In 1992, Bill Clinton was elected US president, and Clint Eastwood directed and released Unforgiven. Unforgiven was anomalous that year: the classic American Western of filmmaker John Ford had been parodied by the Italian Western and ‘killing Injuns’ was understood, finally, to be genocide. The Western that heroized pioneers unsettling the West was moribund. Unforgiven, an anti-Western Western, buried it.
William Munny, ‘a killer out of Kansas’ played by Eastwood, had stopped drinking and killing, and lived with his wife and two children in Big Whiskey, Wyoming, raising hogs. It’s 1878, Munny’s wife has been dead for three years, and the hogs are sick. Munny needs money (pun intended). He rides out to visit his friend, Ned (Morgan Freeman), a retired killer like him. Along the way, he meets a young man, named the Schofield Kid after his gun (the Schofield is a type of revolver produced by Smith & Wesson), who brags he’s killed five men. The Kid tells Munny about a US$1,000 bounty on the heads of two men who ‘cut a whore’.
Munny tells Ned about the bounty: ‘[but] I am not like that anymore […] cured by my wife.’ Still, he is desperate. Reluctantly, Ned agrees – ‘I guess they have it coming’ – while Ned’s wife, a Native American, glowers at Munny. They set off to right a wrong and collect the money, the holy grail at the end of the trail.
Munny, Ned and the Kid reach town, tell the women they’re going to kill the slashers. Eastwood has installed in this town the usual suspects, characters bigger than life, and each a cipher in the battle of good versus evil, Western-style. They play their roles – sheriff, barkeep, whore, drunk – and all congregate in the saloon, the clubhouse for Westerns. A brilliant addition to the crew is an Eastern writer, a ‘historian of the West’. The writer is following gunslinger English Bob (Richard Harris) to record his story. He gobbles up the ‘romance’ of English Bob’s murderous missions, intending these boasts for his book. The meta-fictional writer delineates how untruths about the West were inscribed in histories, in films, functioning, in part, to validate ‘manifest destiny’, the bloody 19th-century political project that argued the US had a right to expand across North America.
Eastwood’s morality tale turns dark and nasty fast. The trio find one of the men, and Ned has him in his sights, but can’t pull the trigger. Munny does. The man dies in agony, and Ned, shaken, can’t take it, and heads home. The Kid, who actually had never killed, kills for the first time – the other slasher. He’s unarmed, sitting on the can in an outhouse. The Kid feels disgust and remorse. Munny tells him: ‘It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man.’ The Kid gives Munny his gun and rides away.
One of the women rides out to give Munny the bounty; he learns that Ned has been murdered by the sheriff and his posse. Enraged, Munny mutates into the assassin he once was, the man who has seen ‘the angel of death’. He takes a drink, finishes the bottle. His eyes dead, he rides to town.
Munny sees Ned’s body in an open coffin, set upright, outside the saloon. First, Munny kills the saloon keeper, then kills as many people as he can in the saloon. (The writer hides beneath a table.) In the scene’s climax, Munny confronts Sheriff Bill (Gene Hackman). Bill has been building his house. Now, in the saloon, shot in his gut, lying on his back, Munny standing over him, Bill tells Munny: ‘You can’t kill me. I’m building my house. I don’t deserve to die.’
Unforgiven’s last shot is the same as its first – on Munny’s property, unpeopled, where just a single tree, the tree of life, stands, when the film turns from colour into black and white, the image with which it began. Unforgiven is as stark as Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). Stylistically, with Eastwood’s direction, nothing is depicted or said that isn’t relevant to Munny’s deadly journey, when killing makes the killer a monster. Eastwood’s Munny is very different from his infamous Dirty Harry (1971), who spit out: ‘Make my day.’
In Unforgiven, the ‘whore who’s been cut’ offers sex to Munny, because he revenged her. Munny refuses. She asks if her scars make her ugly. No, he says, ‘You’ve got scars like me.’ His identification testifies to male vulnerability, anathema for classic Westerns. In Eastwood’s oeuvre, the films he acted in, directed, or both, men attack women or protect women from men. Both are variations of men’s attempts to control women. But what doesn’t occur in Eastwood’s own films, except in Tightrope (1984), is men trying to change how they relate to women. Eastwood doesn’t attack the binary that heterosexuality has mandated as ‘masculine behaviour’.
Context ineluctably renders interpretations and meanings. We live inside our time; and, more, it lives in us. Now, the MeToo movement shines a light on Unforgiven, especially that paradoxical masculinity: if men didn’t violate women, they wouldn’t have to protect them.
Lynne Tillman's latest novel, Men and Apparitions, was published last year by Soft Skull Press. Her collection The Complete Madame Realism and Other Stories will be published in Spanish by RIPIO later this year.
First published in Issue 200