I never did like John Wayne. Even before I learned of just how awful a person he was, I didn’t understand this fascination with a man who was played the same character over and over with no range. He wasn’t a real cowboy and he really never served in war time combat. So, I don’t understand why so many people then and still do see him for something he wasn’t.
I have some issues with Clint Eastwood, but at least he was more focused on breaking down the John Wayne myth. Cowboys since the late 1800s are really nothing more than circus performers. Buffalo Bill Cody and ‘Annie Oakley were performers for an audience. That’s all a rodeo really is. Real cowboy life wasn’t glamorous and nowhere near what it was portrayed. Cowboys shoveled manure, herded livestock over hundreds of miles and basically were victims of the elements.
By 1881 when Unforgiven is set, the last of the outlaws and cowboys are too old and trying to settle down. The industrial revolution was around the corner. Railroads had really diminished the need for cowboys to drive cattle for long distances. Robber barons had pretty much gobbled up all they could ending most of the land wars of the era. And Indigenous Native Americans were forced to isolation on reservations by the U.S. government and military.
The Civil War had been over for a while and those who moved west hoping to start anew weren’t looking for much confrontations. Most towns like Big Whiskey, Wyoming in Unforgiven had strict ordinances on who could carry firearms within the town limits. And local law enforcement like Sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) had to resort to more draconian measures to keep the less desirables outside of the town. There was prostitution and women like Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher) and others worked for men like Skinny Dubois (Anthony James), a saloon owner, because it brought in business for both of them.
When we first see William Munny (Eastwood), he’s a hog farmer out in the middle of nowhere in Hodgeman County, Kan. He has two young kids, a son and a daughter, but his wife has been dead for three years from smallpox. He’s approached by a young man who calls himself the “Schofield Kid” (Jaimz Woolvett), who has squints and sneers as he swears. But we later find out, Kid has bad eye-sight. He approaches William because he wants a partner and probably a better gunslinger to kill two cowboys who were responsible for cutting up one of the prostitutes, Delilah Fitzgerald (Anna Thompson), who worked for Skinny.
As the movie opens, one of the cowboys of the nearby Bar T ranch, Quick Mike (David Mucci) cuts up Delilah’s face and other body parts because she laughed at his small genitalia. Even though his friend, Davy Bunting (Rob Campbell) tried to stop him, Skinny was able to detain them with a gun and contact Little Bill. Apparently, it’s okay for Skinny to have a firearm and not other people in town.
Skinny explains to Little Bill that he paid for Delilah to come out from back east and feels that since she has a scarred face, she won’t be profitable as prostitute but just could work at his bar. Little Bill considers whipping Mike and Davey but decides that they turn over some of their horses to Skinny as a fine and restitution. This angers Alice and the others prostitutes who send out a $1,000 bounty for anyone who can to kill Mike and Davey.
This is how Unforgiven differs from anything Wayne or other western movies would’ve done before the 1970s. Delilah would have been a school marm and she would have been injured some other way. And Mike and Davey would’ve been seen as more evil. Mike is really no different than Skinny or Little Bill but Davey tries to give Delilah an extra pony that she can sell or use, but this further enrages Alice and the others. Unforgiven has been called a Revisionist Western. In the late 1960s and 1970s, filmmakers struck down the good guys wear white hats tropes. Eastwood’s Man With No Name trilogy with Sergio Leone gave us the cowboy anti-hero.
And I would say that’s what most of his westerns were about. The characters aren’t the good guys like the ones Waynes and Randolph Scott played. But they aren’t total bad guys. For people who grew up watching The Lone Ranger, the Old West wasn’t as in black and white as the show was. William decides to take Kid up on his offer after fearing that some of his hogs have fever and he’ll lose money by not being able to sell them.
He approaches his old friend and partner, Ned Roundtree (Morgan Freeman), to look in on his kids while he’s gone, but Ned asks to go along after initially telling William he wouldn’t be doing this if his wife was still alive. Even when he tries to shoot some old cans with a pistol, William can’t hit them. Eastwood was 62 when Unforgiven was released on this date, Aug. 6 in 1992, and I’m guessing William is probably in his mid to late 50s.
Also seeking the bounty is English Bob (Richard Harris), a very boastful man who openly berates any American he can on how uncivilized and unsophisticated they are compared to the British. The movie is set around the time President James A. Garfield was shot as Bob mocks Americans for shooting their second President within 20 years. Accompanying Bob is W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), a writer who isn’t prepared for the hardships of the Old West. Beauchamp is believing all Bob’s stories until they are confronted in Big Whiskey by Little Bill and his deputies. They are arrested, but not before Little Bill beats Bob unconscious.
In jail, Little Bill reads Beauchamp’s book The Duke of Death which details falsehoods of Bob’s actions. He calls Bob out on them in front of Beauchamp and explains that Bob was usually too drunk to do most of the things he did. And he didn’t shoot a man for defending a woman’s honor. Bob shot him because he was having sex with a woman Bob liked. There’s alos some subtle symbolism on sex and violence as Mike has a small “pecker” as Alice puts it. And the story Bill tells Beauchamp about a man named “Two-Gun Corky” wasn’t because he carried two pistols, but he had a penis that was as long as the barrel on a gun.
Beauchamp, like a lot of people, is more fascinated in the romance of the Old West and feels he can write about both the romance and the truth. He decides to stay in Big Whiskey to tell Bill’s story as Bob is sent away bloodied, beaten and defeated in a stagecoach. On the ride to Big Whiskey, William and Ned are also dealing with the Kid who seems to want to know a lot of their exploits and even boasts himself that he’s killed five people. Yet, William and Ned have their doubts, especially since they discover about how Kid can’t see too well with his eyes for such a young age.
Even after William gets a treatment of Bill’s law enforcement, they still focus on killing Mike and Davey. One thing I noticed is how non-chalant they talk about it as if it’s a simple task. They’re not bad people and Ned actually breaks down when they corner Davey with some other cowboys. Ned is able to wound Davey by shooting him with his Spencer Rifle, but William has to complete it. But even he feels remorse.
This leads to the deputies tracking them down and trying to protect Mike, who Kid is able to shoot fatally while he’s in the outhouse. And here’s where the movie differs from other more traditional westerns, William and Kid take the money. Normally, they would have refused it for the honor of doing good. But there’s nothiong good about killing two people. There’s nothing good about cutting up a woman’s face just because you think she’s a “whore” a word thrown around a lot in Unforgiven. Beauchamp still stays in Big Whiskey even after witnessing Bill beat up William and the deputies still support Bill even when he brutally whips Ned who is caught.
Who’s right and who’s wrong? The movie never does say. William stays away from drinking a lot in the movie only when he hears Ned has died due to Bill’s torture. When they advertise his dead body outside Skinny’s bar, he goes back in for justice. This is based on reports that Jesse James’ corpse was openly displayed for people to see. John Ford who shot him in the back would go on stage and recreate the moment.
And when we observe Bill talking to his posse about how they’re going to ride all the way from Wyoming down into Texas if need be to catch Kid and William, he speaks in a jovial way as if they’re getting ready for a vacation. But neither are really good or bad. You can see that Ned was remorseful as well as Kid. Yet could this all been prevented if Bill had turned Mike over to the courts? How would a judge or justice of the peace have ruled?
I thought it was interesting after William gets his revenge for Ned’s death that none of the other townspeople stand up to him, even when it should be apparent he’s got an a pistol with no live rounds. One of the deputies, Charley Hecker (John Pyper-Ferguson), who seems to be the one deputy in the whole movie is most nervous and scared, has a moment to get a clear shot on William as he’s leaving but refuses. And when he tells another town resident to do it, they refuse.
At the end, William rides off in the darkness of night as rain falls. There’s no glorious sunset and no triumphant music. William may have a few hundred dollars to spend which would be about 10 times that in today’s dollars but he’s become a killer again. He tells his kids how his late wife and their mother changed him. And even though he can rationalize that he was doing it for his kids, he’s a killer.
Maybe the reason no one chooses to confront William after he’s killed Bill and some of the deputies is that they didn’t care for Bill’s behavior. Like English Bob, they can sit in a bar and happily talk about how they’re going to ride hundreds of miles while they have law enforcement on their side, but when confronted with a true threat, they do nothing. I hate to be topical, but you can see a lot of this in today’s world with all the spree killers and how people are running for their lives. Our natural instinct is to save ourselves.
Unforgiven was Eastwood’s resurgence after some less than stellar movies in the 1970s and 1980s. I know those movies with the orangutan made a lot of money but Eastwood would continue to prove himself an artist director by making movies like Bird about Charlie “Bird” Parker and White Hunter, Black Heart, a fictional account of Jack Huston filming The African Queen. Reviews were mostly good but it launched his career as a more serious director for the next 30 years even though he had been directing movies since 1971 with Play Misty for Me.
Unforgiven won the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director and it’s really the last true Revisionist Western to be made. There was Tombstone and Wyatt Earp that came after and other movies like The Quick and the Dead also featuring Hackman, but few of them touch on the hardships and realities of the West. Sam Elliott, whose appeared in many Western, came under fire for his angry and sexist criticism of The Power of the Dog which is set in the 1920s and has Benedict Cumberbatch as a closested homosexual cowboy who proudly acted like a gruff manly man.
There’s criticism all around that we’re rewriting history as Critical Race Theory is painting a bleak (and honest) look at our history We don’t need another John Wayne running around showing up how “great” things are and dismissing the hardships of Native Americans as they should have fought harder against it which he did in a 1971 Playboy interview. Having grown up in the south, I’ve heard too much about how glorious The Civil War was and even people like Ted Turner have continued the Lost Cause with movies, such as Gods and Generals. But the reality is the cowboy life in the Old West was akin to people to work at Amazon warehouses. They work themselves to death.
William and Ned wanted to live the rest of their lives quiet and away from the noise. People like Kid and Beauchamp wanted the stories they heard to be real. But stories are only as believable as the person telling them.
What do you think? Please comment.