Warner Brothers/Everett Collection
Clint Eastwood won his first Academy Award for this Dirty-Harry-meets-the-western classic.
People often assume that westerns are about America; and people are often right. It’s logical to think that Sergio Leone, in Once Upon a Time in the West, used the pioneer period to represent all of US history. Yet the film he called Once Upon a Time in America is set in New York City. I advise caution when it comes to this “about” business.
On the screen right now we have Unforgiven, directed by Clint Eastwood from a screenplay by David Webb Peoples. It is a western, one that is so rich in its themes, so brooding and intense in its manner, that I suspect it will outlast us all. Unforgiven may turn out to be a classic. But is it a classic about America?
The answer is certainly yes, at least during two sequences, the lesser of which concerns a hired killer called English Bob. Played with sleazy grandiloquence by Richard Harris, English Bob rides into the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, accompanied by his very own biographer, who is eager to record Bob’s exploits. For his part, Bob seems eager to stir up a few. He struts around, braying insults to the Americans (he is indeed English) on the subject of the recent assassination of President Garfield. When the head of state is a royal personage, Bob explains, a sense of awe will stay the murderer’s hand. “With a President—well, why not kill him?” Before anyone foolishly and fatally takes offense at this slur on democracy, the town’s sheriff disarms Bob. Then, presumably acting on behalf of the audience (and the director), the sheriff whales the daylights out of him.
The audience around me squirmed some at this beating. It went beyond expectations; it hinted that the keeper of the peace would be capable of even worse savageries in the name of law. Even so, the sheriff, Little Bill Daggett, was played by Gene Hackman, who’d been drawing on a formidable stock of shrugs, drawls and eye twinkles to make his character likable. In a spirit approaching gaiety, we received the movie’s first allegorical lesson: Though nobody, even the President, is safe in this country, anyone who blames excessive violence on our precious liberty deserves to have the hell kicked out of him.
The second allegorical lesson of Unforgiven comes at the end of the film and is considerably less inspiring. Before us looms a man who’s a lapsed everything—child killer, woman killer, horse abuser, drunk. At the start of the movie, he was reformed. Now he’s done something damnable again, and he knows it. It’s nighttime. Rain is pouring down, and the man’s deathly face is lit only by a flickering torch. In a mixture of rage and self-loathing, he utters this bone-chilling threat: that he will return, if he has to. The man, of course, is Clint Eastwood. Behind him hangs an American flag.