Unforgiven (1992)

As the movie Unforgiven opens, we see a man digging a hole near a medium-sized tree, while we hear “Claudia’s Song,” a nice piece of sentimental music.  From the written prologue, we gather that the man is William Munny (Clint Eastwood), burying his wife Claudia, who died of smallpox, leaving him to raise two young children.  Munny used to be an outlaw, but Claudia got him to quit drinking and give up his wicked ways. Whenever we hear her eponymous melody, we know that Munny is still under her influence.

The scene shifts to the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, and to Greely’s Beer Garden and Billiard Parlor in particular, which is really just a saloon and a whorehouse.  One of the whores named Delilah giggles when she sees the small penis of one of her customers, a man named Mike, and he gets out his knife and starts trying to cut her up.  His friend Davey is in the next room, humping on Strawberry Alice, and the two of them hear Delilah’s screams and come running.  Mike yells at Davey to hold Delilah. It’s a little hard to see what is going on because the room is dark, and so, just from watching the movie, I never thought that Davey did anything.  However, in the “Original Screenplay,” it says that Davey reluctantly holds Delilah while Mike slashes her face.

The present owner of Greely’s, a guy named Skinny, breaks it up by putting a gun to Mike’s head. Someone fetches Little Bill Dagget (Gene Hackman), the sheriff.  He decides that Delilah is essentially the property of Skinny.  As a result, Little Bill merely fines Mike and Davey for cutting Delilah’s face up.  They are told to bring Skinny seven horses in compensation for the damage to his property.

The whore with a heart of gold is a Western cliché, but in this movie, we have six whores with six hearts of gold.  They are outraged by the way Little Bill let Mike and Davey off with just a fine. They put their savings together and put out the word to their customers that they are willing to pay a thousand dollars to anyone that kills the two men that cut up Delilah.

Meanwhile, back in Kansas, we see that Munny is a pig farmer, which makes me think of Shane (1953).  In that movie, Alan Ladd, as the title character, walks into a bar to get some soda pop for Joey (Brandon De Wilde), a young boy, not old enough to enter the bar himself.  Chris Calloway (Ben Johnson) is sitting at a table with some other cowpokes.  When he sees Shane, he says to the bartender, “Will!  Let’s keep the smell of pigs out from where we’re drinking.”  Chris works for Rufus Riker (Emile Meyer), who owns a ranch. We know they are real men because they herd cattle. Homesteaders, on the other hand, may have a single dairy cow, but they typically own pigs.

And so, we see that Munny has sunk pretty low.  To make matters worse, we see him falling down in the mud trying to move the pigs around, mud that is probably mixed with feces.  While this is going on, a young man rides up, calling himself the “Schofield Kid.”  He’s heard about Munny’s reputation for being a killer, and he wants him for a partner to help collect the bounty of a thousand dollars for killing the two men that cut up Delilah.  Except that the story, as he relates it, has grown some.  He says that the two men not only cut up the face of a “lady,” but they also cut her eyes out, cut off her ears, and cut off her teats. This is the first indication we have that the stories about the Old West were exaggerations, which suggests that this is a revisionist Western.

At first, Munny declines the offer to be the Schofield Kid’s partner, saying he’s not like that anymore.  However, he soon decides to go for the bounty.  He is no longer good with a pistol, but he decides he can make do with his shotgun.  And his horse is not used to be ridden on, so he has trouble mounting her.  But he eventually manages to ride over to the farm of his old partner, Ned (Morgan Freeman), and talk him into going along with him.  Ned agrees, grabs his Spencer rifle, and they set out to catch up with the Schofield Kid.

Munny keeps talking about how his wife Claudia got him to quit drinking and killing. Another Western cliché is the gunfighter with a guilty past, and he has the guiltiest past of them all.  He thinks back on some of the men he killed, men that he admits didn’t even deserve it.  Later we find out that he was responsible for setting off some dynamite that killed women and children.  But Munny keeps saying, as a kind of mantra, that Claudia changed him, that he’s not like that anymore.  It’s just that he needs the money for a new start for him and his children.

Meanwhile, another man is on a train heading to Big Whiskey to collect the bounty.  He is English Bob (Richard Harris), accompanied by W.W. Beauchamp, his biographer, who has written about English Bob’s exploits in his book The Duke of Death.  There is a discussion on the train about the recent shooting of President Garfield.  English Bob says that’s why it would be better if America were ruled by a monarch, since people are intimidated by majesty and are less likely to assassinate a king or a queen.  Not only does he have the effrontery to come over here and tell us how to run our country, but he doesn’t seem to realize that being a gunfighter is an American preserve.  We know things are not going to end well for English Bob.

As English Bob and Beauchamp arrive in Big Whiskey in a mud wagon, they pass a sign that says firearms are not allowed in town and must be deposited in the county office. When they get off the mud wagon, a deputy politely informs them that they must surrender their sidearms for the duration of their visit. Although there is a pistol in full view on English Bob’s hip, he denies that he or his companion have any sidearms.

Now, if I rode into town hoping to collect a bounty and was told that guns had to be turned in to the sheriff, I would have turned in my gun.  Then I would have looked around town, talked to the whores, and reflected on this unexpected turn of events. Once I decided what I was going to do, whether to give up on the bounty altogether or try to collect it by other means, I would have told the sheriff I was leaving, received back my gun, and ridden out of town, intent of leaving for good or executing Plan B.

Anyway, after refusing to hand the deputy his pistols, English Bob gets himself a shave. When he comes out of the barbershop, he is surrounded by Little Bill and his deputies. Little Bill takes two guns away from English Bob, and proceeds to knock him down in the street and then repeatedly kick him, to serve as a warning to anyone else who might be thinking about collecting that bounty.  He then throws both English Bob and Beauchamp in jail.

Meanwhile, Munny and Ned finally catch up with the Schofield Kid.  But just before they do, Ned gets curious about Munny’s sex life.  Ned is so needy sexually that he hated the idea of leaving his wife, an Indian named Sally Two Trees, even for just a couple of weeks.  So, he wonders if Munny ever goes to town to have sex with a whore. Munny says Claudia wouldn’t want him doing that.

And then Ned asks him if he masturbates.  That qualifies this movie as a modern Western, suitable for the 1990s.  Of course, if the movie had been made ten years later, Ned and Munny would have pulled a Brokeback Mountain (2005).  And if made ten years after that, around the time that The Shape of Water (2017) was receiving the Academy Award for Best Picture, I suppose Munny would have found a deep, meaningful relationship with one of those pigs he had.  It’s important for a movie to stay up with the times.

Back at the sheriff’s office, Little Bill is reading The Duke of Death, only he insists on calling it “The Duck of Death” instead.  He is especially interested in this one part of the book, telling how English Bob protected a lady by killing seven men with two pistols.  It turns out that Little Bill was there that night, and he proceeds to tell Beauchamp how it really was.  And how it really was turns out to be a sorry mess.

Beauchamp becomes so interested that Little Bill lets him out of his cell so that he can start writing stuff down.  Little Bill revels in his revisionism, and Beauchamp becomes more interested in that than in the romanticized stories he has been writing about English Bob.  The next day, Little Bill runs English Bob out of town, but Beauchamp stays behind.  They end up at Little Bill’s house, which he has been building himself. It’s a running joke among the deputies that Little Bill is no carpenter, one of them saying there is not one straight angle in the whole house.

That night, while Beauchamp is writing down more of Little Bill’s revisionist tales, it starts raining, and the roof starts leaking in several places.  Beauchamp jokes that Little Bill should hang the carpenter, not realizing who the carpenter was.  The joke does not go over well with Little Bill.  The house is symbolic of his revisionism, in that it is as ugly and deformed as the stories he tells.

Back out on the prairie, the Schofield Kid asks Munny if that story is true about how two deputies had rifles pointed at him, and he drew his gun and killed both of them. Munny says he doesn’t “recollect,” either because he really forgot, on account of being drunk at the time, or because he feels guilty about his past and doesn’t want to talk about it.  The Kid then claims he has killed five men, although Ned and Munny don’t believe him, and, as we later learn, it turns out he’s never killed anyone at all. Once again, the movie is saying that stories of the Old West were exaggerations, if not complete fabrications, as when men like English Bob and the Schofield Kid brag about their fictitious exploits.

But later on, Ned says to Munny that the way he remembered it, there were three deputies that had the drop on him, not just two, and Munny killed all three of them. Munny says he’s not like that anymore.  This is the opposite what we have seen up till now.  The true story about Munny killing three deputies changed over the years to just two deputies in order to make the story more believable.  And whereas English Bob and the Schofield Kid made up stories about themselves, Munny refuses to acknowledge the stories about him that really happened.  This is the first instance of anti-revisionism in this movie, a counterpoint that gets stronger as we go along.

Eventually they arrive in the town of Big Whiskey and go into Skinny’s saloon.  Munny has become ill, owing to the cold rain they have been riding in.  While the Kid and Ned go upstairs to discuss the bounty and get a little advance on it by having sex with a couple of whores, Munny remains seated at a table, shivering. Word has gotten out about their arrival, and soon Little Bill and his deputies show up, surrounding Munny, as Little Bill asks him if he or his friends are carrying any guns.  Munny says he is not armed, and his friends don’t have guns either.

Here we go again!  At first, I thought English Bob was just being foolish in denying he had a couple of pistols on him, as another way of saying that British immigrants have no business being in a Western, especially in the role of a gunslinger.  But now we have Munny doing the same thing.  And so, once again, Little Bill finds that Munny does have a pistol, and once again, he starts kicking him just as he did English Bob, after which he throws Munny out into the street.  Strawberry Alice tells the Kid and Ned where they can hide out, somewhere outside of town. They find Munny, now barely on his horse, and they head on out to the place Alice told them about.

This is exactly where they could have ended up without any trouble.  Munny could have admitted that they didn’t see the sign, apologized while handing over his gun, and admitted his friends had guns too.  Then, the next day, they could have told Little Bill they were leaving town, collected their weapons, and ridden out to the house Alice told them about. Instead, Munny has not only been beaten severely, but he no longer has his pistol anymore either.

In expressing my dismay at the way these two men, English Bob and William Munny, refuse to hand over their guns, I am not saying that this movie is being unrealistic in this regard.  It reminds me of those stories we see on the news where some guy is pulled over by the police and asked to show his drivers license, and instead of simply complying with that request, he wants to argue about it.  Some people are like that, stubbornly resistant to authority, even when it is likely to cause them grief.

The fact that some people are like that does not answer the question, why are English Bob and William Munny like that?  That is to say, the mere fact that there are people like that in real life does not, by itself, warrant their being in a movie.  It has to be justified dramatically as well.  The only thing I can figure is that having Little Bill kick Munny all around the barroom floor makes the revenge Munny gets on Little Bill later on all the sweeter.  And then, having English Bob do the same thing previously, only to get kicked around in the street, normalizes their behavior.  If Munny had been the only one to do this, we might have said to ourselves, “Boy, that guy sure is dumb!”  But having had English Bob do it as well is intended to make us believe that gunslingers in the Old West, who went around killing people on a regular basis, would have been strongly averse to handing over their firearms.

After three days, Munny recovers.  He and his two companions find out where Davey is with some other cowboys herding cattle.  Ned shoots at him with his Spencer rifle, hitting his horse instead, which falls on Davey, breaking his leg.  As he tries to crawl away, Ned can’t bring himself to finish him off.  Munny takes the rifle and finally hits Davey in the gut.  He is dying, but slowly and in much pain.

This is not the kind of kill we usually see in a classical Western, where men die immediately, unless their death is delayed for just a moment in order to allow for some final bit of dialogue.  The ugliness of Davey’s death brings us back to the revisionist mode.  After it’s over, Ned says he can’t do it anymore, and he leaves to go back home.

Later, Munny and the Kid find out where Mike, the other man with the reward on his head, is holed up. When Mike comes out of the cabin to use the outhouse, the Kid sneaks up on him, opens the outhouse door, and shoots him right in the middle of his bowel movement.  And this leads to a fundamental principle:  if you want to make a movie that the audience will regard as revisionist, it helps to have an outhouse scene. Outhouses in Westerns were frowned upon while the Production Code was still in force, and a classical Western would have eschewed them in any event.  But once the Production Code was replaced by the ratings system in 1968, outhouses started showing up regularly.  Making sure that bowel movements are given their due lends a Western an aura of authenticity.  At first, we only saw them from the outside, but in 1972, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid moved us right into the outhouse, where we found Robert Duvall and another man sitting side by side, discussing their next robbery, while they each were taking a dump.  If only that movie had been filmed in Smell-O-Vision. That would have really have been revisionist!

So, if Davey’s death was unromantic on account of being drawn out and miserable, Mike’s death in the outhouse is downright ignominious, and the Kid can take no glory in it.  In short, the deaths of these two men seem to confirm Little Bill’s account of how messy and unpleasant things really were in the Old West.

Unfortunately for Ned, some cowboys from the same ranch where Davey and Mike worked catch up with him as he tries to make it back home.  After working him over, they bring him to Little Bill, who proceeds to interrogate him with a bullwhip, trying to find out who his friends are and where they are hiding out.  But Ned won’t talk, so Bill tortures him even more, so much so that Ned dies.

Unaware of Ned’s death, the Kid sits under a tree, drinking whiskey out of a bottle, while Munny watches Kate, one of the whores, riding up from town in the distance. The Kid admits that Mike was the first man he ever killed, and it is clear that it bothers him. At this point, Munny begins delivering some heavy lines.  “It’s a hell of thing killing a man,” he says.  “You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever going to have.”  The Kid looks for reassurance, saying they had it coming, hoping Munny will agree with him. Munny replies, “We’ve all got it coming, Kid.”  No one in a revisionist Western ever said anything like that.

They find out from Kate that Ned died, and that before he did, he told Little Bill that his partner was William Munny, the man who killed women and children when he dynamited the Rock Island and Pacific in ’69, and who killed a U.S. Marshall in ’73.  After Ned died from the beating, Skinny propped him up in an open coffin outside his saloon, and put a sign on him saying that this is what happens to assassins.  While Kate tells them this, Munny takes the whiskey bottle from the Kid and starts drinking from it.

That night, a storm comes up.  Munny gives the Kid the money to take out his cut and then see to it that the rest is split between his kids and Sally Two Trees, in case he doesn’t make it back.  He takes the Kid’s Schofield pistol, which the Kid says he is never going to use again anyway, and then Munny rides into town. Just before he reaches Greely’s, he throws the empty whiskey bottle on the ground, and we know he is now the killer he used to be.

In the saloon, plans are being made to ride after Munny and the Kid, but then Munny steps in through the door, holding a shotgun, just as we hear a crash of thunder.  It’s real wrath-of-God stuff. We see the look on Beauchamp’s face, as the camera slowly moves in on him, and it is clear that he is spellbound.  All that revisionist stuff is gone from his head, as he realizes he is about to witness something more glorious than anything he ever wrote about.

After finding out that Skinny owns the place, Munny shoots him for decorating his place with Ned’s body. He starts to shoot Little Bill, but the shotgun misfires.  He draws his pistol, and what follows is reminiscent of the story Little Bill made fun of when he was reading from The Duke of Death, only this time it’s real. Munny shoots Little Bill and then one deputy after another.  And except for Little Bill, who is still alive, the death of each of the deputies is quick and clean, not slow, painful, and ugly, like that of Davey and Mike.

In the “Original Script,” Munny says to those still in the room, “Every asshole that doesn’t want to get shot best clear out the back quick.”  But in the movie, he says, “Any man don’t want to get killed better clear on out the back.”  Now, I’m no expert on prosody, but this version strikes me as poetic, as having the kind of meter one might find in a ballad that tells a tale like this.  And it is fitting that such a line be spoken by this man at this moment, as he undoes all the revisionism that has come before.

Little Bill is still alive, and he makes a feeble effort to shoot Munny, but Munny knocks the pistol aside and points Ned’s Spencer rifle, which he retrieved from where it was in the room, at Little Bill’s head.  Little Bill says, “I don’t deserve this.  To die like this.  I was building a house.”

His reference to the house is fitting.  Munny is about to put an end to Little Bill’s life, and that will mean the end of that ugly house he was working on, which is a metaphor for the way Munny is putting an end to the ugly revisionism that Little Bill and his house represent.

Munny delivers another heavy line, saying, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”  That sounds good, but I’m not sure what it means.  After all, it would seem that Little Bill does deserve to die for all that he has done. Perhaps this refers back to Munny’s earlier remark.  If “we’ve all got it coming,” then it is not a question of who deserves to be killed, but rather who it is that gets to do the killing.

Before he leaves, Munny threatens the whole town, telling them that they had better not shoot at him as he is leaving, or he’ll not only kill any man that does so, but he’ll kill his wife and burn his house down. Now we know why there has been so much emphasis on the fact that Munny once killed women and children, for the townsfolk know that he means what he says about killing wives.

Munny further threatens them, telling them to bury Ned right and not to bother the whores, or he’ll come back and kill everyone in the town.  Then he rides away, leaving behind the fearful citizens of Big Whiskey and an awestruck W.W. Beauchamp, already envisioning his next book, which will surpass everything he has ever written.

The epilogue tells us that Munny used his share of the bounty to move to San Francisco, where he became a successful dry-goods merchant.  In short, the movie has a happy ending, as every classical Western should.

One thought on “Unforgiven (1992)

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