The Ford Gran Torino was among the last American muscle cars produced in the 1971-1975 decline of Detroit factory performance cars. From about 1957-1970, American companies designed and built many particularly beautiful and fast cars. Corvette, Mustang, GTO, Challenger, AMX, Camaro, Firebird, Barracuda, to name a few. Originally conceived for racing purposes, these cars were later developed for street use, and were marketed specifically to the young using very powerful advertising tools like movies,television and magazines. The resulting street culture was dangerous and short lived in some ways, but today is a huge subculture involving young and old alike. Restoring, showing and collecting these cars is now the industry, kept alive by enthusiasts who undoubtedly feel these cars represent who they are or want to be.
1970 marked a definite shift away from the pursuit of faster and more outrageous cars for street purposes. Safety issues and manufacturing costs played a part, but mostly the new decade was shaping up to be hard economically for America. The country plunged into a record recession caused mainly by the reckless Vietnam War. Sound familiar? After 1973 there were shortages of fuel due to upheaval in the global oil industry and soon the focus was on energy efficiency. U.S. companies persisted in the marketing of muscle though, but increasingly failed in both design and execution. The 1972 Gran Torino is a perfect example. It was an ugly, terrible car by most muscle car standards. Now, though, in an age when cars are SO boring, the car of the movie may have some retro appeal, but it is the symbolic nature of this particular beast in the 2008 Clint Eastwood masterpiece Gran Torino that is more powerful.
The name Gran Torino comes from the Italian city of Turin, or Torino. It is the capital of the Italian automobile industry, headquarters for Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Lancia, just as Detroit has been the home of the big three American companies Ford, GM and Chrysler. The car was actually more of a standard level of automobile, a replacement in name and design for the mid-level Fairlane line that Ford had. Like they had for about a decade, the companies would offer a performance model at the high end of their lines with special engines and added sport features. These were always limited production cars, the most costly, and supposedly the best the companies had to offer. In 1972, Ford putting a big V-8 and some stripes and mags on a bloated family car and calling it Gran Torino was a lame attempt at preserving muscle car prestige. It signaled the end of an era and the tough times that lay ahead.
It is an interesting choice of car and title for a film about a bitter man near the end of his life, struggling with the scars of his past and his relationship with the world around him. Clint’s character Walt Kowalski is one of the last of an old breed in a relentlessly changing world. He is a retired Detroit auto worker and Korean War veteran. A widower, he sits alone and stares with hatred at the world around him, especially his neighbors next door, a family of Hmong. His view of them is shaped by his past, the enemies he fought and killed in Korea. To him they are just more “gooks” and he’s bitter that his neighborhood has gone to shit and he blames them. When a gang tries to recruit the young boy next door, Kowalski will be drawn into their lives and be called to action, unwillingly at first. Through helping to boy and his family, he comes to know them and realizes that he has much to give, including the symbol of his youth.
He’s had the Gran Torino in his garage since it rolled off the line in 1972, and it has a special significance for him because among other things he actually worked on the assembly of the car. To him it’s a mean green street machine, an expression of his character that he preserved and cared for, a reminder of how things used to be in his life. This film is an ode to that past, and to ours as Americans, and a sort of poem to deal with the last century as we move into the next.
From about 1972 to present we have witnessed the downhill slide of the American auto industry as international competition (specifically Japan’s Big Three – Honda, Toyota and Nissan) took hold of the market with better and more efficient products. Most recently, to the amazement of American consumers and auto workers alike, it’s as if the U.S. industry has finally gone careening like a giant idiotic boulder down a huge mountainside with no brakes and certainly no will to reverse course. General Motors, once the world-dominating auto company, has just gone out of business, leaving its employees marooned. Chrysler and Ford may soon follow. Failure to make better products and to embrace new technologies is to blame, as is most certainly collusion with the oil industry. We are seeing the total collapse of an industry through reluctance to move in a responsible, forward-thinking way. Since seeing this film at a snowy winter midnight screening, it has resonated more and more to me as a timely and poignant powerhouse of a movie.
It should be said that I have been a fan of Clint Eastwood the actor all my life, even in the cheesy films like Every Which Way But Loose (“Right turn, Clyde!….”) and the weaker recent ones like Bloodwork. I guess I’ll watch him in anything. He’s always been a favorite action hero. More recently, specifically since Unforgiven, I have watched all of his directorial films and witnessed a great progression and range of material. Starting in 1971, using skills he learned from director Don Siegel over the course of making five films together, he began directing on his own. Play Misty For Me is a powerful little thriller made on a small budget and no paycheck for Clint. It was a fairly successful start and is a real favorite of mine since I first saw it on a TV rerun in 1976. Since then, he’s directed great Westerns like Pale Rider and Unforgiven, excellent period dramas like Bird, a film about Charlie Parker, and The Bridges of Madison County, as well as top notch hits like Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby. In 2008 he had two films completed – Changeling, an underrated and chilling period thriller, and Gran Torino, a film that could be a capstone. He has hinted in recent interviews that it may be his last role as an actor. I hope not, but if that is true, he’s ended a long career triumphantly.
The screenplay was written by Nick Schenk, surprisingly not a Hollywood insider but rather a first-timer who wrote the story sitting in a bar with friends in Minneapolis. Supposedly, material for the story developed over many years, from encounters with veterans he’d met on different jobs and Hmong people he worked with during a stint at a VHS factory in Bloomington, Minnesota. A blue collar guy, Schenk was interested in the plight of war vets and factory workers, but learning about the Hmong propelled the story in a new direction. The story of the mountain people of Laos, displaced during the Vietnam war and migrating from refugee camps in Thailand to the U.S. impressed him, and those he met revealed to him the fact of many Hmong who were recruited and fought alongside U.S. soldiers against the North Vietnamese. Details of their cultural traditions and family life also became known, and he came up with the scenario of Kowalski being drawn out of his isolation and prejudice through helping this family next door. The boy and his sister face tough problems, and Kowalski is the guy righting wrongs all through the story, both for them and himself.
When Clint got the screenplay, he decided to produce and direct it without any changes but for location. It would be set and shot in Michigan instead of Minnesota as Schenk intended. The story of Kowalski’s transcendence from hate for the world and his neighbors to redemption is classic and compelling, and watching Clint as Kowalski, it’s as if he’s infused all the best from his past roles to make this one indelible. It’s as personal as it gets in many ways, carrying a weighty message about ways of dealing with problems, understanding and sharing. By meeting his challenge and taking responsibility Kowalski is redeemed, in the process presenting a more realistic kind of hero, with more depth and certainly more human. It’s all there, some humor included, but this time the Dirty Harry style violent revenge is cleverly reworked so that Kowalski can make the ultimate sacrifice for people he once mistook for old enemies.
As the credits roll, Clint can be heard singing his ode Gran Torino, a gravelly, ghostly voice from beyond. It’s the final signature on the film, and while it’s sad, there is a feeling you get that as bad as things can be, life in this world is what you make of it. Time will march on, changes will happen, and if there’s a good reason to look at the past, it’s to guide us into the future and not live with old mistakes.