UNFORGIVEN (1992)

Unforgiven_2Allow me to pose a question. Is there any mode of storytelling more fundamentally American than the Western? Not just movies, but literature, visual arts, anything. The cowboy is nearly synonymous with America itself. And so my second question. Why is it that in the 90 years of Academy Awards- largely a celebration of the American film tradition- has that most uniquely American of film genres been awarded Best Picture only three times? In the Awards’ fourth year, Cimarron took the prize, and while I maintain for the record it isn’t as bad as its reputation, I think Cimarron is seen nowadays as a Best Picture in name only. A full 51 years passed before another Western took the Oscar (Dances With Wolves), then Unforgiven two years later. Since then, nary a Stetson has been seen on the awards podium.

In Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood (who also directs), plays William Munny, a reformed outlaw now widowed and struggling as a farmer. He is coaxed out of retirement by a young man seeking to carry out a contract on two cowboys who participated in the facial slashing of a prostitute. They’re joined by ex-outlaw Ned (Morgan Freeman) and run afoul of sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman) on their way to the job.

You love Cimarron so much, hehe. I think it may still rank as one of my least favorites of the films we’ve watched, but I am glad to have seen it. I have to say I have long held a prejudice against westerns, and this one wasn’t half bad. It’s hard to not despise Eastwood from my perspective because I think he has abhorrent political views, but his character is a compelling one in this film. The scenes where he is with his kids before he sets out on this expedition are my favorite; they tug at the heartstrings, and when you see that he is a bit frail and out of it, you almost feel like you should look away. This is the sort of feeling I got as a kid when my dad would trip or something – there was a sense of not wanting to witness him feeling any embarrassment, though maybe that is connected to some toxic and dangerous ideas we as a society have about masculinity.

His friendship with Ned is great, but I like where their paths diverge – this seems most strident when it comes to whether or not they want to engage with the prostitutes at the brothel. Maybe it is because it is the wild wild west, and I don’t know how historically accurate this was, but some of the ways race were represented in this film surprised me. These men are out to fight for justice for the prostitute who has horrifically hurt by vile men – men who are getting a typical “boys will be boys” response from a patriarchal system of code of ethics.

My hunch is that Ned wasn’t originally written to be a black man, but when the opportunity came to cast Freeman, well you’d be a dummy not to. Regardless, the actors totally sell me on the friendship between Ned and Munny.

‘Abhorrent’ seems a little harsh, but Eastwood’s empty-chair theatrics probably haven’t earned him many new fans among us coastal elites, or in Liberal Hollywood. But there is no denying his on screen charisma, and I respect his willingness to explore variations of his on-screen personae- William Munny is like a broke down, retired Man With No Name. He has done some respectable work as a director as well, but I do find some choices in Unforgiven to be questionable (I’ll get to that).

Katy, I wonder if your dislike of Westerns- and this may go towards answering my opening question- is the perception that the genre is just one big contrivance to have a couple guys shooting at each other. This reputation is not altogether undeserved. The genres really traces its roots to circus. It was Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show that really created the mythos of the American West. And, like I said this was essentially a circus, so narrative was, shall we say, streamlined. This is where cowboys got upgraded from a class of laborers to the West’s analog to the knights errant of old- and the Indians cast as their perennial nemeses. Marksmanship was a big part of Cody’s show as well, giving us the myth of the quick draw expert. Supposedly in the old West, on the occasions there was a shootout, people fought like they’ve fought any other time: shooting at an enemy six times in the hope that one bullet might hit. This is in contrast to the gunfighter cliche of a guy drawing his gun and firing four times, instantaneously killing as many enemies. (There is actually some scholarly controversy over just how violent the ‘Wild West’ really was.)

This in one of the things I really liked about Unforgiven: one of the first things we learn about Munny is that he’s a terrible shot. Immediately the film dispenses with one of the most central cliches of the genre. The main character can’t shoot straight. He needs to go get his shotgun to knock a can off a stump. (This also gives Ned a plausible entry into the story.) This is the kind of deconstruction of the form that makes this film no mere genre exercise. There other moments as well. When Ned shoots the first cowboy, he can’t deliver the coup de grace. This is a guy who was once (supposedly) a stone cold killer, and he doesn’t have the stomach to go through with the job.

This refusal to allow the characters to fall into the well-worn grooves of the Western through the first two acts of the movie is what made the finale so frustrating for me. I just didn’t buy Munny’s transformation from soft-spoken retire who can’t aim his gun, back into a Wild West supervillain who can gun down an entire town. Yes, there was something satisfying about his killing Little Bill over Ned’s cruel death. But I thought the film had assured us we would be avoiding those cliches. Turns out all he needed was to get a little liquor and no posse would be a match for him! I didn’t quite buy it, and it disappointed me.

One thing I’m unsure of, and this may have been my inattentiveness. How guilty was the second cowboy in the slashing incident? It seemed he was more a bystander to the crime, although I’m not sure if the movie it totally clear on that. Either way, when they delivered on the fine imposed by Little Bill, he brought something beyond what was required, implying at the very least he felt remorse and recognized that a wrong had been done- which made his slow death all the more painful to watch.

Eh, I think a lot of my dislike of westerns has to do with gender, honestly. Women make little appearance, and when they do, it is as foils, supports – not fully fleshed out or developed characters. Maybe there are westerns that include more thoughtful representations of women and I just haven’t seen them – it is certainly possibly. It just never felt like a genre for me in any real way, if that makes sense. I know that when I have packaged books for Books to Prisons drives there at least used to be a pretty strong interest in westerns – I wonder if that remains.

Good point about Freeman. Perhaps his character was not initially written as Black. Now I would be kind of interested to know that.

I didn’t quite buy the liquor bit myself, but as someone with ten years sobriety under her belt I have also never totally felt that alcohol would have folks doing things far outside their character. Maybe I am wrong on this too; it’s more of a gut sense than a tested theory – but like you, I am not buying it.

Can we not call ourselves coastal elites though? That’s mispresentative! Yer the bubble! No, yer the bubble! 😉

It’s not the booze itself that I have a problem with. I feel like Munny’s whole transformation into a Wild West Supervillain undermines the movie up to that point. What was it trying to say? Things are ambiguous after he kills everyone and rides away. Are we being led to believe that he has reverted to his former self? That people don’t really change, that this is who he truly was the whole time? Will he now return to a life of crime? A clumsy text at the end of the story tells us that he went back to his family and opened a store. I guess he went back to not killing people?

When I see something as awkward as the opening and closing text, in a work that is supposed to be of some renown, I have to wonder if it is a conscious artistic choice. I see no reason for it here, unless there’s something I’m overlooking. The opening could easily have been replaced with a few lines of dialog. And the end, honestly I don’t know where all that was going.

A timely aspect of history portrayed in this film: despite the West’s popular reputation for mayhem, what in modern parlance is called ‘gun control’ was probably not uncommon.

I did really appreciate Unforgiven’s morally ambiguous tone. The characters mostly exist in a space neither heroic nor villainous. A nice touch is how the story of Delilah’s injuries has been embellished in gory detail when the Kid pitches the job to Munny. The film gives no explanation for the embellishment, and offers no comment when Munny meets Delilah in person, seemingly unsurprised by her actual condition.

A final thought: the iconic headwear of the West, Stetson hats, were manufactured in Philadelphia. So, remember, when you watch a Western, there is a little bit of Philly on each character’s head.

The ending felt kind of rushed to me, to your point. If he opens a store, can’t we at least see a little more of what that looked like? It really doesn’t make very much sense, given everything we have seen up until this point. I agree with you about the moral ambiguity. Do the ends justify the means? The perennial question. Also, I love all these facts you have about Westerns!!! You are full of surprises. It makes doing these blogs and watching these films fun for me – I learn a lot!

Also nominated in 1992:
The Crying Game
A Few Good Men
Howards End
Scent of a Woman

Next film: THE DEPARTED (2006)

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