One of My Favourites… UNFORGIVEN
I was raised on Clint Eastwood Westerns. My father was a huge fan himself and introduced me to Eastwood’s oeuvre at a young age. For a young boy growing up in a cold, wet, bustling city in England these visions of the desolate scorched plains of the Wild West were mind blowing. These dusty worlds of bar fights, and hold ups, shoot outs, and stampedes, outlaws and sheriffs. I’d never seen films so alive. So I devoured all I could find, meeting John Wayne in The Searchers, and Gary Cooper in High Noon, Franco Nero in Django, and Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West. But it was the Eastwood Westerns I liked the most. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve seen The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider, High Plains Drifter, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Two Mules for Sister Sara, and even lesser fare like Joe Kid. I loved them all, because Eastwood’s films, be it those he directed or those he simply starred in, had a realness to them. The worlds we visited in those films felt lived in. Populated by real people. Think of Hul and the miners in Pale Rider, or Lone Watie and the old woman from The Outlaw Josey Wales. They grounded the films, made them believable, which is important in an Eastwood Western because the characters Eastwood himself often played were larger than life forces of nature, and spirits of vengeance. An Eastwood Western had a fascinating duality, encompassing both the realistic hard toil of life at the time, and the almost magical myths and legends of the heroes who would ride into towns and change them forever.
Of all of Eastwood’s films, the one I watch most frequently is Unforgiven. If I had to say why I return to it as often as I do, besides it simply being a great film, is that Unforgiven is an insightful rumination on the Western genre and Eastwood’s place within it. It is the final word on that part of his career, encapsulating everything special about his past works into one cohesive whole. It is a revisionist Western, crawling around in the literal and moral muck, and yet somehow also mythic, finding a way to acknowledge some of the old fashioned romantic notions about the West. It, as Eastwood himself said at the time, “summarizes everything I feel about the Western.” It is his elegy for the genre that he helped popularise, and that popularised him.
The film opens on a setting sun. Silhouetted against that golden hued backdrop are a house and a man. The man appears to be digging a grave.
It starts with a story. Or to be more specific, it starts with her story.
“She was a comely young woman and not without prospects. Therefore it was heartbreaking to her mother that she would enter into marriage with William Munny, a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition. When she died, it was not at his hands as her mother might have expected but of smallpox. That was 1878.”
It doesn’t tell us her name, although we will learn it, but here, when her story is told for the first time, it keeps her name from us. That is because she is more than a woman. Who she is doesn’t matter so much as what she is. And what she is, specifically to her husband, a known murderer and vicious man, is salvation. She is referenced numerous times throughout the film and each time she is spoken of with great reverence. She cured William Munny of drink and wickedness, her powers seemingly magical. She becomes larger than life, a mythic force of change for her husband. We are told in no uncertain terms that Munny was a known killer. His reputation would precede him wherever he tried to go. She was his escape from that, and for all intents and purposes, he was tamed. Much like the old West itself.
By 1878 the sun was setting on the era of the gunslinger. The outlaws and hired guns of old had become legends, towering figures whose (often greatly exaggerated) stories would live on for generations. William Munny, we are told, was one of these men, but when we meet Munny for the first time, a character named The Schofield Kid voices what we are all thinking: “You don’t look like no rootin-tootin, son of a bitchin, cold blooded assassin.”
Munny is falling around in the muck getting roughed up by a bunch of feverish pigs. He is not the imposing figure we were anticipating, a man “as cold as the snow, and don’t have no weak nerve, or fear.” This unexpected first impression applies to both William Munny and Clint Eastwood himself. Clint looks old, a little haggard, and a little softer, his stare lacking that famous piercing glare. Eastwood isn’t playing the mythical unstoppable force here, he isn’t the personification of the West’s wild spirit. He is a man. An old man. When he tries to fire his gun he can’t shoot worth a damn. He can’t even get up on his horse. After falling off for what seems like the hundredth time he turns, almost directly to camera, and says “Ain’t hardly been in the saddle myself.” This is both Clint and Munny acknowledging their prolonged absence from the world their legend is so rooted in.
The Schofield Kid has come looking for Munny to bring him in on a job. In the town of Big Whisky, Wyoming, a group of prostitutes have pooled together their money to put a bounty out on two cowboys that cut up one of their own. “They cut her face, cut her eyes out, cut her ears off, hell, they even cut her teats.” We know the Kid’s version of the story to be more than a little embellished. In Unforgiven the stories we are told are never accurate, always one side or the other from the truth. This is where much of the film’s focus lies, on the myths and legends that surrounded this time, as well as the darker truths behind them. Everybody in the film is constructing, deconstructing, or actively avoiding their story, the legend that will survive them after they’ve gone. The Kid is constantly confronting Munny with the violent legacy that he will leave behind, “Uncle Pete says you was the meanest god damned son of a bitch alive, and if I ever wanted a partner for a killing you were the worst one… meaning the best.” Even though his wife granted him a shelter from that life, and that world, his legend remained out there, circulating, and growing. William Munny the legend waits out there in the dark to one day catch up with William Munny the man.
The Schofield Kid hasn’t lived the life that Munny has, and sees a life of violence and crime in a romantic light. They’d be a couple of rouges going out to bring justice to some no good cowboys and restore a lady’s honour. Not to be left out he tells Munny his story, that he is also a killer of repute, and tales of his exploits have earned him the name The Schofield Kid, on account of his Schofield Smith and Wesson. The Kid’s story is, of course, entirely fabricated. Everybody in Unforgiven is trying to sell themselves on a lie. The Kid sells himself as a killer, Munny sells himself as a reformed man, and the film’s chief antagonist, Sheriff Little Bill Daggett, sells himself as a good man, a lawman who is tough but fair.
If Little Bill’s self perception was accurate then justice would have been fairly meted out to the two cowboys who cut up the prostitute Delilah, which would have prevented the rest of the women feeling the need to put out a bounty on the men, which would have saved the town of Big Whisky from the wrath that would eventually befall it. It is Bill’s inability to see the women as nothing more than property that kick starts the bloody chain of events. Bill’s ideas on right and wrong have become perverted and distorted by the way he sees himself and the world. As far as Bill is concerned, these two men that held down a defenceless woman and repeatedly slashed at her face aren’t bad men “they were just hard working boys who were foolish.” He fines them a couple of horses to be paid to Skinny, the town pimp, and the owner of the damaged girl. Property for property. Justice is served, as far as Bill is concerned.
What is especially interesting about Little Bill is that despite his ideas about justice and about himself being as lopsided and full of holes as the house he is building, he is actually the film’s primary tool of demystifying the legends and myths that surround many of the other characters. Bill may not be able to see his own hypocrisy, but he can see straight through it in others. This is most clearly demonstrated in Bill’s scenes with English Bob, the first man who rides into town attempting to collect the bounty.
English Bob and his companion Mr. Beauchamp are in the film for a number of story and thematic reasons, but principally they are used to discuss the power of legend. When we first meet Bob he is coming into town on the train and is talking to a number of passengers about the recent shooting of their president. He posits that the country should select a king or queen instead of a president, as a king or queen has a larger than life, mythic quality behind them, “there’s a dignity in royalty. A majesty which precludes the likelihood of assassination.” Where as a president is no more than a man, and as Bob later says, “Now a president? I mean, why not shoot a president?” In Bob’s experience, to carry a large enough reputation is to become invulnerable. This is proven to him by the fact that the man on the train whom Bob offends is dissuaded from engaging in any sort argument with him based solely on Bob’s reputation as a hired gun, “He’s the one who works for the railroad shooting Chinamen. Might be he’s just waiting for some cowboy to touch his pistol so he can shoot him down.” English Bob the legend finishes fights before English Bob the man is even in them. Bob sees the power in this and so has recruited Mr. Beauchamp, a writer of pulp stories romanticising the Wild West, to bolster his already notorious reputation. If Mr. Beauchamp decides to take some artistic license with the details, then all the better.
But Bob gets into trouble when he arrives in Big Whisky because Little Bill knows English Bob the man, and therefore knows where the man ends and the legend begins. Bill disarms Bob and beats him to a bloody pulp, sending a message to any other men with intentions on collecting the bounty. English Bob in no way resembles what Bill would call a good man, which gives Bill free reign to be as vicious as he likes. He relishes the opportunity for violence, and performs to the crowd. In Bill’s eyes this is a moment of heroism. This is who he is, and what he lives for, crushing men he deems as unworthy. English Bob doesn’t put up a fight, nor does he later when a loaded gun is actually put right in front of him. Once the legend crumbles, so does the man. And that’s what Bill does. He deconstructs the legends and myths of violent men. In the jailhouse after the fight Bill pulls Bob apart for Beauchamp, revealing the unflattering truths behind the many myths and stories that surround English Bob.
Whilst Bill is explaining how many of the stories surrounding these outlaws and killers are greatly exaggerated, if not outright lies, the film cuts to the Kid enquiring about one of Munny’s stories, about how Munny gunned down two armed men who had him dead to rights. Munny, as he has done throughout the film, downplays the story, claiming he doesn’t remember. But Ned, Munny’s old partner that has come along for the ride, does remember the story, and remembers it being three men Munny shot, not two. The film cuts from one instance of a man’s legend being wildly overblown, to an example of another man’s legend failing to do the truth justice. Yet what we are being told is the truth sounds inconceivable. How could William Munny, a man we’ve seen portrayed as nothing but incompetent, be capable of such feats? The film cuts back to Little Bill who then proceeds to illuminate Beauchamp on the true nature of gun fighting. Being quick on the draw, something that legend tells us all the best gunfighters were, as well as being a good shot “they don’t do no harm, but it don’t mean much next to being cool headed.” Bill has an entire speech detailing the ways in which staying calm under fire trumps speed and skill. This scene not only adds plausibility to Munny’s story we heard previously, but also foreshadows the confrontation at Skinny’s bar at the film’s end. That scene allows the film to have its cake and eat it. In keeping with its revisionist leanings it brushes away the myths about the crack shot, lightning fast gunmen, but at the same time makes it seem feasible that a lone shooter could come out on top against multiple assailants.
Munny, Ned and the Kid get caught in a torrential downpour and by the time they arrive in Big Whisky Munny is extremely sick. He’s plagued by fevered visions of his dead wife and the angel of death. It’s in this state that Little Bill finds him. Bill, seeing a bad man in front of him, once again revels at the chance to inflict a little “justice”. Ned and the Kid escape out the back but Munny is badly beaten as he’s too ill to defend himself. Ned patches him up and once the Kid finds out that Munny didn’t even draw his pistol on Little Bill he finally sees William Munny the way the film has portrayed him the whole time, not as a cold blooded killer, but as an old pig farmer.
By the grace of god, or simple good luck, as well as some provisions from Delilah and the other girls from town, Munny gets better and the three of them set about collecting the bounty. When it comes to killing the first of the cowboys Ned realises he can’t do it. It turns out Ned is the only character who wasn’t lying about himself, all the times he said he’d changed, he was telling the truth. Munny has to shoot the cowboy. He does, and he dies. Ned can’t be a part of what they’re doing so he leaves. Unbeknownst to Munny Ned is soon picked up by men working for Little Bill who torture Ned for information. Out on the Bar-T The Kid wants to prove himself so he convinces Munny to let him kill the second cowboy. Munny has no objections. Once they get away the Kid reflects on what he’s done. The guilt crushes him. “It don’t seem real. How he ain’t gonna never breathe again, ever. And the other one, too. All on account of pulling a trigger.” The Kid, who had romanticised murder into a heroic act, can’t deal with the reality of the situation. He attempts to lie to himself one last time, “Well, I guess they had it coming.” But Munny explodes that notion with a single line, “We all have it coming, kid.”
One of the girls from town rides up with payment for Munny and the Kid and after a little conversation Munny hears that Ned is dead. Little Bill tortured him to death, but not before finding out who Munny really is. “The same William Munny that dynamited the Rock Island and Pacific in ’69 killing women and children and all.” As Munny hears this he starts drinking, something he has avoided for the film’s duration. Munny asks for the Kid’s Schofield. He heads into town.
The final confrontation is a typical Act Three moment, and ends almost every Western I can think of. But there are specifics to Unforgiven’s climactic shootout that make it stand out. When Munny steps through the doors of Skinny’s bar and raises his shotgun at Little Bill and his posse it is an electrifying moment. Munny steps out of the shadow and for the first time we see him. The real him. The William Munny we had been warned about. But we see more than that. His grimace is etched in stone. His fiery, piercing eyes burn holes through the screen. His voice a terrifying, guttural growl as he explains “I’ve killed just about anything that walked or crawled at one time or another, and I’m here to kill you, Little Bill.” In his fevered coma the William Munny his wife created died, and the man she helped bury has come crawling back to the surface. There he stands, the high plains drifter, the pale rider, the outlaw Josey Wales, the man with no name. William Munny reconciles with the ghosts of Clint Eastwood’s past, the legends he carries with him. In that moment Clint summons his entire on-screen history and you see the difference between iconic and Icon.
Munny blasts away and guns down anyone that moves. He isn’t faster, he’s just beyond being rattled or shook. He stays calm, cool headed as Bill said earlier, and does what he came there to do. Kill the men who killed his friend. Once the bullets have stopped flying Beauchamp attempts to get details from Munny, but Munny isn’t interested. He doesn’t need to play up or exaggerate his reputation. The blood chilling legend of William Munny is all true, and that’s what he’s spent the whole film trying to avoid, that’s what his dear departed wife offered him respite from: Himself.
Munny stands over Bill, who is bleeding out from a gut shot, and levels his rifle at Bill. Little Bill tells Munny “I don’t deserve this. To die like this” and Munny responds “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” It’s such a memorable moment because both men are right. This isn’t a confrontation between good and evil. Little Bill is no worse than any of the men in Unforgiven. He’s certainly no worse than William Munny. But the Western genre allows any man, even the worst of them, given the right situation, the opportunity to paint themselves as the hero. And that’s what Munny does. He leaves his preteen children at home alone to fend for themselves while he goes off to kill two men for money. In doing so he gets his closest friend killed. Munny’s most heroic act is to give in to his deepest darkest demons in order to avenge him. The moral complexity in this film is extraordinary. It doesn’t matter if Bill deserves it or not, it is simply what has to happen. The spirit of the West, what Eastwood has always been, and what Munny has now become, always gets its man. Throughout the film we are shown that violence breeds violence, and the film severely critiques killing, but after the bloodbath in the saloon and as Munny rides out of town he shouts at the surviving towns folk to bury Ned right. He warns them against cutting up whores. And as the camera moves slowly in on his face, and the lighting strikes, with the American flag blowing behind him, Munny roars “or I’ll come back and kill every one of you sons of bitches.”
William Munny rides out of town, dragging with him the spirit of Eastwood’s legacy, and leaving behind him nothing but death, and somehow it feels like good won out. We know it didn’t, not really. This is a world as murky and muddy as the muck Munny’s horse is wading through, where good and evil couldn’t possibly apply. But it feels right. We want to believe it. The last shot is much the same as the first. The sun sets over a house and Munny stands beside his wife’s grave. Is he confessing? Apologising? He buries his legend, the real William Munny, the man we saw in Big Whisky, and goes back to pretending he’s the William Munny his wife created. Throughout the film we meet characters that chose to believe in the lies, myths and legends that cast them as the heroes of their own stories. English Bob, the Kid, and Little Bill all decide to believe something about themselves that just isn’t true. Munny is doing something similar, but what his wife offered him wasn’t the chance to believe he was a hero, but that he just wasn’t the monster everyone said he was. It’s here that the film straddles two opposing points of view, the real and the idealised, the truth and the myth. William Munny is the Clint Eastwood Western. He is both the revisionist, realistic, hard to swallow Western full of difficult moral quandaries, and he is the romanticised Western where good triumphs over evil. Even if the evil is in himself.
And as Munny buries his ghosts, so Eastwood buries his, laying them to rest after summoning them one final time.