Saturday, November 7, 2009


Last night, sort of by default, Steve and I watched Unforgiven. Neither of us had seen it before, and it's been more than 15 years since it came out. I am a big fan of Westerns and the Western genre, but I'd never gotten around to this one. Mostly, I think, because I don't like Clint Eastwood. (Bridges of Madison County kind of did me in on Clint.) More than that, however, I think maybe I just don't "get" Clint Eastwood. We both hated Gran Torino and found almost no redeeming qualities in the movie whatsoever. I knew Unforgiven was a revisionist Western, and was interested to see what we'd find. Also, the film has a 96% approval rating on That is incredibly high-- universal praise.

The movie left us puzzled. Basically, we were on the sheriff Little Bill Dagget's (Gene Hackman) side, and we were pretty sure the film was not.

As far as revision goes, I'm not sure what was being subverted. Clint, as Bill Munny, is a former assassin, a man paid to kill. He was domesticated by a good woman, whom he married and who got him to give up drinking whiskey and settle into life as a farmer. His partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) married an Indian woman and likewise settled down. Feminine=domesticity=emasculation. His wife is dead of small pox, and after twelve years out of practice, Munny can't shoot straight or seat a horse, and is a poor pig farmer with two small children. That's standard Western stuff.

He leaves those children more or less to their own devices to set out to get his manhood back and take on one more job. Ned needs no arm-twisting at all to join him.

They're going to kill two cowboys, one of whom slashed a prostitute's face because she insulted the size of his penis. Again, emasculation by women. At the time of the incident, the sheriff intervened and, given the argument by the saloon owner that the cowboy had ruined his valuable property (the prostitute), he passed sentence: the two brothers were required to pay the saloon owner 7 horses in the spring. Fair? No. An insult to womanhood? Of course. This is 1880. Prostitutes have no rights, although the woman is well cared for by the others and even is kept on at the saloon to do cleaning (is this beneath her? do we feel bad that she isn't attractive enough to get paid for sex?). When the men return with the ponies in the spring, they bring along an 8th one and offer it to the woman herself. She seems moved by the offer, but the other women chase the men off.

By any estimation except a politically correct, anachronistic one, this is good lawing by Bill Dagget. The women don't agree, and they put up a reward for whomever will kill the two cowboys. This is what Munny and Ned are after.

But before they arrive in town, it seems to be what a cruel-hearted, dastardly, cowardly braggart of an Englishman is after as well. He breaks the town's ordinance against carrying firearms (again, a reasonable ordinance in the Old West, it seems to me). Dagget disarms him and then beats him up rather mercilessly and throws him in jail. OK. I still haven't turned against Dagget. He is a braggart, and may not be fighting "Old West" fair, but he's sending a message to criminals to stay the hell out of his town and don't bring any guns around.

When Munny and Ned and their other sidekick, a short-sighted (in more ways than one) young man with dreams of being a gunslinger, come to town, they get more or less the same treatment. However, they also manage to shoot the two unsuspecting cowboys. And they carry out the hits in the most cowardly way imaginable. These acts of violence turn the stomachs of Ned and the young man, who just don't have what it takes to be cold-hearted killers. Munny, however, is back in the saddle, and carries out one more bloody rampage before heading home to his children. This time it's to avenge the death of Ned-- which we're told quite clearly is accidental and unintentional-- at the hands of Little Bill Dagget. I don't think we're supposed to cheer for Munny, and this is clearly a dark Western and he is an anti-hero. However, I think we're supposed to respect Munny, and also we're supposed to think the sheriff "had it coming to him." (After the shooting of the unarmed cowboy in an outhouse, the young gunslinger says, "Well, he got what he deserved," and Clint says, "We all deserve it.")

OK, so no one is without sin here. But it's just hard for me to see what the sheriff did wrong. I don't think he deserved what he got. I think he was a good sheriff! Looking over the plot, I just can't see where he crossed the line. There were many places in the plot he could have gone wrong or stepped over the line, but in all instances it seems the script goes out of its way to show him behaving appropriately. Yes, he beats Clint within an inch of his life, but Clint has come into his town, refused to give up his weapon, and with clear plans to kill two citizens working at a local ranch whose debt to society has been paid. Hmmm. What's a sheriff to do?

It's a good, complex film. But to go to and read reviews about the little tyrant Bill Dagget and the individualist who puts him in his place, well, it just makes me wonder. When I read reviews about Clint Eastwood in this movie "redeeming" his earlier career in Westerns and rising heroic once again, albeit with more honesty about the nature of violence and his character, I am confused. Did the critics get it? Did the audiences get it? Do we have a philosophy that allows us to get it? Or is the myth that guides the Western in some ways too resistant, too unassailable, for us to overturn it? In the end, does the gunslinger, outsider, manly individualist who refuses to be permanently domesticated the only one who gets away with murder, who needs no forgiveness?

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