“Unforgiven” - Clint Eastwood (1992)

Unforgiven (1992) is one of the most famous American films about the Old West (i.e. the cowboy era), and yet it has generated a wide variety of responses and interpretations.  Indeed, I’m even aware of the film being the subject of an academic Ph.D. thesis [1].

The main issue among critics concerns the degree to which the film can be seen to be in the Old Western form of a hard-core morality tale – you know, “good guys” versus “bad guys”.  Some reviewers, such as Roger Ebert, saw the film as that kind of morality tale, albeit in a souped-up form [2].  Others still like the film, but view it differently and see it as a revisionist or anti-Western that is meant to debunk the shallow morality of the old good-guy-vs-bad-guy format [3,4,5].  As Murtaza Ali Khan summarises [3],
“Unforgiven doesn't embody righteousness, but projects domination based on ruthless opportunism. Unforgiven depicts a clash of egos, a battle of wits between two supreme caricatures.”
Part of the interpretive confusion about the film arises from the fact that Unforgiven stars and was directed by Clint Eastwood, an iconic “good guy” of Hollywood Westerns.  Eastwood wasn’t always a nice guy in those old films, but he was almost invariably heroic, and I particularly liked him in Sergio Leone’s “Spaghetti Westerns” – A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).  But the real question in this instance is: was Eastwood an agent of good here in Unforgiven?  That’s where people disagree.

Certainly the film has always been well-regarded.  Unforgiven was nominated for nine U.S. Oscars, winning four of them – Best Picture and Best Director (Clint Eastwood), Best Supporting Actor (Gene Hackman), and Best Film Editing (Joel Cox).  Screenwriter David Webb Peoples (also known for Blade Runner (1982) and 12 Monkeys (1995)) received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.  Interestingly, the film featured four elderly actors playing key roles of aggressive gunslingers – Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, and Richard Harris were all born in 1930, making them about 62-years-old at the time of this production; and Morgan Freeman was born in 1937, making him about 55.  And they combine to give a reflective seasoning to the actions undertaken by these characters. 

All in all, many people feel this film is Eastwood’s finest work, both as an actor and as a director.  Nevertheless, I would agree with some critics that the film’s overall message and whether it is in a good direction requires further scrutiny.

In this connection I would say that there are two fundamental themes associated with this film worth considering:
  • Morality 
    What are the overriding ideas or schemes that direct people in life?  What guiding principles direct them to do what they consider to be right?  I use the term ‘morality’ here, but I am not talking about a complete moral system, but rather a more primitive disposition, such as taking revenge, concerning how to intuitively do what is thought to be right.
  • Narratives 
    What are the stories in this connection that people tell about themselves and others that supposedly summarize who they are?  These little stories about someone often stick in the mind and immediately come up when we think of that person, whether he or she be a hero or a villain.
Traditional Old Western movies usually have just a single good-guy-bad-guy narrative and a simple narrative; but I would say, more along the lines of the perspective taken by Joseph Kupfer [6], that Unforgiven has a much richer tapestry in this regard.  To highlight these ideas in the following discussion, I will single out and enumerate various “Morality” and “Narrative” elements explicitly.

The story of Unforgiven starts and ends with a textual meta-narrative perspective (Narrative 1) from the mother of a woman, Claudia, who had recently died (in 1878) and who was the wife of the film’s protagonist, Will Munny (played by Clint Eastwood).  Neither Claudia nor her mother are ever seen in the film, and this meta-narrative element is only there to inform the viewer that Munny was known as a fundamentally bad guy:
 “. . . it was heartbreaking to her [Claudia’s] mother that she would enter into marriage with William Munny, a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.”
Then the film moves to the first of roughly six segments, many of which are atmospherically set in dark and rainy environments.  In fact these continually gloomy, rainy evening settings give a memorable expressionistic cast to the presentation that is one of the film’s main virtues.

1.  1880, Big Whiskey, Wyoming
Two cowboys, Quick Mike (David Mucci) and Davey Bunting (Rob Campbell), are with prostitutes in a saloon/brothel.  Suddenly these activities are violently disrupted when Quick Mike viciously attacks and disfigures his prostitute, Delilah (Anna Thomson), for having giggled at the sight of his puny cock.  The two cowboys are quickly captured by saloon proprietor Skinny Dubois (Anthony James) and then turned over to the strict town sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (played by Gene Hackman, famous for his roles in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The French Connection (1971) and French Connection II (1975)). 

Little Bill immediately intends to have the two cowboys horsewhipped, but this punishment is objected to by Skinny Dubois, who complains that he needs to be compensated for his damaged “property”, i.e. his disfigured prostitute Delilah.  So Little Bill changes his mind and orders the two cowboys to deliver seven horses that they own to Skinny Dubois.  The other prostitutes at the brothel, led by Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher), however, are outraged by this decision and decide to pool their collected life savings – $1,000 – and offer it as a reward to anyone who kills the two cowboys.

So now we have several morality positions already staked out in this story:
Morality 1
  • Quick Mike wanted revenge for being insulted.
  • Skinny Dubois, a utilitarian, wanted monetary compensation for his material loss.
  • Little Bill wanted the perpetrator to be punished.
  • The whores wanted revenge.  
  • Note that Davey is condemned equally with Quick Mike, even though he didn’t slash Delilah.  He is deemed equally guilty just for being a partner of Quick Mike.
Since punishment is a form of revenge, we can say that three of these four agents wanted revenge.

2.  Recruitment in Kansas
The scene shifts to a small pig farm in Kansas, which is visited by a brash young gunslinger, “The Schofield Kid” (Jaimz Woolvett), who wishes to recruit the farm owner, Will Munny (Eastwood) to help kill the cowboys and claim the now well-known reward.  Years earlier, Munny was a notorious outlaw and murderer, but when he met his now-deceased wife ten years ago and reformed under her guidance, he became a law-abiding citizen and father.  Because he is no longer the outlaw he used to be, Munny rejects The Kid’s invitation, and The Kid departs for Wyoming disappointed.  But after reflecting on the impoverished status of his pig farm, Munny changes his mind and decides to catch up with and join The Kid.  Soon Munny recruits his old gunslinging partner Ned Logan (played by Morgan Freeman, soon to famously appear in The Shawshank Redemption (1994)), and they both ride off to join up with The Kid.

Meanwhile, over in Big Whiskey, Quick Mike and Davey show up with eight horses to give – the seven demanded by Little Bill and an extra one to give to the whores.  But the whores want revenge, not compensation, and they drive the two cowboys away by stoning them.

Morality 2
  • The Kid cares nothing for morality and only seeks money and notoriety.  In his descriptions to others, he exaggerates the harm done to Delilah in order to evoke outrage  (Narrative 2).
  • Munny is now willing to sacrifice his acquired morality for money.
  • Ned Logan just wants a share of the reward money and to team up again with his old partner.
  • The whores still only want revenge.
3.  English Bob  
Then in Big Whiskey, a famous English gunslinger, “English Bob” (Richard Harris), shows up evidently looking to collect the whores’ reward money.  He is accompanied by a fawning chronicler, W. W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), who has already made money with his hero-worshiping book about English Bob, The Duke of Death.  But Big Whiskey is ruled with an iron first by Sheriff Little Bill, who absolutely prohibits any guns in the town.  In this sequence we see just how vicious and cruel Little Bill is, as he thrashes English Bob to within an inch of his life for gun possession.  Little Bill’s policy is to set horrifying examples to any potential future wrong-doers and scare them to death. 

After the severely injured English Bob is dispatched on a stagecoach out of town, Beauchamp decides to stay and transfer his reportorial focus to the fearless and cruel Little Bill.  Little Bill then regales Beauchamp with tales about his own cold-blooded nature and the lethal gun fights of his past.
Morality 3
  • English Bob wanted money and more notoriety via his biographer Beauchamp (Narrative 3).
  • Little Bill is sadistic and takes personal pleasure in seeing to it that anyone who breaks his rules suffers unbearably (Narrative 4).
4.  A Gang of Three
On the way to Big Whiskey, Munny and Ned finally catch up with The Kid.   When they see that The Kid is near-sighted, it becomes clear why he needs a partner; he needs a partner who can hit a target with a rifle from a distance.  But The Kid doesn’t want to split up the reward bounty three ways and rejects Ned.  Munny tells The Kid, though, that he won’t play without Ned, so The Kid has to accept him.

When they arrive in Big Whiskey, it is another dark and rainy night, and the trio don’t notice the sign at the town’s outskirts declaring that firearms are prohibited in town.  They go to the saloon, and while The Kid and Ned partake of some prostitute-fueled pleasures upstairs, the feverish and rain-soaked Munny sits sullenly at a table downstairs.  Just then Sheriff Little Bill walks in and, discovering that Munny is armed, beats him to a pulp, again overdoing it and leaving his victim half-dead.  Munny is left to slither on his hands and knees out of the saloon and into the falling rain.

Ned and The Kid just manage to sneak out of their bordello quarters and take Munny to a place outside of town.  While Munny is recuperating, The Kid proposes to Ned that the two of them carry out their murder mission without Munny. But Ned refuses and insists that they wait for Munny to recover.  After a few days and with the attending help of prostitute Delilah, Munny is well enough for them to go ahead.  
Morality 4
  • Munny is fiercely loyal to his partner, Ned.
  • Ned is loyal to his partner, Munny.
  • The Kid is not loyal to anyone and just wants the fame and money.
5.  The Murders
Munny, Ned, and The Kid now head out to kill the two offending cowboys.  They first ambush Davey outside of town, and Ned wounds him with a rifle shot.  But Ned is unwilling to fire any more shots, and Munny has to finish off Davey.  It becomes clear that Ned no longer wants to participate in killing, and he heads off on his own back to Kansas and without any reward money.

But before he can get away, Ned is captured by Little Bill and interrogated using torture in Little Bill’s effort to get more information about the whereabouts of Munny and The Kid.  Off-camera, Ned is tortured to death, and his corpse is placed in an open coffin outside the saloon to serve as a stark warning to anyone who might consider violating Little Bill’s rules about firearms.

Meanwhile The Kid traps Quick Mike when he is unarmed in an outhouse outside of town, and he kills him from point-blank range.  Then Munny and The Kid are visited by one of the prostitutes, who gives them their reward money and reports to them what has happened to Ned.

But The Kid was traumatized by what turns out to have been his very first act of killing.  He renounces his share of the reward and heads off alone back to his home.
Morality 5
  • Ned had renounced killing and gone straight.
  • The Kid renounced killing and his whole outlaw self-image (Narrative 5).
  • Munny now seeks revenge for what happened to Ned.
6.  The Showdown
It’s another dark and rainy night in Big Whiskey when the closing extended and well-edited segment plays out.  A determined Munny rides into town and heads for the saloon looking for revenge.  With his rifle, he guns down a defenceless Skinny Dubois at point-blank range.  Then he turns his ire on Little Bill and his armed posse of deputies, and a chaotic gunfight ensues.  Through it all, Munny is a grim indestructible exterminating angel, using his pistol to kill five more people with five more shots.  Then he reloads his rifle, and finding a wounded Little Bill still alive, shoves the muzzle into Little Bill’s neck and finishes him off.  Then he leaves the saloon, shouting to anyone within earshot that if he encounters any further resistance, he will kill them and their families and burn their houses down.

Morality 6
  • Munny has become the cruel embodiment of vengeance – the angel of death (“Maashhit”).  He has completely abandoned his earlier self-image of a reformed miscreant now following a virtuous path (Narrative 6).
The final textual frame reports that Munny and his two children had reportedly gone off to San Francisco and prospered in dry goods (Narrative 7).

So what can we make of this orgy of hatred in Unforgiven?  Is there any meaningful message to be taken from it?  Although some critics felt the film’s ending draws the viewer back into the traditional Old Western narrative, I would agree with Joseph Kupfer that this is not the case [6].  There are a number of different problematic moral stances expressed in this tale, but there are no heroes here.  Consider these key characters:
  • English Bob – egocentric and ruthless
  • Little Bill – a despicable, vengeful control freak
  • Will Munny – vengeful and selfish
  • W. W. Beauchamp – enthralled by simple Western heroism, but participates in the torture of Ned Logan
  • Strawberry Alice – obsessed with vengeance
  • Skinny Dubois – women are property to be used for his own profit
The Schofield Kid (who is a habitual liar) and Ned Logan do eventually feel uneasy about killing people, but they are hardly models of moral rectitude.  For me, although Little Bill is not a sympathetic character, reveling in his final annihilation serves no purpose and does not satisfy.  Basically all these people are obsessed with selfishness and rank.  For many of the men in the story, a pistol seems tp be just a symbol for their male organ [6].  And severe punishment is the way to degrade others and obliterate them from further competition. 

This is the essence of a Revenge Film, and Unforgiven simply elevates revenge to an almost hallowed status.  The narratives these people fashion for themselves are artificial and self-serving.  But as I have previously remarked in this connection, revenge films are a dead-end for those seeking some enlightenment or rewarding entertainment from film viewing [7]:
“Thrashing and stomping on those who are judged to commit wrong will not solve the problems in society; it merely perpetuates the cycle of hatred and violent reaction. All revenge films suffer from this basic moral discrepancy.  Such violent ‘retribution’ may supply some visceral satisfaction, but it is only a primitive, animalistic response.”
So although Unforgiven features some moody and evocative cinematics, it disintegrates into a disappointing and dispiriting conclusion.

  1. Ditte Friedman, Unforgiven: a hermeneutical reading, University of Melbourne, Australia, (2012). 
  2. Roger Ebert, “Unforgiven”, RogerEbert.com, (21 July 2002).  
  3. Murtaza Ali Khan, “Unforgiven (1992): Clint Eastwood's Tribute to Leone, Siegel and the Old West”, A Potpourri of Vestiges, (March 2012).   
  4. Duane Byrge, “'Unforgiven': THR's 1992 Review”, The Hollywood Reporter, (3 August 2017).  
  5. Chuck Bowen, “Review: Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven”, Slant, (1 August 1, 2017).   
  6. Joseph H. Kupfer, “The Seductive and Subversive Meta-Narrative of Unforgiven”, Journal of Film and Video, Vol. 60, No. 3/4 (FALL/WINTER 2008), pp. 103-114.    
  7. The Film Sufi, “‘Friday’s Soldiers’ - Masoud Kimiai (2004)”, The Film Sufi, (8 February 2012).   

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