Reflections on the movie Unforgiven
After quite a long time without writing, here I am again. I hope to write interesting things regularly.
Unforgiven is the kind of film that I can watch from time to time without being afraid of getting bored. A few days ago, I watched it again and I liked it as much as the first time,or even more. The photography, the music, the plot, the dialogues,and of course, the roles of Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman are simply great.
The French cinema critic André Bazin wrote in his book What is cinema? that “The Western is the only genre whose origins are almost identical with those of the cinema itself and which is alive as ever after almost half a century of uninterrupted success.” (Bazin 140). As Bazin died in 1950s, today one may say that Bazin´s words are not up to date as the number of Western films produced in the last years is very small. Besides, to a certain degree, the genre has lost the strength it used to have in the 50s. Like Bazin, other cinema critics have defined Western films in similar ways: “a nostalgic eulogy to the early days of the expansive, untamed American frontier, the borderline between civilization and the wilderness. They are one of the oldest, most enduring and flexible genres and one of the most characteristically American genres in their mythic origins. Their most prolific era was in the 1930s to the 1960s, and most recently in the 90s, there was a resurgence of the genre.” (“Filmsite”, italics added).
In my view, one of the most important Western films that appeared in the 90s and helped resurge the genre was definitely Unforgiven. Easwood´s film is one of the very few examples of the “American genre for excellence” (Heide 36) that succeeded among the vast majority of the public produced in the 90s. Before Eastwood´s hit, people had lost interest in Western films as they did not feel related to the values they transmitted. The ideal life of the colonizers and the idealization of the American myth were not in vogue anymore. Besides, directors such as John Ford or Anthony Mann did not direct anymore and John Wayne, the symbol and key figure of American Western films had died long time ago. Unforgiven appears as a great example of what we might call a second generation of Western films. Besides, one element that makes this film more appealing to its audience is its specific relationship with the public. Let us see how.
The film opens up with a long shot of a man digging his wife´s grave, who has just died of smallpox. Later, in a city named Big Whiskey, Wyoming, a man made severe cuts on a prostitute´s face. Little Bill, the sheriff, forces them to pay a fine but the prostitutes do not seem to accept such a petty punishment because Delilah, the hurt prostitute, may not be able to work anymore. The prostitutes decide to collect money and hire a killer to do justice.
Clint Eastwood, in the role of Munny, is a very unsuccessful farmer who takes care of pigs in order to feed his children. One day he accepts The Kid´s offer and decides to convince his long time friend Ned Logan in such an adventure. Munny and Ned join The Kid, a young myopic shooter willing to revive the western shooting myth. It is at this point when Unforgiven becomes more than a Western film as it develops a direct and intimate relationship with its audience. Surprisingly for a Western film, things get ethically complicated due to the moral implications that killing people entails. It is an interesting paradox that a Western film questions the act of killing others and examines the moral consequences of the killers. Perhaps it is because the identification with traditional American values has changed: if there were times when those films referred to freedom, land conquering, independence and even faith, the only factors that remain of this mythical process are negative elements such as the consequence of killing others and the fear of repeating past actions that proved to be disastrous.
Besides, it seems to me that Unforgiven provokes its audience as far a women is concerned. For example, one can notice classic features in the character of Ned´s wife. She is an Indian, an Indian who does not even say a word and observes stoically how her husband leaves her. In her face one can easily read that she knows her husband will not come back. Moreover, we also see how the role of the prostitutes changes in Unforgiven: they represent strong women who hire killers and fight against unfairness, which is not a specific element of classic Western films.
Unforgiven also inherits certain features of classical Western films and other features of the ultraviolent Western films of the 60s. In the film, the audience is forced to take sides on questions such as who writes the law, who is good and who is bad. According to some critics, these topics are paramount to the understanding of Unforgiven (Rickman 85-92).
The structure of the film appears like in a circle: the prologue and the epilogue are similar. Moreover, even though he does not stop repeating all over the film: “I ain´t like that anymore”, the circumstances force him to join a team of unprepared killers in order to get some money. And secure the future of his kids. This factor seems to be strong enough for the audience to believe that he is taking the right decision. It seems to be his only way out to give his children a better life.
Besides, Munny has got problems with women. This is perhaps a constant feature that goes with Eastwood in most of his films, from Pale Rider (1985) to In the Line of Fire (1993) and any of the Western films he takes part in. In Unforgiven he marries a woman who dies soon and then, he develops a short and strange relationship with the beaten prostitute in a sort of father-daughter relationship, an impossible relationship provoked by the constant presence of the ghost of Munny´s wife. In this context, the audience can easily understand Munny´s reluctance to accept the prostitute´s offer to have her services for free. Besides, the audience is invited to perceive Unforgiven as a compilation of stories inside the main story, which contributes to its reflexivity. Munny´s story is a sad one and gets intertwined with that of the prostitutes, Ned´s, Little Bill and The Kid. The same events occur under the same circumstances but different points of view can be observed, which allows the spectator to analyze the characters under different viewpoints.
Moreover, another character that deserves attention is Beauchamp, a weird reporter who writes about the killer English Bob. Myth and reality mix up in Beauchamp´s biography of English Bob to distort true facts and to show his character as a true Western hero.
Besides, Unforgiven´s relationship with its audience becomes even closer when one takes a look at what characters may actors represent. The prostitutes fight against the unfairness of the totalitarian sheriff, represented by Little Bill. Afro-Americans are represented by Ned, Munny´s best friend. Native Americans are of course represented by Ned´s wife, who appears very little as Clint Eastwood's main aim as a director, according to some authors, is not that of talking about the injustice they suffered (Beard 46) but to ensure a brighter future for his children. The relationship of a Western film like this one with its specific audience becomes richer that ever when fiction and reality intertwine and become a negotiation of signifiers depending on the point of view of each character. For example, Munny´s memories of a harsh society do not coincide with The Kid´s desires to live a typical Western killer story. This element is very well represented by The Kid´s myopic vision as he is unable to see the reality to the full and gets only a limited version of what happens around him. Another limited version of reality is that of the sheriff, who hires the journalist to alter his own reality, which will fall down like his own house. Also, it is ironic that the village where all the events take place is Big Whiskey, the typical drink of Western films.
Irony also plays a major role in the film. For example, when English Bob and Little Bill talk about an event that occurred long time ago, the terms “The Duke of Death” and “The Duck of Death” get confused. Also, the joke about “Two gun Corcoran”, which does not refer precisely to fire guns. Besides, the character of Beauchamp is, by far, the more reflexive character of the film. He may well represent those who built the Western myth and whose days are coming to an end.
Given the factors above, some authors consider important to raise certain questions such as: who is the hero, Munny or Little Bill? Who imposes law? Does Munny decide to finish the job for money to feed his sons or to revenge his friend? (Rickman 1998, 85-92) and those are questions that the audience is invited to wonder.
Moreover, I believe that Unforgiven has, at least, two different readings: on the one hand one can notice the classic Eastwood in the scenery, the countryside, the general views and the lineal narration of its integral part. On the other, one can also notice that there is a different Eastwood who reinterprets all the features of the traditional hero, depicting him like an old man who shoots several times a bottle unsuccessfully to end up with a shooting scene that may bring us to memory the best of John Wayne´s shooting abilities.
Should we forgive Munny and justify his acts? Should we condemn him for risking his children´s future without a father? It is ironic that Easwood´s reflexion on violence and its consequences are analyzed through a Western film, a violent genre by definition. Either way, Unforgiven is more than a typical Western film because of its relationship with its audience and the way the film shakes the viewer's conscience.
Bazin, Andre. What is Cinema? London: University of California Ltd. 2005.
Beard, William. Persistence of Double Vision. Essays on Clint Eastwood. Alberta, Canada: The Universe of Alberta Press. 2000.
"Unforgiven" <http://www.filmsite.org/westernfilms.html> 16 April 2017.
Heide, William. Border Crossings and National Cultures. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. 2002.Rickman, Gregg. The Western Reader. Limelight Editions (1998): 85-92, New York.