There have been numerous articles and reviews that have tackled the obscurity and the powerful kick of Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Western, Unforgiven. Countless film critics and film scholars have used Unforgiven as the prime example of an anti-violence film, a film that used short yet effective spurts of bloody action to convey a message about the theme of violence. However, oddly enough, both Clint Eastwood David Peoples, the screenwriter, have admitted that when the film was in the making, the thought of it being an anti-violence picture hadn’t crossed anyone’s mind. The theme was simply thrown into the mix by those that went to see the film and wanted to write something important, something that would make the audiences flood the theaters and would have their names in the headlines. So my question is, 26 years after its release, what is Clint Eastwood’s Western really about? What has changed over the course of these last two decades?
I remember watching Unforgiven as a soon-to-be-teenager and thinking that along with No Country for Old Men this was the scariest movie I had seen up to that point. And I must admit, it still holds up very well. It is still a wonderfully directed gruesome Western that speaks volumes on a multitude of difficult topics. What starts out as an odd revenge storyline about three desperados, a young unexperienced hillbilly accompanied by two veteran murderers, who set out to kill a couple of men accused of cutting up a woman in a small town in Wyoming called Big Whiskey, soon turns into an engrossing moral tale that confronts the depths of evil with the scarce oases of goodness during some of the most troubled times of the American West, namely the days after the shocking assassination of President James Garfield in 1881. It is here that a lot of critics like to use the word ‘revisionist’ – the word ‘revisionist’ has been used countless times in recent years in order to describe different modern-day Westerns (think Hell or High Water, 3:10 to Yuma, True Grit), but has it been used right? In my opinion, very few films fit the term ‘revisionist’ since very few films are powerful enough to modify an entire genre, and when they do modify it, these modifications last a long time, preventing other films from crossing those established lines (think the way Goodfellas changed the gangster genre) and setting new ones. Unforgiven is, without a doubt, one of the few Westerns, along with Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller from 1971, to actually overturn the laws of the Western genre and create something remarkable, something that transcendences the limits of the genre and goes beyond the rules established by its predecessors, viz. John Ford, Anthony Mann and Howard Hawks in the 1940s and 50s. The way Unforgiven unfolds resembles a drama more than a Western and that is the first point I aim to make; Unforgiven‘s structure.
The structure of this film is incredibly straightforward and what is so striking about it is the fact that in a story that is just as concerned with the past of its characters as it is with their present, there is no use of flashbacks. The whole premise of the film is that two ruthless killers turned farmers, William Munny and Ned Logan (Eastwood and Morgan Freeman), set out on a journey that will force them to confront their own past and will require them to go back to their old criminal habits. Usually the temptation to rely on flashbacks in a situation like this would be very strong; in fact, Eastwood as a director used flashbacks a multitude of times, most notably in High Plains Drifter, an earlier picture of his about another tormented soul who must face his own demons. Yet here, Eastwood clearly decided to stick to the timeline of 1881 and this decision is what brings out the film’s best qualities. As viewers we are only allowed to imagine the past of the characters on-screen, rather than see it first-hand. If a character recalls a specific memory we can only guess whether this memory is true or not, whether it is accurate or not, whether the character really is who he says he is, which brings me to the most important revisionist quality this movie holds – the theme of storytelling.
The Western tradition has been built on the myth of the Wild West. The glorious days of robbers robbing banks and trains, cowboys fighting Natives and gunfighters squaring off on the streets of most American towns. But that’s also where the genre has stumbled, often too concerned with the myth rather than the actual story. And it is here that Unforgiven steps in to change the Western landscape for years to come. In fact, aside from William Munny, our protagonist, and Little Bill, our antagonist, every other character that we see on screen is more concerned with their own myth rather their actual story. English Bob (played by Richard Harris), for example, an English gunfighter that has arrived in Big Whiskey to collect the bounty for the two criminals who have scarred one of the local prostitutes, is nothing but a big lie dressed up in fancy clothes and armed with a number of expensive, custom-made pistols. He brings alongside a biographer who is charged with the task of writing a book about English Bob’s adventures in the Wild West and the way he spent his later years rescuing innocent women and children from the hands of violent, blood-thirsty men. When he is confronted by Little Bill, the local sheriff who doesn’t tolerate armed strangers in his own little town, English Bob is unable to separate himself from the myth. Eventually, the myth of English Bob as the saviour of the innocent results in his downfall and Bob ends up in a jail cell with his face bloodied. Why? Because Little Bill knows English Bob’s real story. Little Bill, as mentioned before, is one of the two characters who prefer to hold on to the story rather than the myth. A man like Little Bill despises the kind of English Bob, the kind of men who need to build their own myth in order to feel better about themselves. Similarly to Eastwood’s Munny, Gene Hackman’s Little Bill is nothing but a brutal man, a product of the Wild West who’s seen his fair share of pain and violence and who will not stand the lies of cowards like English Bob. Here, fact meets fiction, and fact takes over, fact wins, as Little Bill turns English Bob into a bloody pulp and ridicules him in front of the whole town, sending him back to England beat up and unarmed.
However, as complex as Little Bill is, I would be at fault if I did not go in depth about Eastwood’s character of William Munny, the definite factual character whose whole life has been avoiding his own infamous myth, the one of a stone-cold murderer of anything that ever crawled the face of the earth. When we meet him, Munny is at his strongest; he’s sober, he hasn’t fired a gun in over ten years’ time, he has two children and is a loving widower who spends his days watching over the grave of his wife, Claudia. And yet, in the face of the young hillbilly named Schofield Kid who comes to recruit him for the killing of the two criminals, Munny is nothing but a pathetic mess; a dirty old man, a pig farmer who’s got nothing going in life, a joke, a dead myth. Eastwood does a great job at portraying a man who has learned to embrace the present and forget the past. He does not mention his wrongdoings unless someone drags it out of him. The scenes that stand out the most are when Munny prepares himself for the journey by retrieving his old pistol and practicing after all these years with a coffee can. To the viewers’ surprise Munny can’t hit. He empties the entire clip and we see the disappointment in his and his children’s eyes. Following this scene, is the scene where Munny has a hard time getting on his horse, which becomes a recurring joke in the story, as his horse throws him off numerous times and we end up realizing that Munny is the embodiment of change; he is a man who has learned that the past must be left behind, that the past does not need to hold a special place in our lives unless we want it to, and yet…!
And yet Munny is the only character, along with Little Bill, that is still capable of being just as ruthless and cold-blooded as he was in his younger days. When called upon, Munny , unlike his long-time partner Ned, is the one who can still kill a person without batting an eye. Therefore, one might conclude that the ghost is chasing him, rather than the other way around. Munny is the victim of his own myth as he quickly finds out that no matter what one does, how one lives for a certain period of time, how one tries to introduce new values into his own life, the past will always expose a man’s true colors, just as it exposed English Bob’s cowardly side and Little Bill’s experienced one. The scars that haunt men like Munny are just as deep as those that have been inflicted on the poor prostitute’s face. When Munny finally meets the victim of the attack, the reason for his journey, the reason he was forced to retrieve his old habits, he is at a loss for words, and after a while admits to what we all found out throughout the course of the film: ”What I said the other day, you looking like me, that ain’t true. You ain’t ugly like me, it’s just that we both have got scars.”
While most Westerns have focused on the glamour, the appeal and the myth of the Wild West, Unforgiven decided to focus on the stitches that cover the deep wounds, the blood trickling through these stitches, the imperfections that have accompanied every man and woman who were forced to survive in such a brutal environment. Munny and Little Bill are on opposite sides of the conflict; one is there to set the rules straight, while the other is there to break them. However, if we take a close look at both of them, if we study their actions and their motives carefully, are their methods any different? Are their survival strategies divergent? Are these two men products of fact or fiction?