Let’s get one thing straight:
There are those uneducated few of this Earth who contend that UNFORGIVEN is merely a “boring western.” Rest assured I am systematically hunting down these deviants and canceling their membership to Blockbuster Video – permanently. If you know what I mean. If you are one these few – remember, I am watching you. And I will bring you down. I will bring you down to Cucumbertown.
The Rise and Recant of a Western Iconography.
“You better bury Ned right! You better not cut up nor otherwise harm no whores! Or I’ll come back and kill every one of you sons of bitches!”
With those words, Clint Eastwood as William Munny, west-worn killer of men, women and children in UNFORGIVEN, rides slowly, deliberately into the storming night, fading into the blackness – taking with him a cultural icon that he himself was responsible for creating.
And, as if a curtain had been drawn on “The Man With No Name”; as if an era had come to a climactic close; as if Eastwood’s recant of The Stranger was a tacit prohibition to all who would emulate or plagiarize the icon, the cinema has not seen this character since…
Such is the power of Eastwood’s ad hoc ownership of The Man With No Name. Arguably outgunning even John Wayne as the archetypal cowboy, Clint Eastwood (who made an art form of an acting coach’s directive: “Don’t just do something – stand there!”) indisputably reigns as the alpha and omega of The Stranger icon…
In 1964, Eastwood strode onto movie screens in the Sergio Leone “spaghetti western,” FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. Though his character was named Joe, U.S. marketers dubbed him The Man With No Name (aka The Stranger), capturing the loner’s rootlessness and lack of identity, unwittingly striking the perfect isolationist chord.
The Man With No Name was not a new invention, though: Leone based his American West on the “American East,” borrowing FISTFUL from Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 YOJIMBO (“The Bodyguard” – heavily influenced by the American Western genre), featuring the mighty Toshiro Mifune as a nameless wandering samurai (who smart-alecks his name as “Mulberry Field” when asked, because it was the first thing he saw; a device which became so common that even Jan Brady would one day see a glass of water and name her mythical boyfriend George Glass – but I digress in a white-fro Brady swoon…).
YOJIMBO’s “bodyguard” was in turn a ronin incarnation of Dashiell Hammett’s “Continental Operative” character – arguably the first Man With No Name – featured in a 1929 gangster novel, Red Harvest, a template for YOJIMBO.
Eastwood’s accidental genius was in concretizing the generic Man With No Name icon as a cowboy, in Leone’s “Dollar” trilogy – a nihilistic avenger in loose poncho and tight trousers – further extemporized in his own successive westerns, HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, PALE RIDER, et al.
In the cinematic history of Man With No Name characters, Eastwood’s appearance (in FISTFUL) stands mythically at almost exactly the midpoint: about 30 years before FISTFUL was Hammett’s character, about 30 years after FISTFUL is UNFORGIVEN.
And I looked, and behold a pale horse; and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.
— Revelation, 6:8.
Is it coincidence that William Munny rides a pale horse? And that “Death” is the death of the Man With No Name iconography?
When we first meet the hero of UNFORGIVEN – William Munny, mud-covered and tripping over his own feet in a pig-pen – we are thinking exactly what his unexpected visitor, the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), articulates not one minute later, “You don’t look like no rootin’, tootin’ son of a bitchin’ cold-blooded assassin.”
Indeed, he ain’t. Not any more, at least.
In UNFORGIVEN, the Stranger character has been rewrought from a nihilist into a pacifist, by director/star Eastwood and writer David Webb Peoples (from his original story called The Cut Whore Killings). Munny, incessantly maintaining that his dear, departed wife “cured him of evil” (whilst seemingly trying to convince himself of it), is not so much a departure from the Man With No Name (the laconic loner with the steely confidence and steady gunhand), as an in-depth examination of what has become of him.
The world at large, seeing Clint in Western garb, thought it obvious we would be viewing a character branded like cattle-iron into our psyches. Instead, as critic Richard Corliss notes, “UNFORGIVEN took its time in letting you watch Clint turn into Clint.” (Though Clint has been physically beaten on film before – FISTFUL, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, HANG ‘EM HIGH, DIRTY HARRY, EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE, et al – the sight of him in UNFORGIVEN, crawling out of a saloon on his belly like a cur, under the heel of a vicious sheriff, was more humiliating than any previous drubbing, as his trampled character offered no hint of retribution. In a Clint Movie – that’s just not on!)
Shockingly – yet sublimely – here was a character who did not ride high in the saddle, so much as fall out of it; with a gunhand only made steady by inner demons rather than natural talent; with a petered-out bravado attributed not to principle, pugnaciousness or patriotism, but to simply being “young and fulla beans.”
When we see Munny target practicing, with each round going wildly astray, we think to ourselves, “Is this the Clint we know, who used to take out four guys with three shots, without even aiming?” We wonder why it is so hard to “see” the character we have grown up idolizing, until we realize that we are being shown that character – as a has-been. We realize that Monco and the High Plains Drifter and The Preacher were ALL this character, but at the top of their game. Here was a bold new envisioning – not even a reworking of the character, for we are told in retrospect that Munny was that same sociopathic killer in his youth – with a plausible reality appended. What did happen to those anti-heroes who rode into the heat-wavering desert? This.
UNFORGIVEN opens with a text crawl: It is 1880; two years after the smallpox death of Claudia Feathers, wife of William Munny, “a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.” The mystery of why a “comely young woman” like Claudia would take up with Munny, “a known thief and murderer,” is quickly put aside in our minds, as the film sweeps to Big Whiskey, Wyoming, where a hardened sheriff, “Little” Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) is adjudicating between some rowdy cowboys and the whores they molested.
The whores (led by Frances Fisher as Alice, with Anna Thomson as the “cut whore” Delilah), dissatisfied with Little Bill’s penance to the cowboys, place a thousand dollar bounty on the cowboys’ heads. The Schofield Kid is one of the bounty hunters who sets his eye on the cash. But his eye, literally, is poor, so he enlists the aid of veteran killers – Munny and Munny’s longtime partner, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman).
It is during their ride to Big Whiskey that we deduce that Eastwood is, in fact, presenting us with the autumn years of the death-dealing Stranger. Ned and Munny reminisce grimly over their halcyon looting and killing days, playing it down for Schofield, who is enamored with the attendant glamor; even this bounty hunt is a reluctant mission, rationalized by Munny “to get a new start for them youngsters,” his two kids.
While Munny and Ned downplay their violent past, in Big Whiskey, “English” Bob (Richard Harris), a mercenary gunman who relishes and flaunts his violent present, rolls into town with his vicarious, vacillating biographer, W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), and is beaten sadistically by Little Bill for transgressing the ordinance of not surrendering his firearms.
Thus the four main violent characters in the play are introduced to us: the cut-whore cowboys, English Bob, Little Bill and William Munny. To fully appreciate the astounding arcs of these characters, envision each of them as a fader (a slider, or a volume knob) on a mixing console. When we are introduced to each of these characters, their violence levels are as follows: cowboys – 10 (we meet them attacking whores), English Bob – 8 (boasting of his lethality, backing it up with firepower); Little Bill – 3 (a seeming pacifist when he opts not to bullwhip his detainees); and Munny – 1 (a spent man, an ex-alcoholic, poverty-ridden pig farmer, sullen and heartsick over his wife’s death two years prior).
By movie’s end, these roles are completely reversed: the cowboys – 1 (they have been dispatched by Munny and Schofield); English Bob – 3 (beaten, chastened by Little Bill and sent packing; in his dishevelment, his cultivated English accent replaced by impotent cockney insults); Little Bill – 8 (his experience and sadism revealed, including gratuitous torture and murder of Ned); Munny – 10 (in a scene reminiscent of any given Man With No Name film, mows down Little Bill and his full complement of deputies; the only thing separating this act with the hundreds of other executions Eastwood’s Strangers have performed being the character studies and known motivations of each of the slain men).
In many of Eastwood’s “Stranger” films, the lead character defies convention and remains stoic throughout the story whilst all other characters around him arc towards redemption or damnation. As he defied character convention with his Strangers – who never rode off into the sunset, but almost always faded into a landscape that was responsible for spawning them and then re-assimilating them unto its bosom when their mission was accomplished – in UNFORGIVEN, Eastwood turns convention on its ear once more, by offering a lead character whose redemption was at the beginning of the tale, who arcs to the condemned state that The Stranger character personified.
Further, there is no redemption for anyone. From the cowboys (who are killed mercilessly) to the cut whore, Delilah (whom Munny tells a soul-shattering lie), to Ned (remorseful of his part in the bounty killing, yet never gaining the opportunity for repentance before his own untimely death), to Skinny (Anthony James), the saloon owner (whom Munny takes unwarranted revenge upon), to Schofield (who finds not glamor, but horror in his chosen profession), every character attains an unabsolved, “unforgiven” state. When Munny, Ned and Schofield are involved in the shooting of the first cowboy, though Ned is minimally involved, though Munny fires the death-dealing shot, though Schofield has had nothing to do with it, when Schofield asks, “Did we kill him?” Munny remorsefully replies, whilst looking at the shell-shocked Ned, “Yeh, we killed him,” the “we” implicating all of them equally in the guilt.
Never has so much ugliness been such a thing of beauty.
As Leone imbued a gritty “realism” to his westerns (in the process ironically creating a new romanticism in the form of the amoral, rogue Stranger), UNFORGIVEN not only pays homage to Leone in its “realism” (characters drawn from the insecurities, idiosyncrasies and impurities of human nature), but serves simultaneously as a recant of the nuveau-romantic iconography that the spaghettis – and later, Eastwood himself – were responsible for perpetuating. No more sending the thematic message that the “anti-hero” is something to aspire to, or that the laconic, lone gunman was heroic in any way. In UNFORGIVEN, the almost mystical lone gunman – the main character as a youth – was simply an irresponsible, drunk sociopath; in this movie, each death has a resonance inwards – with each character – and outwards, to the surrounding protagonists; as Eastwood himself put it, “no nameless bodies fall from rooftops.”
No one is hero or anti-hero. Each character simply seeks equilibrium, some way to live their life without the demons that haunt their savage past and indefinite present, each harboring some form of sin. As Little Bill asks whore Alice when she accuses him of beating an innocent man, “Innocent of what?”
Hidden in plain view in UNFORGIVEN, amongst the subplots, is one of the elements responsible for romanticizing the Western – writer W.W. Beauchamp, who enters the movie having penned a veritable mythological biography on “The Duke of Death” – English Bob – filling his book with fanciful, uncorroborated vignettes, related by Bob himself, his work flowered with “a certain poetry to the language which he couldn’t resist,” thereby creating the western myths out of which John Wayne’s and Clint’s very characters of the past decades were spawned.
To Beauchamp, as with all mythos-creating media, “reality” was not a consideration for the marketplace. As Carleton Young tells James Stewart in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, “This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Beauchamp’s eyes are opened to a harsher realism when he encounters Little Bill Daggett, abandoning Bob to begin documenting Little Bill’s philosophies on violence and “bad men.” Ultimately, Beauchamp comes upon William Munny, who personified the ideal that Little Bill spoke of, and for whom the legendary tales spoke truth (the cool-headed gunman who could overcome superior odds; the truly “bad man,” “cold as the snow with no weak nerve nor fear”). In Munny, Beauchamp at last witnesses the Real West, far more brutal and unclassifiable than he dared realize.
We are attracted to Clint’s characters for righting wrongs directly and judiciously. In UNFORGIVEN and in Clint’s previous movie, the much-panned THE ROOKIE, he shoots a man directly in the face; in ABSOLUTE POWER, he injects a lethal substance into an assassin who attempts to kill his daughter (when the assassin pleads mercy, Clint’s reply, “I’m fresh out”); Dirty Harry’s credo was also full frontal assault – Clint’s characters have never had any compunction over justice without honor (false or perceived).
This was an aspect of his characters that John Wayne found hard to stomach, once writing to Clint and lambasting the hypocritical, greedy, apathetic townspeople in HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, whom he felt did not represent the true spirit of the American pioneer. Wayne, being a product of an earlier era – the romanticized west – also objected to “that kid’s” (referring to Clint) modus operandi of shooting unarmed men or shooting men in the back.
I suppose this is what makes an “anti-hero” – someone who metes out justice via their own rules, not society’s. The end result is the same. The world is a better place. But society loves to play its games of duplicity, diplomacy (a euphemism for lies) and fair play only afforded those who can afford it.
Clint’s characters do not “stand up for the little man” but for the wronged man. Wrongdoing must be dealt with – immediately, fiercely and without remorse, which is what his characters have always brought to the screen. It is what William Munny brings, which is why he assumes the mantle of the heroic character in UNFORGIVEN, even though the movie itself is an indictment against “anti-heroes”; descending into a personal hell to set things right, his regression is regarded as a grand sacrifice he is willing to make to remain righteous.
UNFORGIVEN opens and closes with long shots of Munny on his farm, firstly digging a grave (for his dead wife), and in the film’s final shot, visiting it for the last time (and thence fading into the landscape like so many of his avengers), while the closing text-crawl simultaneously bookends the film and brings it full circle. But now this mirror image of the opening text-crawl hits us with palpable impact after the exhaustive character study we have just witnessed – for though her mother and locals never understood why, we the viewers now know how Claudia Feathers could have married this man of “such notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.”
Dedicating UNFORGIVEN to Sergio [Leone] and Don [Siegel], two of his seminal influences and mentors, Eastwood commented, at the time of the film’s release, “The movie summarized everything I feel about the Western.” In turn, critic Carlo Cabaña summarizes Eastwood: “In his best work, he turns the clichés back into the archetypes from which they sprang.”
the magnificent stranger…
Who would’ve guessed that the original title to FISTFUL OF DOLLARS – IL MAGNIFICO STRAGNERO (“The Magnificent Stranger”) – would ultimately find more congruence than the final title, in the embodiment of Eastwood’s characters?
As that film spawned a new era in Westerns and violent films (Leone’s and Eastwood’s successive films included), the early ’90s saw another mini-revolution in what critics would call “revisionist westerns” – DANCES WITH WOLVES, LAST OF THE MOHICANS – “revisionist” being an arty euphemism for a more balanced portrayal of the frontier than the bulk of bigoted White-Eyes’ media, like the singing cowboys and one-dimensional, whooping Indians of John Ford’s and John Wayne’s day.
Maybe synergy would have inevitably conjured a tale like UNFORGIVEN – indeed, David Webb Peoples wrote the script in 1976, so the movie could have been anyone’s for the making, Francis Ford Coppolla owning the rights until 1983. We might have seen it coming. As Roger Ebert opines, regarding the Western milieu, “It was time for an elegy.”
What we did not see coming was that the Man With No Name who sweated blood and bullets giving birth to The Stranger iconography – Clint Eastwood – would himself be responsible for its world-shaking, elegiac swansong.