The great films of Clint Eastwood have a fascination with the nature of male friendship. From Unforgiven through Invictus, Gran Torino, Letters from Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers, Mystic River, and even Jersey Boys, the director has explored philia (brotherly love) with a depth and understanding rare in any other director. At times Eastwood’s “love” films extend into the divine realm of agape (self-sacrificial love) as with Gran Torino and his latest film, American Sniper.
Early in American Sniper, father Wayne Kyle addresses his family assembled at the Sunday dining room table:
There are three types of people in this
world. Sheep, wolves and sheepdogs.
Some people prefer to believe that evil
doesn’t exist in the world–
And if hatred ever darkened their
doorstep they wouldn’t know how to
protect themselves. These are the sheep.
Then you got the predators. These people
use violence to prey on the weak. They
are the wolves.
Then there are those who are blessed with
the gift of aggression and an
overpowering need to protect the flock.
These men are the rare breed that live to
confront the wolf—
They’re the sheepdog.
Now we’re not raising any sheep in this
family and I will whoop your fucking ass
if you turn into a wolf–
But we take care of our own. And if
someone picks a fight with you or bullies
your brother, you have my permission to
This is the creed by which oldest son Chris is raised and, by which, following 9/11, Chris decides to enlist in the United States military.
The practice of tending sheep runs as a major metaphorical mystery throughout Christianity. Christ Himself is not only the Good Shepherd, but also the Door of the Sheepfold, and the Lamb that was slain. Christ encompasses every aspect of the metaphor save the thief and the wolf.
Christ also casts his disciples in the metaphor:
So when they had eaten breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Feed My lambs.” He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Feed My sheep.
The exchange challenges the followers of Christ to continue His practice of feeding and tending His sheep. Doing so is necessary proof of one’s love for Christ. In fact, the disciple is afforded, by the act of feeding the sheep, an opportunity to demonstrate either philia (brotherly love) or agape (self-sacrificial love).
In Gran Torino, Eastwood allows his hero Walt Kowalski an act of agape love by offering his own life so that his neighbors, the Hmong Vang Lor family, might live.
In American Sniper, Eastwood shows his hero Chris Kyle demonstrate philia in Iraq for his “band of brothers.” Not until Chris Kyle is home does the nature of his heroic love become agape.
Agitated by memories, Chris Kyle is troubled at home and consequently his family suffers. Finally Kyle agrees to see a psychologist at the Veteran’s Hospital:
My guess would be you saw things, or
maybe you did some things, you wish you
hadn’t. Some soldiers can cope with that
and some can’t. We treat the–
That’s not me.
What’s not you?
That’s not who I am. When I aim…
When I’m on you…the world falls away
and my heart-rate drops through the
floor. I’m more relaxed killing you than
I am talking to you. And I did. I ended
some evil men, and I will stand before my
creator and answer for every shot I took.
That’s not it–
It’s the guys I couldn’t save. Those are
the faces I see. That’s my regret– that
I couldn’t hold on longer. That I
couldn’t do more.
When we go to war there are two wars we
fight. The one over there, then one at
home. You want to save people, walk down
any hall in this hospital. We have plenty
of soldiers that need saving.
So Chris Kyle, the sheepdog, heads off to “tend” his fellow ailing sheepdogs. And in the process of helping others, Chris and his family find the sheepdog himself healed and at peace.
At this point director Eastwood reveals his agape climax:
Chris meets a needy vet named Eddie and says
It’s not easy getting back. I know that.
But we don’t have do this thing alone.
We fought together, now we heal together.
I’m going to look after you, Eddie.
A stark title card fills the screen:
“On February 2, 2013, Chris Kyle was killed on a
shooting range by a former Marine he was trying to help.
He died as he lived, looking after one of his own.”
The sheepdog is dead.
But a sheep is fed.