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DHS- Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) in Gran Torino

Walt Kowalski

Walt Kowalski is the main heroic character and a retired civilian in the 2008 film Gran Torino. He is portrayed in the film by actor and director Clint Eastwood.


Walt is a Polish-American former auto worker who becomes embroiled in a conflict involving a Hmong family and a gang. Walt had served in the Korean War and had killed a Korean boy who had been trying to surrender to him; the experiences haunts him for the rest of his life. He recalls five other deaths as well but possibly committed other atrocities of which he can't remember due to the pain it caused to him emotionally afterwards.

He is a retiree who formerly worked at a Ford automobile plant, and he owns a Gran Torino car he had personally built. He also owns an M1 Garand rifle and an M1911A1 pistol, both of which he kept from the Korean War. Walt's wife, Dorothy Kowalski, is dead by the beginning of the film and he fails to get along with his surviving offspring and lives alone at home with his pet dog.

Walt holds many prejudices towards Asians because of his experience in the Korean War, and more recently because of the success of Japanese automakers (which is somewhat responsible for the struggle of Ford and other US marques, leading to the decimation of the auto industry in Michigan) and his dislike of Rice burners (in contrast to traditional American muscle cars).

Character Summary[]

Walt Kowalski is a cantankerous, retired Polish American assembly line worker and Korean War veteran, who has recently been widowed after 50 years of marriage. His Highland Park, Michigan neighborhood in the Detroit area, formerly populated by working-class white families, is now dominated by poor Asian immigrants, and gang violence is commonplace. Adding to the isolation he feels is the emotional detachment of his family.

He rejects a suggestion from one of his sons to move to a retirement community (sensing they want his home and possessions), and lives alone with his elderly dog, Daisy. A chronic smoker, Walt suffers from coughing fits, occasionally coughing up blood, but conceals this from his family. Catholic priest Father Janovich tries to comfort him, but Walt disdains the young, inexperienced man.

The Hmong Vang Lor family reside next door to Walt. Initially, he wants nothing to do with his new neighbors, particularly after he catches Thao, a member of said family, attempting to steal his Ford Gran Torino as a coerced initiation into a Hmong gang run by Thao's cousin, "Spider". The gang is infuriated by Thao's failure and they attack him, but Walt confronts them with an M1 Garand rifle and chases them off, earning the respect of the Hmong community.

As penance, Thao's mother makes him work for Walt, who has him do odd jobs around the neighborhood, and the two form a grudging mutual respect. Thao's sister Sue introduces Walt to Hmong culture and helps him bond with the Hmong community, who soon become more like family to Walt than his actual family. Walt helps Thao get a job and gives him dating advice.

Spider's gang continues to pressure Thao, assaulting him on his way home from work. After he sees Thao's injuries, Walt visits the gang's house, where he attacks a gang member as a warning. In retaliation, the gang performs a drive-by shooting on the Vang Lor home, injuring Thao even though Walt attempts to defend the family with an M1911 pistol. The gang also kidnaps and rapes Sue. There are no witnesses and the members of the community, including the victims, refuse to talk about the crimes; preventing police from doing anything about Spider's gang.

The next day, Thao seeks Walt's help to exact revenge, who tells him to return later in the afternoon. In the meantime, Walt makes personal preparations: he buys a suit, gets a haircut, and makes a confession to Father Janovich. When Thao returns, Walt takes him to the basement and gives him his Silver Star medal; Walt then locks Thao in his basement and tells him that he has been haunted by the memory of killing an enemy soldier who was trying to surrender, something he hadn't confessed to Janovich. He insists that Thao must never be haunted by killing another man, especially with his life ahead of him.

That night Walt goes to the house of the gang members, where they draw their weapons on him. He speaks loudly, berating them and enumerating their crimes and thus drawing the attention of the neighbors. Putting a cigarette in his mouth, he asks for a light; he then puts his hand in his jacket and provocatively pulls it out as if he were holding a gun, inciting the gang members to shoot and kill him, which they do. As he falls to the ground, his hand opens to reveal the Zippo lighter with First Cavalry insignia he has used throughout the film: he was unarmed. Sue, following Walt's directions earlier, frees Thao, and they drive to the scene in Walt's Gran Torino. A Hmong police officer tells them the gang members have been arrested for murder and the surrounding neighbors have all come forward as witnesses.

Walt's funeral Mass is celebrated by Father Janovich and attended by his family and many of the Hmong community, many of whom are wearing traditional attire, and their presence visibly annoys the late Walt's family. Afterward his last will and testament is read, where to the surprise of his family Walt leaves them nothing: his house goes to the church and his cherished Gran Torino goes to Thao, with the condition that Thao doesn't modify it. As the film ends, Thao is seen driving the car along Jefferson Avenue with Daisy.

Behind the Scenes and Notes[]

  • Nick Schenk, the writer of the script of the film, said "Walt is like a lot of shop teachers and coaches that you have in school. He's the kind of guy who's just waiting for you to screw up so he can roll his eyes at you." Eastwood has said that the car is "sort of a symbol of his days with the Ford plant" and that the gun "is sort of a symbol of his days in the military. … He's clinging to the memory of the war. You'll find out when you see it, some of (the memories) are not as pleasant as others. That helps make him even tougher to get along with."
  • Similar aging heroes who find themselves in Die Hard/High Noon type scenarios include characters such as John Creasy, Avery Ludlow, David Harris, Harry Brown, Bryan Mills, John Wick, Robert McCall, Nick Hume, Erica Bain, Jimmy Conlon, Stanley Hill and the vigilante duo Frank Vega and Bernie Pope.