A little while ago, I wrote a two-part piece about the important impact westerns had on film history. I looked at the values within society these films projected at the time of their releases. However, I also explored the destruction of the romanticism within the western and the course the genre has taken to be relevant today.
And, so, I recently sat down to re-watch the film that kicked this off: Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. After experiencing the movie for the first time in a couple of years, I was compelled to take a deeper dive into the film that shaped the future of the western. To explore, in detail, a film that broke our illusions of the west and made us question our relationship with violence.
But, it should not be overlooked how significant it is that Clint Eastwood directed and starred in Unforgiven. To transition our perspectives of the genre and to have one of the defining figures within the western do this, is a move that is shocking but also compelling.
So, let’s take our spy glasses to the masterwork that is Unforgiven. Also, spoilers ahead!
The Illusion Unforgiven Shatters
Unforgiven is a film about the collective past. A past that wraps itself around you, like an unshakeable sickness. And, so, we see our protagonist, William Munny, return to the life of a gunslinger after escaping and settling for a simpler, more moral life. Unfortunately, that life is proving to be difficult to provide for his children. Therefore, Munny must take to his old life with his old partner Ned Logan and the green Schofield Kid. The posse goes in pursuit of two cowboys who busted up a prostitute. And, as the film moves along, we are reminded time and again of the distance between the apparent heroism of it all. But, we are also bludgeoned with the reality that none of this has any honor in it.
In a literal sense, William Munny represents the western throughout Unforgiven. He is worn out, struggling to fire straight and even to get up on his horse. He appears as green as the Schofield Kid, even when considering his folk status. And, through this perspective, we see a genre that has become tired of the illusion it has created; how the morality lies beneath the surface. This may, indeed, also reflect Eastwood’s opinion on the state of the genre and may, therefore, give us an insight into both genre and star throughout Unforgiven.
Alongside this attempt to shatter the Western romanticized image of morality is the film’s integration of violence in a grisly light. This lens over the impact of violence supports the question of morality within the west and strikes out against the canvas of our imagination.
Unforgiven: Destroying The Glory In Violence
The scene that drives this point home the hardest revolves around the Schofield Kid. He has just taken his first life, despite boasting otherwise, and is struggling to accept what he has done. He repeats over and over about how quickly a life can end. The mask of masculine violence is torn away as the Kid’s face is riddled with guilt.
There are several elements on the micro-level that support the impact of this scene, showing a masterful direction by Eastwood. Firstly, the non-diegetic sound is absent. A feature that I’ve noticed Eastwood’s uses during his most impactful scenes, we are allowed to focus on The Schofield Kid’s dialogue and expressions. Secondly, the camera no longer lingers on the beauty of the open plains and, instead, takes a much more intimate stance. This helps the audience align with what is happening here as it no longer seems like empty boasting. Finally, the framing of Munny and the Kid shows us the real effect this conversation has on Munny. As William is placed in the foreground, the Kid appears like a shadow of his former self and the guilt is etched into our protagonist’s face like a grieving parent, unable to comfort their child.
This scene shows us what the passage of time does not: to be a gunslinger in the old west, was to suffer immensely. What is so beautiful about this is that we are now left with the fantasy destroyed. In our own way, we feel the guilt for finding pleasure in the violence.
What Is The Impact of Unforgiven?
Unforgiven is the rare western that forces the audience to look within. To examine our passivity towards violence in movies. And to question what it says about humanity that we would pay to watch heinous acts on screen.
As Dan Carlin said on the Hardcore History podcast, if a studio made two films that were exactly the same, but one had real people dying in it and the other was the simulated violence we moviegoers enjoy today, which would sell better? Rarely do we as a species question our relationship to violence, and Unforgiven forces that into our minds.
So, instead of this faux idea of the glory days hanging over the west, the wall is destroyed and we see the ugliness and misery for what it really is. There was no time of greater morality, simply one of the people. A time of survival, of love and of grief.
In this instance, the image our minds held firm becomes hollow; a wish that the pain we feel now as a civilization is not as it always has been. Ultimately, morality has always existed in some form since the cognitive revolution, we’re just not very good at committing to it.
How Do We Go On?
So, the genre has revealed its greatest trick. And the knowledge of a lie is like ash in the mouth, but how do we go on with it? How does the western remain relevant? Well, we as an audience and as filmmakers grow. What became a cynical, pulpy nightmare can become a genre of introspection. We can tell stories that keep the core of what made cowboys so beloved. But we can also explore our interpretations of the history in reality and of the film world.
That idea gave birth to the neo-western. A new lens is placed upon these stories and we appreciate elements of the genre, old and new. Our character can be a hero while also being a tool to question our imbalanced ideas of the west.
In this, Unforgiven has created a new generation of westerns. A way to regain a larger audience, tell smarter stories and appreciate it for both the reality and the myth.
Do you like Unforgiven? Love westerns in general? Let us know in the comments!