interpretation of the film, arguably as individualistic as he is) and in the final scene of the film he throws a fight when he recognises his opponent has nothing in life but his reputation and sees what beating him in a fight will do to him. His final act is to, kind of, do the right thing. He isn’t redeemed exactly, but there as an implication of a thought process.
It is not a good film but it is a watchable film. Eastwood is good as a straight man and Geoffrey Wright and Beverly D’Angelo do a lot with what are quite small roles. There are little touches (Wright’s character turning his cap backwards whenever Beddoe is about to fight, Beddoe’s habit of walking to a fight with his trainers tied together and hanging over his shoulder) that bring scenes to life.
In Any Which Way You Can, all the rough edges of Eastwood and Locke’s characters are smoothed out. There is still a libertarian streak to their behaviour but it is more of ‘don’t fence me in’ than ‘every man for himself’. It’s as if the makers of the film decided that the events of the Every Which Way But Loose made them both reassess their lives and turn over new leaves but that the process of that isn’t what a paying audience wanted to see. I think they were probably right. Probably.
The second film is both better and worse than the first. It’s messier, plotwise, but William Smith (as Beddoe’s friend and opponent) is a brilliant addition to the cast. If the first film suffers for having too many villains, the second is marred by trying to redeem too many of them.
So, How good was my memory?
And how good are the films?
The films are essentially 1970s exploitation films, full of scenes and attitudes that don’t play well in 2022, but with a decent budget and a handful of good actors papering over the cracks. They are of far higher interest historically than artistically. It’s not hard to draw a line from Cool Hand Luke to Every Which Way But Loose to Drive or from It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World to Any Which Way You Can to Logan Lucky but whether doing so would be a legitimate argument or not is, well, arguable.
And as for the orangutan? No, he doesn’t get cancelled. Quite the opposite. Rewatching the films now, the scenes with Clyde seem more sad than funny. And finding out that one of the orangutans died shortly after the film was shot (RIP Buddha) only adds to the feeling that they just shouldn’t have been on set in the first place. It was a different time, I guess.