||In Unforgiven (1992) William
Munny (Clint Eastwood) is a hog farmer who travels the vengeance trail
from Kansas to Wyoming, picking up a family of “misfits” in the process
- a black farmer married to a Native American, a short-sighted kid with
growing pains, a victimised young prostitute called Delilah - and learns
to confront his own past along the way. That’s the first half of Unforgiven,
and it closely resembles The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976); then, when
Munny reaches his destination, he is transformed by circumstances into
a superhuman avenger who steps out of a thunderstorm to shoot down five
people before riding off into the wilderness. That’s the last section,
resembling High Plains Drifter(1972).
A frontier home, lone tree, golden sunset, and a man digging a gravesite are silhouetted on the horizon in the opening long-shot image. Narrative background scrolls up the screen after a few opening titles:
When she died, it was not at his hands as her mother might have expected, but of smallpox. That was 1878.The themes of revenge, honour, justice, corruption, mythic heroes against reality and the central brooding and complex message of the non-glamorous, painful nature of gunplay and violence are well delineated. With Unforgiven Clint Eastwood casts a stark, objective vision on the realities of the West after the gunsmoke from decades of Hollywood westerns has cleared. The narrative realistically de-mythologizes the grandeur and romanticism of the Western genre. There are no heroes in Eastwood’s scheme, only men and women whose flawed spirits take their toll on the flesh, their own and others. There’s good and bad evident in the best and worst of the people in Big Whiskey, but it’s the darkness - the darkness of vanity, revenge, money and death - that Unforgiven emphasises.
The philosophical core of Eastwood’s Unforgiven has to do with the question of free will. Eastwood’s westerns reverberate with the tragic dilemma of being human: the necessity of dreams and decisions, of trying to live rationally with honour, loyalty and courage; the irrelevance and impossibility of choice; the inevitability of fate, reality, the world. As in “Unforgiven”, the westerns controlling subtext concerns the dialectic of choice and fate, they are laced with a dark fatalism and grotesque incidents. Eastwood is less about transcendence and redemption, more about failure and survival.
The revisionist narrative expounded in Unforgiven reverses the progression of the earlier films by having its central character gradually revert to type as a gunfighter, instead of settling down in a little house on the prairie. It is as if Munny is reviewing the trajectory of the Western “hero” to take stock of how far the icon has travelled, eventually arriving at the heart of darkness. At the beginning of the film, Munny is always talking with regret and even contrition about “the things I done in the old days”, or “the sins of my youth”. There are running quips about Munny falling off his horse (“I ain’t really been in the saddle for a while”), and about the fact that he now needs a scattergun to stand a chance of hitting anything. It is made clear that Munny has become a sensitive single parent to his two children, dislikes cruelty to horses as well as to women, and has generally adapted to a new age.
David Webb Peoples’ script for Unforgiven dates back to the mid-70’s, written under the revisionist influence of The Wild Bunch and McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Unforgiven is punctuated with direct visual and verbal references to past Hollywood Westerns. Big Whiskey, with its snow-capped mountains in the background and its main street a sea of mud is just like the town in Shane. There are Rooster Cogburn style cracks, Munny’s two children are called Will and Penny, and the final section of the film mirrors Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident. These references seem to anchor Eastwood’s odyssey within a hallowed tradition, rather than undermine that tradition. The narrative adroitly employs many strategic devices: foreshadowing, irony, symmetry and symbolism (Hackman’s hollow sense of "home”), dialogue that means much more than it says. From the beginning theme is tied to action (the whore’s client turns violent because his “manhood” is mocked) and action to character. Its greatest strength is how it informs and above all is informed by the past.
“Where life had no value, death, sometimes, had its price…”The unshaven, cigar-smoking, poncho-clad Clint Eastwood character generally known as the Man With No Name - although he seems actually to be called Joe in Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars, 1964), Monco in Per qualche dollari in piu, (For A Few Dollars More, 1965)and Blondie in Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo (The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, 1966) - is essentially the same kind of mercenary killer as Cameron Mitchell in Garden of Evil (1954) Henry Hathaway - a cocky youth whose greed is not only sneered at by the straight-shooting, straight talking Western hero Gary Cooper but also by sardonic, flashily dressed gambler Richard Widmark. According to this film the bounty hunter ranks lower than the card sharp on the Western scale of citizenry. Eastwood’s character kills bandit-lowlifes for money, and is constantly calculating the reward each fatal shot will bring him. In the final sequences, Colonel Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) - motivated by the rape and murder of his sister - can walk away purged after the death of El Indio, but No Name, who has never been traumatised and feels no guilt, piles up the corpses in a cart and trundles off to collect the cash. In Per un pugno di dollari, No Name is a simple mercenary, but in the sequels he is more specifically a bounty hunter. In Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo, he is even an outlaw of sorts, continually catching, turning in, collecting the reward on a freeing Tuco (Eli Wallach), a Mexican bandit with whom he has a bizarre partnership. In these films, evil is such a caricature that there can be no doubt that every outlaw No Name shoots dead thoroughly deserves it. These are evil people and they deserve to be defeated, but their deaths are part of the heroes’ struggles with their own tormented souls. When Leone’s subhuman villains are outdrawn by No Name or Harmonica (“C’era una volta il West, 1968), the heroes are no more affected by their victory than if they had crushed a scorpion. The alienated, isolated, archetypal characters of Leone’s films are simply incapable of the complex, subtle, emotionally and physically tormented inter-relationships which characterize the groups brought together by the bounty hunt in classic Hollywood films. No Name would never throw away a valuable outlaw, dead or alive, never show emotion at the end of a fight, realising he has won nothing, or drift into an empty future after the chase, and therefore recognise his purpose in living is at an end.
Nevertheless, Leone does make some attempt to justify his choice of a bounty hunter for a hero. In Per qualche dollari in piu, No Name picks up his reward from offensive, unpleasant law official who has never bothered to risk his life to confront the various criminal entities existing in his jurisdiction. “Isn’t a sheriff supposed to be loyal, fearless and, above all, honest,” asks No Name, listing the qualities he himself possesses. “You people need a new sheriff.” The elaborate achievement of Leone’s Dollars trilogy is to create an imaginary West which needs the Man With No Name. Throughout all three films, No Name comes across situations where injustice has overwhelmingly prevailed - from the kidnapping of a poor farmer’s wife by the tyrannical and sadistic Rojo (Volonte) in Per un pugno di dollari to the senseless Civil War massacres taking place around a strategic bridge in Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo - and does his best to settle things in such a way that the innocent benefit and the evil suffer. Despite all the talk of cash and profit, and the frequent scenes of No Name pocketing his latest blood money, we never feel that the hero intends to spend his dollars on anything in particular. Indeed, at the beginning of each new film he, is penniless and on his mule again. The films may be cynical but, again by contrast with psychopathic ice-killers of later cinema, No Name is practically a sentimentalist.
It appears that Westerns that are principally concerned with the theme of violence tend to be the most violent, it is perhaps also true that they are likely to evidence a strong vein of masochism. The heroes in the films of Anthony Mann are frequently wounded in painful ways which go beyond the obvious purpose of providing a revenge motive. In his two Westerns - and several of his other films - Marlon Brando undergoes extreme degradation at the hands of sadistic enemies. In each case the emphasis falls on his pain rather than his tormentors’ pleasure. The symbolic wounds of course place the Westerner in a much older tradition of the mythic hero. The central contention with Western violence lies not with the inflexibility of the genre’s metaphor or the audience’s ability to interpret it, but with its immutability. The doomed outlaws in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) know that their way of life has come to an end, that they cannot change, and join together in a final confrontation which they cannot possibly survive. These are general and intelligible statements about life, of varying degrees of validity and complexity. One can detail them throughout the Western genre - but in each case a man, or several men lie dead in the street. This is the murderous algebra of the Western.
Moreover the Western has come in recent years to challenge the very concept of heroism - not necessarily to destroy it, but to bring its traditional nature into question. Perhaps the most marked characteristic of the genre since the early 50’s has been an increasing emphasis not upon victory and success but upon losing - the suggestion that to remain true to oneself will almost invariably result in defeat: this in a society traditionally committed to success, to winning. In Marlon Brando’s One Eyed Jacks (1961), a gunman suggests to the Mexican hero Rio that they should just go into town and kill their crooked opponent. “That’s not my style, Bob,” Rio replies. To which the gunman retorts, “Then you better change your style, cos your style’s a little slow.” What we see here is the notion of the hero becoming too good for this world. Instead of his triumph setting an example, his defeat and death become a rebuke to society. That is the message of most of Peckinpah’s films.
High Plains Drifter (1972), Eastwood’s first Western as director, is a tight little parable about a crisis in a community. As gravestone inscriptions in the town of Lago (painted red and renamed Hell by the phantom drifter) , the way Ernest Tidyman’s script is submitted to distortion and distension, and fitted with Bruce Surtees’ almost surreal images (and several twists of the ghostly revenge plot itself) makes clear Eastwood returns for reference to the popular Japanese cinema from which Sergio Leone first borrowed for the Dollars films. Lago is half-way between a Fordian pioneer settlement and the more abstract communities of Leone - townships where there’s hardly any sense of townspeople, areas for factional disputes or cruel contests of cupidity. Lago has some of that strangeness - but the core of the plot has to do with the economics of the place, the secret that three businessmen have buried (“for the good of everybody, that’s the price of progress”, as one of them says), and which leads to a flamboyant purgatorial punishment. And redemption: when the Stranger rides out, the town has been visited by hellfire but it’s still standing; one of its most redeemable citizens, a midget, is writing the inscription on a murdered man’s grave that will allow his soul - and the Stranger - to rest.
Eastwood’s use of a “ghost” town was of course by no means new, and indeed it is among the Western’s most compelling settings. The ghost town as the objective correlative of the impermanence of American life, a pessimistic feeling about the fragility of American civilization and its problem in putting down roots, is a forceful image. Numerous Westerns involve an inexorable journey toward a ghost town where the central characters are doomed to die or emerge denuded. In a more complex vein, the journey of self-discovery in Sam Peckinpah’s first film, The Deadly Companions(1961), is to a ghost town where the heroine can bury her dead son by her late husband, and those accompanying her can dispense with an unseen Apache dogging their trail and settle a blood feud left over from the Civil War. Likewise in John Sturges’ finest Western, The Law and Jake Wade (1958), the last third of the picture is set in an abandoned mining town, where buried in the graveyard is the stolen seizure which binds a reformed outlaw to his old gang.
The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) is a remarkable film which starts out as a revenge Western: Eastwood sees his family massacred and joins the Confederate guerrillas; after the Civil War, he is hunted by union soldiers while he pursues his family’s slayer and a friend apparently turned traitor. But slowly the film changes direction, until through a series of episodes it becomes a story of a man who rediscovers his role as a family man, as he befriends Native Americans and various strays and leads them to a kind of “paradise” where they can forget their individual pasts. In many ways it reflects themes of Hawkes’ Red River(1948), but visually The Outlaw Josey Wales is closer to Anthony Mann in its breathtaking survey of American landscapes and seasons.
The Outlaw Josey Wales also deals primarily with the establishment of the West - the title of Forrest Carter’s original novel is Gone to Texas - of a new society out of the remnants of several old ones. Josey is physically and emotionally scarred by the Union guerrillas who destroy his farm during the War, and subsequently is forced to become a Confederate -raider. When all his comrades accept a duplicitous offer of amnesty and “decent” treatment, he holds out only to witness their massacre. A twisted loner “Hell’s creation”. Josey stalks the West in “Man with No Name” fashion. Eventually, he reluctantly becomes the centre of a loose community - “Whenever I get to likin’ someone, they ain’t around,” Josey snarls, explaining his unwillingness to undertake emotional commitment. In reference to Josey’s avenging spirit, his Native American companion (Chief Dan George) counters, “I notice when you get to dislikin’ someone, they ain’t around long neither.” Josey picks up the survivors of a wagon train ambushed not by Indians but Comancheros, and takes refuge in a desolate ghost-town. In negotiations with Comanche chief Ten Bears (Will Sampson), Josey fosters a peace settlement - “I’m sayin’ that men can live together without butcherin’ each other.”
In the film’s conclusion, the War returns in the incarnated form of a hate-crazed Yankee (Bill McKinney) who loses the final showdown. Josey’s former commander (John Vernon), upon whom he has theoretically been seeking revenge and who is supposed to be tracking him down, agrees to report that the outlaw Josey Wales is dead, and that the War is over. Josey, now fully integrated into the provisional township of Santa Rio, concurs, “I guess we all died a little in that damn war,” his neurosis put behind him.
Landscape is an integral part of the Western both as an ingredient in the genre’s popular appeal and for its role in shaping dramatic action. The Western film is most effective when it successfully transcends the simply picturesque. Certain directors have established their personal landscape in the West. The most notable and best known is John Ford’s Monument Valley, straddling Arizona and Utah in the Navajo Reservation with its cathedral-like buttes and mesas rising out of the flat red desert, where eight of Ford’s Westerns have been made. Monument Valley provided Ford with what is universally regarded as his own moral universe. Other directors too have created their own worlds - Anthony Mann for the most part favoured lush prairie and beautiful hill country and tended to reserve denuded or snow-covered settings for his most severe dramatic statements. The location of the Westerner in the landscape is a matter of paramount importance, and there are relatively few films which do not begin with the single man or a group of men riding through the countryside. This is true even in those movies largely set in towns where the sense of place is implied, by the dusty streets reaching out to the limitless surrounding tracts, a feeling evoked by shots down the main street in Rio Bravo(1959) and by the railroad disappearing in the heat haze in High Noon (1952). Both Rio Bravo and High Noon are prefaced by people riding into town - in each case these are visitors and not the marshals, for were it to be otherwise, the resident law men played by Wayne and Cooper would be detached from the communities which they embody. In another town-centred Western, The Gunfighter (1950) Henry King, the person we see crossing the desert at the beginning, indeed almost the only person we see riding alone in the countryside at any time, is Gregory Peck as the doomed gunslinger, the man on the move whose arrival is a sure sign of disruption in the community.
The contrast between open land and the town, between the illusion of freedom and the necessity of compromise, between a relaxed association with nature and a tense accommodation to society, lies at the centre of the Western genre. Certainly the mood of a Western is established at the outset by the way a director places the protagonists in relationship to the surroundings, and in recent years the approach to this question has become increasingly self-conscious. The manner in which the detached, buckskin-clad Alan Ladd almost drifts down out of the mountain in George Steven’s Shane (1953) could scarcely be more calculated.
“I used Bruce Surtees in The Outlaw Josey Wales because his photography has a hard light effect and I wanted that. I wanted to backlight the whole movie; a lot of guys are afraid to do it…It’s very easy to do it if you shoot in the fall. It’s the best time to shoot a Western: the sun stays low and you’ve got cross-light; it’s not overhead and flat all the time…The first part of the film showed a kind of idyllic light; then all of a sudden it goes very sombre. Then it gets to a nicer tone as his life gets better - he’s going from a loser to a winner.”Vietnam seems to have a direct influence over the narrative in Josey Wales - themes concerning the binding up of the wounds of the war. Part of it’s richness is to do with a “humanising” of the Man with No Name and part with Eastwood’s re-adaptation of the American Western, incorporating contemporary changes in society as metaphors - the genre had entered its own critical/apocalyptic/self-castigating mode, influenced by Vietnam, by notions of “social banditry”, and by changing views on how the West was won.
In the wake of the ignominious latter days of the Vietnam war and the Watergate revelations of presidential corruption, western narratives of frontier “madness” seemed to embody far more than a local dimension. Certain western films connect to a widespread cultural desire to expose the sickness at the heart of American life by looking hard into the gory past to illuminate, if not entirely explain, the brutal present. It was as if the key to unlocking a deep and ongoing psychosis might be located in what these films could never quite show and the characters could never quite say: that violence and dementia are as American as apple pie.
It is unsurprising that this demythologisation should have focused on the frontier, the vainglorious attempt to tame the wilderness that was Americanism’s founding myth. If the analysis of pioneer life reveals the settling of the West to have been not the manifest destiny of civilising white man but a site of atavistic mayhem as destructive to the self as to any others who crossed its path, then surely any attempt to mobilise such values to underwrite the country’s self-appointed mandate as policeman of the free world must be exposed as hypocritical at best and genocidal at worst.
This profound scepticism about Horace Greeley’s exhortation to “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country” was present in many films which depicted the moral immaturity of the kind of young men who would once have been heroic Westerners. In McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971) the protagonist’s quest to establish a brothel in the knowingly named frontier town Presbyterian Church; his madam is an opium addict, the church burns down and he eventually gives up the ghost in an engulfing snow drift. In Bad Company (Robert Benton, 1972) a group of cocksure runaway kids empties round after round of their Colt 45’s into a hapless jack rabbit. In Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid(Sam Peckinpah, 1973) the father of the pioneer family blasts away meaninglessly from their steamboat at bottles thrown by his son into a river; when Garret joins in the shooting contest uninvited the bearded patriarch suspiciously narrows his eyes and levels his rifle at the sheriff'’s head until they sail out of range. In Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973 - set in the 50s but still very much a frontier film) a teenage youth cuts a murderous swathe, his brutal actions immortalised through the uncomprehending diary entries of his female companion. In Missouri Breaks (Arthur Penn, 1976) a proud cattleman rides through the vast landscape he owns, lecturing his suitably impressed young companion on his Herculean labours to establish a ranch in this wilderness before we realise he’s escorting this rustler to a “necktie party”. All these films have in common the cinematically revisionist assertion that the attempt to transform the desert into a garden - the underlying structural principle of much Western fiction - exacted a fatally destructive toll upon colonisers and colonised alike, that it was nothing less than hubristic madness.
In Eastwood’s Pale Rider (1985) all the elements of a revision of Western mythology were combined: the rugged location realism, Bruce Surtees’ photography throwing shadows and gloom over everything, and a sense both of Westerns past (the child’s attachment to an impossible hero, out of Shane) and of their recent rewriting (the plot, about miners trying to buck the “system” in a company town, is not unlike McCabe). What is original is a fresh perspective on the Western hero and the presence of Eastwood: the director has stylised his own incarnation to the extent that, instead of being a negative pole to which the other characters can react positively, he leaves enigmatic vacant spaces in the plot and thematic progression. Even as a wraith, a wish-fulfilment hero, the Preacher should connect more than he does. Is he another version (the spirit) of the heroine’s missing husband; is he the alter ego. The “shade”, of the villainous lawman he must ultimately confront? The most resonant connection between William Munny and the Eastwood icon is a sense of negation. That final disappearance, and prior to it the mystery of whom and what Munny is, exemplify an actor whose speciality is not being there. He is the Man with No Name in the Italian Westerns and a literal wraith in two of his US productions (High Plains Drifter, 1972; Pale Rider, 1985). The American Western could never be the same, in its optimism, its Puritanism, its complacency, after Eastwood fused its with a European model, with a hero so extreme in his cynicism, his aloofness, his Latin ruthlessness. But for the Western, and Eastwood as an American director, to go any further, the Man with No Name had to be found a place, transformed, or simply revealed as someone who had no reason for being there, who really was an absence present.
“Those [the Spaghetti Westerns] were fun pictures, but they were stylised and operatic and the story didn’t mean too much. It was mostly satire, with a character that comes along and events happen - the character really hasn’t much feeling as to where he’s been or where he’s going. At least not to the same degree as a Josey Wales-type character, who’s a victim and a warrior trying to escape conflict, but conflict keeps trailing him. Or like this character, William Munny, whose conscience is killing him”.Unforgiven even more artfully raises questions about its hero, without on this occasion the pretence of the supernatural. And it convincingly describes a Western town as a violent, muddy hellhole, without pretending that it really is hell and that only an avenging angel can put the world to rights. At the climax of Pale Rider, when the devilish lawman who has been brought in to subdue the miners comes face to face with the preacher, there is a moment of recognition, which appears as two old adversaries squaring off for the last time, but is more like a man already dead confronting the spectre that has long haunted him. In Unforgiven, this “recognition” is a theme played throughout the film. It is, primarily, the relationship between William Munny, the ex-gunfighter who claims now to be a reformed character drawn back into violence only by hard times, and a sheriff known as “Little Bill”. Himself an ex-gunman, now a strict law enforcer who despises the cheap glorification of violence in dime novels - and played by Gene Hackman - Little Bill eventually dispenses the most sadistic violence in the film.
“I’ve always been interested in mythical characters - though the Jehovah-like avenger of “Pale Rider” is quite different from Munny. Munny has a lot of demons: when he gets ill, he visits hell in hallucinations that realise a lot of feelings - including the memory of his wife who straightened out his life for a period of time. He’s constantly trying to talk himself into thinking he’s worthy. He and Little Bill are very much alike, but Little Bill has the advantage of acting in the name of the law”.At the beginning of Unforgiven, Eastwood appears initially as a partial almost minor character in the grand narrative arc: Gene Hackman, Richard Harris (English Bob) and Morgan Freeman (Ned Logan) are each allocated a major proportion of screen time. But as he strides into the Big Whiskey whore house in his long coat, his hat pulled down over his eyes, with the famous Eastwood scowl on his face - the first in the film - and spits out the words, “Who’s the fella owns this shit hole?” we are left in no doubt that all his fine resolutions have diminished. It’s a supreme cinematic sequence, and visually this reversal is photographed (by Jack N. Green, protégé of Bruce Surtees) as a series of harsh, stark contrasts: the farm and the initial journey in crisp, bright sunlight, the town in rain and murk and darkness which appears to have become Eastwood’s pictorial trademark.
Violence in Unforgiven diverts from the straightforward provocation-reaction narrative line that has characterised Eastwood’s past work, taking a more deviously expanding and all-inclusive course. It begins when a prostitute in the mountain town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, laughs at a cowboy’s “Teensy little pecker”; he draws a knife and cuts up her face. The brothel madam, Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher), thinks that hanging would be a fit punishment. When Little Bill, who is first going to whip the cowboy and his partner, decides instead to “fine” them seven ponies (because the brothel owner is mostly upset by the damage to what he considers “property”), the outraged prostitutes pool their resources to put up a bounty on the two cowboys.
Munny is approached with the offer by a cocky but shortsighted young gunfighter (Jaimz Woolvett); taking along his equally elderly ex-partner Ned Logan, he heads for Big Whiskey and a final orgy of violence. The hero is then, pulled along by other forces, other characters, much as he was in The Outlaw Josey Wales. But Unforgiven goes further, opening out doubts about what the hero has become, about what he was, so that the Josey Wales progression from farmer to killer to guide and potential farmer again becomes a series of circling conundrums.
The notion of the journey is central to many Western genres. In each case, the journey serves to isolate the characters from society at the same time as it binds them together as a miniature social group. All journey stories have a psychological side, with the attainment of a destination also signalling the characters’ working-through of their own problems, neuroses or character changes. In these films the journeys are usually undertaken by men who feel they have some compulsion deriving form personal or professional reasons. Anthony Mann’s James Stewart heroes in Winchester ‘73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur and The Man From Laramie (1955) are all out to avenge some past wrong and to escape from their earlier selves, and in each case achieve some psychological wholeness by killing villains they see as the worst part of themselves. In Winchester ‘73, the villain (Stephen McNally) is literally Stewart’s evil brother, but in the later films, rather more interestingly, they are like Mcnally’s outlaw associate Dan Duryea. Played wittily by Ryan or Arthur Kennedy, these bad guys are ostensibly appealing gunmen who have many admirable qualities - they are all more flexible and humorous than the grim Stewart - but whose charm goes along with moral laxness and a spiteful violence that the hero, no matter to what extreme he has been pushed, cannot countenance. One of the most admirable qualities of Mann’s films is their psychologically and geographically precise matching of landscape - different in each film - to the storyline and the characters, as if the terrain of the West, the one constant of the genre, were truly shaping the concerns of the films.
The allegorical journey where the landscape itself seems to determine and reflect the film’s dramatic development is a common enough phenomenon and never more perfectly realised than in Anthony Mann’s Man of the West (1958). The film begins with a reformed outlaw, Link Jones (Gary Cooper), warily entering an unfamiliar town to make a train journey, the object of which is to hire a schoolteacher for the remote Texas community in which he lives. He is thus a man already redeemed and accommodated to settled ways, unlike the heroes of earlier Mann Westerns. But the implication of the film is that he has merely broken with the past, set it aside, has not exorcised it. The train is attacked by bandits and he is stranded with a saloon singer and an unsuccessful gambler. Suspecting that his old gang was responsible for the hold-up, he leads his two companions to the only shelter he knows in the vicinity, an abandoned farmhouse where, sure enough, the gang is waiting, led by the “disturbed” Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb) and his sons, who are in effect the only family the younger Link had ever known.
Returning to this parody of a homestead and caricature of a family, standing amid hospitable green countryside which no one farms and on which no cattle graze, Link is forced to accompany the Tobin gang on their last venture - the robbery of the successful bank at the mining town of Lasso - before they head across the border into Mexican exile. As they progress, the atmosphere becomes increasingly tense, Tobin’s behaviour ever more erratic; habitable land gives way to desert as they move further away from civilization, culminating in the discovery that Lasso is now a dry, decaying ghost town. Here Link must make his final settlement with his “brothers” and his “insane” surrogate father, whose last destructive act is to rape the captive saloon girl. Man of the West may be over-extended, but few Westerns can match its integration of location, dramatic development and moral progress.
Eastwood’s Munny reminisces with his old colleague, Ned about when he “was one crazy son-of-a-bitch” and how he has nightmares of his past crimes. But now he has become fully human like everyone else:
Munny: I ain’t like that no more…I ain’t the same, Ned. Claudia, she straightened me up, cleared me of drinkin’ whiskey and all. Just cause we’re goin’ on this killing, that don’t mean I’m gonna go back to bein’ the way I was. I just need the money, get a new start for them youngsters…Ned, you remember that drover I shot through the mouth and his teeth came out the back of his head…I think about him now and again. He didn’t do anything to deserve to get what, at least nothin’ I could remember when I sobered up…Yeah, no one liked me. Mountain boys all thought I was gonna shoot ‘em out of pure meanness…Through most of Unforgiven, Munny is protesting that he has reformed, that his dead wife Claudia had shown him the error of his ways, turned him into a virtuous husband, a caring father, and a hardworking farmer. His reminiscences with Ned Logan about the old days are recounted in horror at the shootin’, drinkin’, killin’ feller he once was. This regret however, does not resonate with the Munny incarnation, to the extent that it is a relief when he eventually shed this reformed self, accepts the burden of the past that people keep thrusting at him - a “known thief and murderer”, the killer of women and children, “more cold-bloodied than William Bonney” - and takes the vengeance trail.
Munny identifies himself as he has always been remembered, conforming to his reputation as the meanest and most fearsome killer that he is expected to fulfill:
Munny: I’ve killed women and children. I’ve killed just about everything that walked at one time or another, and I’m here to kill you, Little Bill, for what you did to Ned.Munny’s grim mission of “moral” revenge, in loyalty to Ned, metamorphoses him. He eventually does all that might be expected of “The Man with No Name”, and then he rides out of Big Whiskey, in a thunderstorm, as wraith-like as the Stranger or the Preacher. As he leaves, he emits a stream of curses and invective that suggests the black eminence of his legend, the hyperbole of his reputation that, in a final twist, he plays into with grim resignation: “I’m comin’ out! Any son-of-a-bitch takes a shot at me, not only gonna kill him, I’m gonna kill his wife! And all his friends…burn his damn house down! You better not cut up nor otherwise harm no whores! Or I’ll come back and kill every one of you sons-of-bitches!”
Unforgiven categorically acts to enhance the Eastwood persona. That persona is turned into a fully developed character - which means it is then opened up to other doubts and ambiguities, because for the first time this persona joins the same world as the other characters and is compared with and even doubled by them. Eastwood's William Munny could be the laconic and mercenary Man with No Name, now aged and mellow and mournfully looking back, finally feeling the pain his recklessness had caused others. Unforgiven tries hard to emphasise that it’s heroic (rather than anti-heroic) protagonist is, as he puts it, “just a fella now; I ain’t no different than anyone else no more.” In this respect the narrative closely resembles The Shootist (1976).
Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) follows the doomed exploits of an outlaw gang, pursued by bounty hunters and betrayed by a ruthless Mexican dictator, to paint a rich, brutal portrait of a male group consciously meeting with death in a last act of defiance against a world where money buys honour and the machine gun is ousting the rifle. The Wild Bunch opens with a group of children dropping scorpions into an ants’ nest, and then proceeds to establish that almost everyone in the town Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his crew plan to loot is either a hypocrite or corrupt. The posse Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) is forced to lead as he tracks the Bunch consists of sub-normal degenerates who shoot anything in their path and try to claim a reward on it. By contrast, even the Gorch brothers (Ben Johnson and Warren Oates), the most repulsive of the Bunch, are nearly humane. If the Law is compromised, because it is owned by Mexican murderers in uniform like Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) or American fraudulent businessmen like Harrigan (Albert Dekker), then the only “honest” course of action is to be an outlaw. Peckinpah’s vision, and his slow-motion violence proved significantly influential, and the post - Wild Bunch West has featured many clashes between brutal but somehow redeemed (by their honesty, honour or humour) outlaws and corrupt, perverse, dangerous lawmen.
Unforgiven. The stark title, without benefit of an article, suggests a judgement as fully “religious” as in any other Eastwood film, and even more widely inclusive. Is Big Whiskey, and all who live there, less redeemable than the town of Lago in High Plains Drifter? The question doesn’t arise. “I’ll see you in hell, William Munny”, says the dying Little Bill, but we’re not encouraged to think that Big Whiskey, like Lago, could stand in here and now for hell. It’s no better or worse than could be expected, or as Munny sums it up for his younger companion, turning a sense of religious doom into mere pragmatism: “We all have it comin’, kid”.
In the final postscript symmetrical to the first image in the film, Munny’s frontier home is silhouetted on the sun-setting horizon. Laundry dangles and flaps in the breeze on a clothesline. He walks towards the gravestone of his departed wife Claudia and stands above it to pay respects. (Her presence beyond the grave neatly bookends the film’s narrative arc.) The following block of text scrolls up over the screen. When the text has finished its crawl, the figure of Munny disappears.
Some years later, Mrs. Antonia Feathers made the arduous journey to Hodgeman County to visit the last resting-place of her only daughter.
William Munny had long since disappeared with the children…some said to San Francisco where it was rumoured he prospered in dry goods.
1. Combs, R. (1992) “Shadowing the Hero” in Sight and Sound, October 1992 volume 2 issue 6. Return
2. Koegh, P. (1992) “Ghostly Presences” in Sight and Sound, October 1992 volume 2 issue 6. Return
3. Koegh, P. (1992) “Ghostly Presences” in Sight and Sound, October 1992 volume 2 issue 6. Return
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