Ever since John Ford admitted to printing the legend in his 1962 masterpiece, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the traditional mythology of the Old West has undergone an extensive series of cinematic reappraisals. From The Wild Bunch to Heaven’s Gate, gritty revisionist westerns and so-called ‘anti-westerns’ have sought to counteract the romantic misrepresentations of violence, history and heroism perpetuated by the genre’s talented mythmakers in an effort to bring audiences an undiluted dose of the ‘real’ Wild West.
As the effortlessly cool protagonist of Sergio Leone’s seminal Dollars Trilogy, Clint Eastwood once helped usher in a new wave of westerns that would dispel some of the falsehoods of the John Ford era while popularising plenty of fresh ones. As the director and star of Unforgiven, he provided the final word on half a century’s worth of horse-mounted do-gooders and lone wolf gunmen. Neither the most disparaging nor most realistic of the various cinematic responses to the genre’s creaky archetypes, it is nonetheless gratifyingly direct and psychologically astute, stripping the gloss and pretence from the old tropes to reveal their raw, bloody origins in both American history and the modern day moviegoer’s own escapist needs.
Like the Leone westerns before it, Unforgiven takes place in a dangerous world full of rugged sons of bitches, killing each other for money, pride or in the name of vengeance. The key difference lies in our response to the brutality on display. Whenever Eastwood’s legendary Man with No Name dispensed justice, the questionable nature of his acts was rendered moot by the fact that his adversaries were always depicted as being more unambiguously wicked than him. In Unforgiven, when Eastwood’s retired bandit William Munny is hired to kill two men who cut up a prostitute’s face, their capital punishment is carried out in entirely joyless fashion.
At the same time, David Webb Peoples’ script is saturated with unnerving reminders of Munny’s own horrific, booze-fuelled track record. In a land where cocky gunslingers fraudulently brag about past murders (which either happened not as reported or not at all), Munny is the only one to actively downplay his own body count out of a sense of remorse for what he’s done – and fear of what he might yet do.
Of course, even in the era of Leone any suggestion of moral righteousness was mere window dressing to the real reason for watching these films. When stylish works like A Fistful of Dollars dragged the western into meaner terrain, the genre wasn’t de-romanticised so much as it was given a fresh shot of testosterone. This was a rougher wild west than the one John Wayne had inhabited, and so the heroes (and by extension the viewer) had to be even tougher in order to thrive in it. Unforgiven short circuits this arrangement by turning the implicit into the explicit – namely, that what this really all comes down to is men and their dicks.
When those men set the film’s grim events in motion by mutilating Delilah Fitzgerald (Anna Levine), they do so as a furious response to Fitzgerald giggling at her client’s “teensy little pecker”. By contrast, local sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) tells the story of ‘Two-Gun Corcoran’, who earned his name from the pistol he held in his hand and the considerably larger weapon stored in his pants, recalling how bounty hunter English Bob killed Corcoran in a drunken act of jealousy. Combine these obvious phallic references with images of Munny struggling to mount his horse or his gun failing to fire, and suddenly his mission to avenge the damsel in distress doesn’t seem so dignified.
Sheriff Daggett, meanwhile, sees right through the performances of these arrogant, self-styled killers and conmen – yet he too is a striking subversion of a timeworn archetype. His ruthless response to the crimes of Munny and his contemporaries positions him as the primary antagonist of the piece, but it’s not hard to imagine Daggett being the hero of this story in the same vein as John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper. Like Marshal Will Kane in High Noon and Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine, Daggett is a steadfast, arguably well-intentioned proponent of law and order.
Nonetheless, his vindictive side emerges once trouble comes to his town, mirroring the violent sense of justice enforced by the very outlaws he beats to a pulp. While Daggett’s final line, “I’ll see you in hell, William Munny,” may read like a typical tough guy kiss-off, in the context of the graceless, primeval omnishambles that results from one woman laughing at a man’s dick, his words become a chilling admission.
In the 25 years since Unforgiven’s release, the western has thrived as an arthouse genre that continues to probe the themes explored by Eastwood’s film and other revisionist forebears – be it in issues of masculinity (Meek’s Cutoff) or mythmaking (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) – with even the most crowd-pleasing and action-centric of recent entries tending to contain some element of critique. It seems that any attempt to rejuvenate the screen outlaws and lawmen of yore now comes with a twinge of guilt. As for Eastwood himself, Unforgiven was perhaps the statement he needed to make in order to step away from the genre once and for all.
Published 9 Aug 2017
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