Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s 1992 swan song to the Western, opens with an act of indisputable evil when Mike (David Mucci)—a ranch hand spending some off hours in the town of Big Whisky, Wyoming—repeatedly cuts the face of Delilah (Anna Thomson), a young prostitute who laughed about the size of his penis. It’s the film’s last morally unambiguous moment, one that itself keeps ambiguity close at hand. Delilah is clearly a victim and Mike clearly a criminal, but what of Davey (Rob Campbell), a fellow ranch hand Mike orders to hold Delilah during the assault? David Webb Peoples’ screenplay reads, “Davey is reluctant about the whole thing but he is afraid of Mike and he gets behind Delilah and grabs her,” but the way Eastwood shoots the moment makes it unclear how aware Davey is of what’s happening, or how actively he’s holding Delilah. His grip looks loose, and after the first slash, he starts to move away, pushing Mike, ineffectively and halfheartedly, as he flees. Without fully realizing what’s going on, he gets swept up in events beyond his control.
The moment, like most of the film, is shrouded in darkness, and the violence happens so fast, it’s hard to comprehend how much damage has been done until the blood starts to flow. It’s over in a flash, and yet it never really ends. In the scenes that follow, Big Whisky sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), after threatening the offenders with a whipping, orders the same punishment for both Mike and Davey: a fine of five ponies from Mike, and two from Davey. It’s a callous dismissal of the hurt inflicted on Delilah, but also an attempt to punish bloodshed with something other than more bloodshed. It fails. Delilah’s fellow prostitutes deem the punishment inadequate and seek justice of their own by offering a generous bounty to anyone who will kill the men. From there, the reverberations of the crime fan out across the West, attracting the attention of those willing to kill for money. And some who used to be.
Peoples wrote Unforgiven in the 1970s—inspired in part by Glendon Swarthout’s novel The Shootist and in part by Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver—and his script kicked around Hollywood for years as The William Munny Killings. That title could double as one of the books written by W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), a dime-novel chronicler of the American West who rolls into Big Whisky alongside the self-styled gentleman killer English Bob (Richard Harris), then, like a parasite abandoning a dying host, attaches himself to Little Bill, suspecting he’ll have an even better story. But to what killings does the title refer? The film’s climax, in which Munny, played by Eastwood, guns down Little Bill and a bar filled with lawmen who arrested Munny’s friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and allowed Bill to torture him to death? Or does it mean the killings Munny committed in his past as a drunken scoundrel, crimes that took the lives of fellow bad men, but also women and children? It’s the difference between the sort of violence that turned the West into a mythic place for those who read about it from the distance of time and space, and the sort that made it hell on earth for those who lived there.
“The film makes viewers consider the awfulness of bloodshed for almost two hours, then ends with a climax engineered to stoke bloodlust.”
And yet Unforgiven is, if anything, an even better, and equally ambiguous, title for the film. The word can be applied to almost any of its characters— Davey and Mike, English Bob, Little Bill, or anyone else whose misdeeds attract other people’s wrath—but it sticks most firmly to Munny. Munny prides himself on having changed his ways, of escaping his sinful past as, in the words of the opening crawl, “a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.” His wife, Claudia, steered him away from drinking and killing, and toward the honest living of pig farming. But by the start of the film, he’s lost Claudia and her civilizing influence. He remains on the straight and narrow, tending his pigs and his two kids, but his pigs keep getting sicker, his money keeps getting tighter, and when the word of the Big Whisky bounty reaches him by way of a young wannabe killer calling himself the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), the suggestion that he’ll be meting out justice gives him the excuse he needs to pick up his guns. “You wouldn’t go if Claudia was alive,” Ned reminds him. But she isn’t, so he does.
That means facing his past, and all the deeds for which he’s been punished only by his own conscience. It also means reconciling himself to the knowledge that maybe he hasn’t changed all that much, that the man he was and the man he’s become are really one and the same. In the text that opens and closes the film, Claudia’s love for her husband is spoken of like a mystery. It was a puzzlement to all those who witnessed it that a woman of such beauty and virtue could give herself to such a sinful man. The rescuing of a man so far fallen as Munny hints at the mystery of Christian grace. But by the film’s end, Claudia exists only as a memory, her tombstone abandoned as Munny moves on to parts unknown—possibly a successful career selling dry goods in San Francisco, if the rumors are true. If she could forgive what he’s done since her death, he’ll never know.
Munny struggles with his soul throughout the film, but Unforgiven otherwise concerns itself with earthly justice, and its seeming impossibility. Eastwood held onto Peoples’ script (which was owned for a while by Francis Ford Coppola) until he was old enough to play the part of Munny. He dedicated the film to mentors Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, and talked of it at the time as the last Western he’d ever make, a farewell to the genre that had made him a star. More than 20 years later, Eastwood hasn’t backed away from that promise. Yet Unforgiven doesn’t really play like the work of a man trying to have the last word on the Western. Set in 1880 and 1881, it isn’t about the end of the West, though Beauchamp is a herald of the way history was already starting to pass into legend. It doesn’t even, until its final scenes, feel like the last word on the drifting men-with-no-name antiheroes that Eastwood popularized in his films with Leone. Munny has a name and a past, even if he’s trying to put it behind him. He’s far more man than archetype, though he’s a man who's unwittingly walked into a debate about right and wrong in an unsettled land—an ongoing argument that tends to erupt into violence. It is, in other words, a quintessentially American story. When Eastwood poses himself in front of an American flag, in the wake of bringing that argument to its bloody conclusion, the image has chilling implications.
The brilliance in Peoples’ script comes from its rich characters and its effortless command of language, but also from its balance. Apart from that opening moment in which a sadistic aggressor abuses a victim, characters in the film are rarely entirely right or wrong. Little Bill has a clear vision of Big Whisky as a town of law and order, and a plan to implement it that essentially boils down to everyone doing what Little Bill says. The plan allows for no discontent. His is a smiling face that distracts from an iron fist. It works until it doesn’t. When the vocal minority of Delilah’s co-workers decide his punishment of Mike and Davey isn’t enough, Little Bill sees it as an undermining of his unquestionable authority, a challenge to the little totalitarian empire he’s set up on the plains. And yet, if the alternative is the prostitutes’ brand of justice, implemented by self-appointed hunters of men motivated by money, is that any better? Is chaos the price of freedom?
The film raises and explores knotty moral issues without offering any answers, then lets Munny, like Alexander before him, untangle the knot by destroying it. It depicts violence as ugly, unheroic, even inhuman, a solution that’s no solution at all—then builds toward a climax in which violence becomes the inevitable, even desirable. The film makes viewers consider the awfulness of bloodshed for almost two hours, then ends with a climax engineered to stoke bloodlust. The queasy suggestion underlying it all: When talk fails, this is how we solve problems in our young nation. In his first scene, English Bob reflects, having learned of an assassination attempt on President Garfield, on the relative ease with which one might kill a president. (“One isn’t that quick to shoot a king or a queen. The, uh, majesty of royalty, you see…”) Later, Munny, having dispatched the tiny despot of Big Whisky, leaves the scene of his killings. Eastwood finally looks like the icon he’s resisted playing until that moment, another Western hero who rolls into town, guns down the bad guys, and rides away, his jingling spurs having become synonymous with the sound of death. As he leaves, one of the surviving deputies points his gun at him and discovers he can’t pull the trigger. America doesn’t have a king or queen, but sometimes figures embody its spirit anyway.
Tomorrow, our Movie Of The Week Forum discussion of Unforgiven delves into the film’s depiction of civilization, chaos, and mythology, and its place in the career of Clint Eastwood. Then on Thursday, Noel Murray examines the Western genre’s place in a post-Western era.