With record-breaking box office receipts of over $250 million in its first month of release, American Sniper is set to become the highest grossing war movie of all time, and Clint Eastwood‘s most successful movie at the box office. Impressive for an 84-year-old filmmaker in his sixth decade in the business. And a bit surprising.
As an actor and director, Eastwood has never shied away from commerciality when it comes to his movies. Heck, the guy made five Dirty Harry movies and worked with a monkey… twice! Eastwood films have already made so much money ($4.4 billion in North America alone), one would figure that he ought to be slowing down by now.
Considering his lengthy resume, it’s hard not to be impressed by the wide range of action films, Oscar winners, and western classics. For a guy considered to have very little acting range, Eastwood sure played a lot of diverse characters.
But which of his movies proved the most popular with moviegoers? It’s a tough question, especially comparing 1960s flicks (when individual tickets might be less than a buck) to today’s $12 to $15 a-pop tickets.
So the figures below are adjusted for inflation, in order to make a fair comparison of the relative popularity of Eastwood’s movies. The results might surprise you…
16. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976): $121 million
A straight-forward western after Eastwood’s more surreal High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales is set during the Civil War. It’s a typical Eastwood revenge tale, with a man seeking justice for the murder of his family – justice via a Gatling gun, to be specific.
The film was a major hit for producer Eastwood, who fired original director Philip Kaufman during production and took over. The Outlaw Josey Wales is considered a western classic on par with Clint’s Man With No Name films and Unforgiven.
The film also featured such notable Canuck actors as Chief Dan George (Little Big Man), John Vernon (Animal House), and Doug McGrath (Going Down The Road). Adjusted for ticket price inflation, the film earned a healthy $121 million at the North American box office.
15. Million Dollar Baby (2004): $127 million
Eastwood was back on his game with this sports drama, which won four Oscars including Best Picture. A tale of an up-and-coming female boxer (Hilary Swank) and her over-the-hill trainers (Eastwood and Morgan Freeman), the film was a bleak look at not only boxing but redemption and, as Eastwood characterized it, the American Dream.
A female Rocky it was not. Oscars went to both Swank and Eastwood, who still holds the record as the oldest director ever to win an Academy Award at age 74. Though the film earned more than $127 million in North America, it did even better in the rest of the world.
14. Firefox (1982): $128 million
Not all of Eastwood’s box office hits are strictly good. As producer/director/star, Eastwood can take all the credit for this film’s success and its multiple failings. Garnering terrible reviews, this Cold War action flick saw Eastwood playing an American spy who headed to Russia to steal a high tech fighter jet. Clint’s character not only spoke Russian but was half Russian (on his mom’s side). Really?
Firefox was chock full of special effects but severely lacking in plot. And whatever plot there was just wasn’t all that believable. Still, this thriller earned an adjusted $128 million at the North American box office on Clint’s reputation alone.
13. The Bridges of Madison County (1995): $132 million
Most critics hated the best-selling novel that was the basis for this romantic film about two lonely, middle-aged people (Eastwood and Meryl Streep) who find love briefly. Those same critics later had to admit the movie – directed by Eastwood – was good, and certainly better than the novel. At best, the film flew in the face of Hollywood’s belief that screen romance was the domain of the young.
Bridges earned an astounding $132 million at the box office (adjusted for inflation), and an Oscar nomination for Streep. The film was also a testament to Eastwood’s economy as a director, as the 52 day shoot wrapped up ten days early.
12. Space Cowboys (2000): $136 million
A crowd-pleaser, this tale of old test pilots given one more chance at space glory was hard not to like. Grumpy old men making fun of cocky young punks is always a winning movie formula.
Space Cowboys even won over the critics, who complained about director Eastwood’s penchant for easy thrills and familiar cliches but couldn’t help enjoying themselves anyway. A late summer release, Space Cowboys earned an adjusted North American box office of $136 million.
11. Escape From Alcatraz (1979): $138 million
Before The Shawshank Redemption, this film was often cited as the best prison break movie ever. Directed by frequent Eastwood collaborator Don Siegel (Dirty Harry), the film cast Eastwood as a prisoner pushed to plan a daring escape from the famed San Francisco island prison.
Based on a true story and shot at the actual prison, the film had authenticity to burn, not to mention a great evil warden played by Patrick McGoohan. Adjusted for ticket inflation, the film earned a cool $138 million at the North American box office and appeared on many critics’ year-end Best Of lists. You can still purchase the flick at the Alcatraz gift shop.
10. Gran Torino (2008): $167 million
Eastwood hauled out his tough guy persona one last time for this urban revenge tale. As the aging, somewhat racist Korean War vet Walt, Eastwood’s character was forced to defend his crumbling Detroit community from some nasty gang members. This was one gruff guy – with one big gun. Still, the best parts of this film were the awkward, reluctant scenes in which Walt came to embrace his Hmong neighbors and their culture.
Never has the line ‘Get off my lawn’ been delivered with such menace. Gran Torino earned $167 million at the North American box office. Worldwide, it is considered one of Eastwood’s most all-round successful films to date.
9. Sudden Impact (1983): $168 million
‘Go ahead. Make my day,’ is still a popular catchphrase, and likely one of the chief reasons this film, the fourth in the Dirty Harry series, made so much money. In 1983, nobody could avoid that line of dialogue, which was featured prominently in the movie’s trailer. Even U.S. President Ronald Reagan used that catch phrase in one speech.
As for the film itself, it was typical Dirty Harry, with the aging rogue cop seeking justice for victims of sexual violence while drawing the disdain of his pencil-pushing bosses. Notable as the only one of the five Dirty Harry movies that Eastwood directed, Sudden Impact earned $168 million in adjusted North America ticket sales.
8. The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly (1967): $169 million
An epic end to Eastwood’s spaghetti western phase, and a western classic from filmmaker Sergio Leone, this film was not well-received by critics upon its initial release. Most critics of the time had a bias against the spaghetti western genre, and couldn’t see beyond this. At least not initially.
These days, the film is viewed as an influential masterpiece, with a much-parodied soundtrack (by Ennio Morricone) that’s as funny as it is thrilling. Released in North America in the same year as the other Leone/Eastwood oaters A Fist Full of Dollars and A Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly nonetheless proved a hit with moviegoers. Adjusted for inflation, the film earned $169 million.
7. The Enforcer (1976): $175 million
The third in the Dirty Harry series, rogue cop Harry Callahan deals with terrorist bad guys and a female partner (Tyne Daly). Actually, being a partner to Callahan can be pretty dangerous – the film brought Callahan’s total of dead partners to four. Maybe he should have just gone it alone and saved on funerals?
The film was also notable for Callahan’s choice of a rocket launcher over his .44 Magnum in the fiery climax. Very effective. The Enforcer proved the Dirty Harry franchise had legs, earning $175 million in adjusted dollars at the North American box office.
6. Dirty Harry (1971): $176 million
This was the original, classic, and much-imitated (by Eastwood himself even) cop movie. “You’ve got to ask yourself a question – do I feel lucky? Well, do ya punk?”, a gun-toting Harry Callahan asked casually while munching on a hot dog as the film opened.
It’s worth noting the frequency with which Callahan found himself at the center of a crime while trying to enjoy some downtime in this five movie series. The guy had really unfortunate timing.
In this first outing, Callahan had to track down bad guy Scorpio, a serial killer based loosely on the notorious Zodiac. A huge hit, the film earned $176 million in its North American release, spawning four sequels and multitudes of imitators.
5. Magnum Force (1973): $182 million
What’s worse than one vigilante cop? A whole bunch of vigilante cops killing all the bad guys in the city. That’s the plot for this sequel to Dirty Harry, which pitted Callahan against a group of rogue officers who go too far in their pursuit of justice.
Though critics were less than enthusiastic this time around, Magnum Force nonetheless piggybacked on the success of its predecessor. It even made more money than the first installment, pulling in a more-than-healthy $182 million in adjusted North American dollars.
4. Unforgiven (1992): $197 million
Who knew Eastwood had yet another classic western still in his acting and directing quiver? And not just a good western, but a Best Picture Oscar-winner. It was the dark tale of a former killer, William Munny (Eastwood), who was hired to revenge an assault on a local prostitute.
Of course, nothing turned out quite as expected, as the film delighted in embracing, then discarding, western clichés.
Gene Hackman won an Oscar for his portrayal of a brutal lawman, though sidekick Morgan Freeman really should have won as well. Shot in Alberta, the film won four Oscars in total, including another directing trophy for Eastwood. At the box office, it proved a long-running hit, earning $197 million in (adjusted) North American box office sales.
3. In The Line of Fire (1993): $200 million
A surprise box office hit cast Eastwood as a past-his-prime Secret Service Agent out to catch an assassin (a great John Malkovich) who delighted in tormenting Eastwood’s character. Heck, he even phoned up to tell Clint of his plan to kill the President, essentially double daring him.
The film was also unique in how it allowed as much screen time for the crazed killer as it did Clint’s agent character. And it seemed to resonate with audiences, who turned the film into one of the biggest hits of the summer with North American box office receipts of close to $200 million.
2. Every Which Way But Loose (1978) / Any Which Way You Can (1980): $294 million
Nobody wanted Clint to make this movie or its sequel – low brow action comedies in which Eastwood played a trucker/brawler travelling the western roads with an Orangutan named Clyde as sidekick/comedy relief. It sounded horrible when you described it. Yet Eastwood persisted in making the films.
Not surprisingly, critics loathed it – going as far as to question Eastwood’s sanity. Yet audiences loved it (and its sequel) making it into Clint’s two biggest box office hits. Adjusting for inflation, Every Which Way But Loose earned receipts of $294 million, while the sequel pulled in $212 million. Not sure why Eastwood didn’t make a third one. One hopes Clyde had a share in the films.
1. American Sniper (2014): $247 million +
In a potentially career-defining role, Bradley Cooper plays late navy SEAL Chris Kyle in Eastwood’s film adaptation of Kyle’s biography. American Sniper opened to critical acclaim and a huge box office rush in late 2014, but has provoked heated discussion across media outlets regarding its one-sided portrayal of the Iraq war: One critic said that Eastwood’s directorial achievement “bleeds red, white and blue in the worst ways”.
The controversy has only helped the movie sales. Within less than a month Sniper was already the second highest grossing war movie of all time – ahead of Pearl Harbour and just behind Saving Private Ryan. It looks set to pass the $312 million record set by Saving Private Ryan if American Sniper’s box office trend continues.
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