Reflections on “Unforgiven” (1992)

Written by David Webb Peoples

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Starring

Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris

 

A video presentation of this material is available here.

 

Traditionally, westerns take place at a time and in a place where land, life and fortune were for the taking if you had the ambition and strength to seek them and keep them. Niceties such as law, order and morality were put on the back burner as men and women set about building lives, businesses and empires in this untamed land.

Unruly men such as William Munny, Little Bill Daggett and English Bob were the result of this time and their presence may even have served a purpose of establishing an order of sorts, though with little or no regard for legality and principle as they appear to have acted in accordance with their own outlook and needs, or to have been willing to sell their skills to those willing and able to pay their price.

However, as objective law and order began to spread, they had to adapt to their environment. While the likes of English Bob plied his trade more discreetly for private commercial concerns, men such as Little Bill Daggett could indulge their at times cruel temperament by applying it to the purpose of establishing the very order he used to flout. Others, like Will Munny, settled down to family life and farming.

Our story presents a clash of such men in a time of upheaval and transformation from lawlessness to order, a time when the system of objective law was in its infancy and could be found lacking, and victims of crime had recourse to more direct and subjective forms of justice.

A drunken cowboy assaults a prostitute, scarring her face when he is offended by her reaction to his “manhood”. The sheriff’s handling of the situation falls short of justice in the eyes of the girl’s fellow prostitutes and they put a bounty on the lives of the two cowboys they consider responsible and worthy of punishment, though the second cowboy actually helps stop the assault and goes on to try to make amends. However, because he is associated so closely with the event, he is summarily included in the quest for vengeance, reflecting the need for an objective system of justice wherein the guilty are identified and punishment is seen to fit the crime.

We meet a young man who goes by the name “The Schofield Kid”. He claims to be a tough young killer who is attracted by the thousand-dollar bounty, but who also appears happy to avenge the reported vile and by now wildly exaggerated treatment of the girl in question. Doubtless influenced by tales of derring-do in cheap novels which embellished the violent acts of gunmen, converting them into acts of heroism motivated by defence of principle and honour, the Schofield Kid seeks to enlist the help of Will Munny in order to fulfil the contract on the two cowboys.

In many ways, the Kid may represent impressionable and youthful readers of heroic fiction or even modern cinema audiences witnessing acts of heroism and courage in westerns who are inspired to do something similar, but the truth is that these fictionalised accounts are contrived, if beautiful, corruptions and twistings of potentially ugly and terrifying truth.

It is no accident that the Kid is short-sighted. He is plainly unsuited to this profession but is prompted by admiration and an induced desire for adulation, fame and fortune. He fails to foresee the consequences of his actions but will learn a painful and life-changing lesson taught by reality.

We also meet the journalist and aspiring writer Beauchamp who is a small man apparently highly impressed by those unwilling to accept legal and moral constraints. He appears to admire the rhetoric of ever more cruel and heartless men and seems to want to share their “glory” by proxy. He sees the truth and recoils from violence, but embellishes such acts and twists them to his own (written) gain and advantage, leading to the corruption and confusion we see in the Schofield Kid. We may, perhaps, infer from this that, by extension, all media (including filmmakers) are guilty of such embellishment and potential misdirection.

The Schofield Kid turned to Will Munny because of his reputation as a stone-cold killer. Now a poverty-stricken farmer, Will puts his previous conduct down principally to the influence of whisky, suggesting an avoidance of reflection and responsibility. He indulged, reacted and killed, recognising no constraints, legal or moral, and acted on his own judgment with little consideration of the consequences on or the rights and welfare of others.

When Will joins with old friend and compadre Ned, they recall the old days when they rode and were wild together. They try to convince themselves that it is now acceptable to pursue the cowboys and kill for money by suggesting this is something they have already done, but it is implied they generally had reasons to kill, though on reflection they appear to doubt the validity of these reasons. Age has encouraged reflection on their experience and there are implications of regret in both their demeanour and language, even if these are not necessarily stated explicitly except when, suffering from a fever, Will recalls the gruesome details of one killing and recognises his victim did not deserve to die.

Will’s conduct, attitude and entire life were changed through the influence of his wife, Claudia. She introduced him to love, respect, consideration, parenthood, responsibility and farming. In keeping with a perspective laid out in westerns such as “The Searchers”, women are perceived as a stabilising and even civilising force providing purpose, clarity of thought, contentedness and, perhaps most importantly, an environment based on love which underpins everything. Much is made, in the introduction of the film, of the incomprehension of others concerning Claudia’s decision to marry Will. Perhaps this reflects the inexplicable nature of love and the transformations it can bring about, combined with the unfathomable vagaries of life.

When Claudia dies, Will tries to maintain his new life but it is a struggle work-wise and financially, and he is tempted back to his old ways through the need and lure of money. His repeated insistence that he “isn’t like that anymore” suggests that even though he has learned to see things differently, to reflect and care for others, and has experienced the benefits of this revised outlook, he may be afraid that without his wife’s influence and with exposure to past attitudes and actions he will revert to the undisciplined killer of the past.

Desperate and driven, ironically, by a desire to care for his young children, he leaves them to fend for themselves for a couple of weeks and sets off to kill for money. Thus, we see that the façade of civilisation and morality may be dropped in times of desperation and threat to personal survival.

Very often in Clint Eastwood films, the heroes can be reactionary, judgmental and extreme, but the audience finds that acceptable and even attractive because guilt is assured on the part of the antagonists whose actions are also extreme but are the result of self-centred determination, amorality and lack of compassion. There is therefore often no question of regret, remorse or a troubled conscience.

“Unforgiven” is, however, a relentlessly revisionist western which depicts the struggle to impose order over lawlessness and within that, reflections on responsibility, guilt and regret at the taking of a life, contrasted with the lionising and embellishment of such actions by the media who transform violent, undignified and often pointless murders into acts of apparent valour and heroism. In our film, pursuits, fights and shootings are all unheroic, chaotic, unromantic, cowardly and unseemly.

Will Munny is no hero-figure. He reduces everything to the simplest of terms and kills for money because he has to do what he must to survive, but then he must live with it. He knows in his heart of hearts that these cowboys don’t deserve this paid-for vigilante vengeance and he is undoubtedly aware this knowledge will eat away at him, but he sees no alternative.

When facing death, Little Bill Daggett protests that he doesn’t deserve to die in this way. Ignoring the fact that Little Bill was about to die as he had lived, Will points out that it is “not about deserving”. There is no morality. There is only action, reaction and living with the consequences – if you are willing to take matters into your own hands, thus accentuating the need for an objective system of law and order which aims to uphold the principle of fairness and justice for all.

Strikingly different in tone from Eastwood’s previous westerns, this, his declared last western is doggedly authentic and naturalistic in terms of script, direction and production values, and suggests that while entertainment certainly has its place and can even invite worthwhile reflection and thought, it may be based on an ugly, painful and thoroughly unromantic reality.

Interestingly, similar themes were pursued in “The Shootist”, John Wayne’s last western.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie

I can be contacted at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk .

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