Unforgiven (1992) … Remembered
The story of Unforgiven is like a final page in a book about westerns, perhaps mirroring the career of Clint Eastwood, and gives us a gritty, realistic west. The beginning of the movie is perhaps indicative of this. A whore gives a laugh after a man undresses and he cuts her, maims her, and this act becomes the root cause of a revengeful call for gunfighters to take out the two criminals. Only, in this movie, the typical cold-blooded assassins who might take up such a task are real men, with real flaws, and real dilemmas. This conflict is indicative of the movie’s realistic theme as it contrasts elements of spaghetti westerns against real moral beliefs.
In fact, William Munny takes up this job to help his family with the reward, not the typical reason an assassin goes off to kill. From the moment Clint Eastwood starts his portrayal of William Munny, you can see that the character has a real burden. We assume it is because of the death of his wife and the hardship he now endures because of his failed attempt to be a pig farmer, but the burden is not touched on or explained in some heavy-handed exposition. As the movie continues, we can see that Clint Eastwood shows us through his tremendous acting that William Munny has tremendous guilt over being nothing more than assassin, especially since he now has other responsibilities. However, revenge later overcomes his guilt.
To William Munny, revenge is a personal issue, but the rest of the characters view revenge very differently. The whores who hire Munny view revenge as a method to get what they want, like the philosophy of eye-for-an-eye. The sheriff, played by Gene Hackman, views revenge as something contradictory to what his town is and what it stands for. Sheriff Daggett is very heavy-handed and twisted with his vision of justice. He is an opposing force to the William Munny character. He doesn’t seem to represent the typical lawman or even justice itself, it is almost as if he has a driving, personal motivation to crush all people like William Munny with remorseless vengeance. You can almost see his enjoyment at kicking around another assassin named English Bob, as the snarky English gunfighter becomes a victim of the sheriff’s wrath.
The trio of assassins that travel to the town of Big Whiskey to hunt down the two men who cut the whores are immoral men and typical of the flawed people in the movie. The Kid who finds Munny in his desperate state desires Munny to be still in his spaghetti western form, as if he had watched all of Clint Eastwood’s movies before joining up with him. He also looks at being assassin and gunfighting through rose-colored glasses, although the realistic nature of it hits him like a brick and he quits rather than following through with shooting a man, having no taste for murder. He does not have the unwavering nerve of Munny and gives up his search for romanticism in gunfighting.
Instead of facing off against Munny and his pals, as might be typical in an old spaghetti western, the two men who cut the whore try to hide. Meanwhile, we can see how notions of spaghetti westerns may have developed in the conversation amongst the Sherrif’s men. One Deputy is scared of the “cold-blooded assassins” coming to town, but another builds up Daggett’s character by saying that he is the toughest lawmen of them all. Later, we hear many of Daggett’s “tales” of gunfighting, which become subject of a writer’s books. The movie shows us that a romantic notion of gunfighting, murder, and the west itself, all comes from fictional stories.
The exploration of the romantic west versus realism in the movie sure is interesting, but Munny shows that there really are cold-blooded killers, after all. Perhaps this is Clint Eastwood saying to us that there are things in his westerns we can enjoy, but he is telling us that he has grown and developed, so it could be like a biopic. He backs up that growth with an Oscar for Best Director, for this movie.
Munny proves that there is also something more to revenge than what we see in those old westerns, that it is indeed personal. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that Munny suddenly regains his nerve and old remorseless character after his friend is beaten to death, given the Sheriff’s punishment for joining in with Munny.
Besides revenge, the movie contains at least a handful of other themes that could be a good discussion all by themselves. Even the desperation for money, the reward of cash, and the “profession” of gunfighting can all be seen throughout the movie. A writer is drawn to the Sheriff to write to earn money and to create romantic stories to meet the marketplace need. It is here where we see a comment on society itself. The “marketplace” is representative of America, and its elevation of men like Munny to heroic status like those seen in spaghetti westerns is fantasy, but the truth is, they are real men.
Drinking or intoxication is also common in the movie and used as an elixir. The “bottle” is something Munny downs in great quantities to make his transformation into the cold-blooded killer complete. He numbs himself to society, as he did when he was an assassin in his youth, and becomes apathetic to morals once again thanks to drink. To look at it this way is quite introspective, but Munny may just be drowning himself in his old habits as he prepares his nerve to murder the Sheriff, as well as all of his men.
Perhaps the best part of this movie is its last five to ten minutes. The now cold-blooded Munny strides on into the bar to confront the Sheriff and his men all at once, as if his vengeance outweighs his desire to live. He guns them all down and saves the Sheriff for last to deliver some vengeance for the Sheriff’s immoral application of justice, as well as for beating Ned to death. However, both applications of justice by our two characters seem heavy-handed, as if they are both flawed.
I was thinking about how the Sheriff might have avoided his murder. He seems to want to be just a quiet man building a house, but ultimately chooses to uphold “his” law. He lets the whores call in assassins and that allows him to take out his opinions on society. When he tries to enforce his “rules”, Munny and his friends don’t play along. The circumstances aren’t very accepting of mistakes in general. “I don’t deserve this,” Sheriff Little Bill Daggett says at the end and I’m not sure I believe this.
It is also true that Munny didn’t deserve his family or the love of his wife, as it says at the beginning of the movie, but this opinion may be of society or of the media who reads the gunfighter books. He is a killer, but he is determined to be something else. The movie shows us that Munny is a likable character deserving of love, as he was ultimately ashamed of what he had done in his past. But even if he does deserve it, Munny cannot live that life. It is almost as if he is a wandering spirit like in a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western, dealing out justice as it demands. Clint Eastwood shows us that there is more to his overall movie work on westerns than just glitz and gunfights. This performance showed me that Clint Eastwood is a much better actor than I ever realized. Unforgiven is deserving of its many Oscar awards and remains a 1992 cinema classic, a movie I’m proud to remember, discuss and own.