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.
If Clint Eastwood represents America in Unforgiven, then America is a drunk who can’t stay on the wagon, a killer who can’t resist one last murder. Among this figure’s other attributes: He idealizes women but apparently can’t live with them; loves children but abandons them to fend for themselves. When Eastwood’s character goes straight, he insists he’s an ordinary man. (We hear an echo, perhaps, of English Bob’s tirade on democracy.) But when the character reverts to type, he becomes a man apart—a killer so cold-blooded that he alone of all the badmen has outperformed his own legend. I thought of William Tecumseh Sherman. (Eastwood bears more than a slight likeness to photographs of him.) Having posited an absolute division between peace and war, Sherman concluded with terrible clarity that warfare must be made unendurable. That’s the America Eastwood seems to represent—either stuck in a posture of rigid moralism or else descending into a frenzy of total war.
No doubt you could spend many profitable hours figuring out how the second allegorical lesson jibes with the first. They clearly represent key moments in Unforgiven—and yet, taken together, these sequences account for no more than ten minutes of the film’s two hours. So much for the parts of Unforgiven that are explicitly about America. Let’s start again, and this time take the film’s events as they come.
Unforgiven begins with a prostitute in Big Whiskey who can’t hide her amusement at the size of a cowboy’s dick. The cowboy takes revenge by slashing the prostitute’s face. The sheriff storms in; and all at once the characters settle into an argument, in which they reckon justice in the most concrete terms. What would be the appropriate repayment for a face slashing—a whipping, or a fine of seven ponies? The brothel’s senior prostitute, Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher), is unsatisfied with either proposed exchange, so she soon makes a reckoning of her own. The cowboy slasher and one of his buddies must die. Whoever does the killing will receive $500 for each life taken.
Another two themes come into play. In the first, a man resorts to violence to maintain his sense of superiority over a woman. That’s common enough in our country, though I doubt it could be called characteristically American. Nor is it peculiar to Americans to treat justice as a question of exchange. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, burning for burning—that’s the law sheriff Daggett is trying to enforce, and the one that Strawberry Alice oversteps (with no small justification). There’s even something biblical in the sheriff’s cadences as he repeatedly orders the cowboys to bring their payment—the ponies having been reckoned the suitable recompense.
Are we in Big Whiskey, Wyoming, in the 1880s or in the spiritual landscape of Genesis and Exodus? If the answer is Wyoming, then we should recall that this territory granted women the vote in 1869. By 1872, a prostitute in Wyoming could even have imagined herself campaigning for President, in the person of Victoria Woodhull. No—by showing women being treated as chattel, Eastwood and Peoples have bypassed local history altogether, in favor of those biblical images of patriarchy that we all carry in the back of our heads.
It’s an atavism, which the whole tone of the production helps to reinforce. Much of the time Eastwood shows the actors in long shot, outlined against the endless landscape; or else he shoots them in close-up at night, their faces floating in the deep gloom that he and his cinematographers love so much. Like Old Testament characters, the actors in Unforgiven stand out starkly against a background that seems like eternity.
What Erich Auerbach wrote about Genesis might serve to describe Unforgiven as well. In both, we see the externalization of only so much of the phenomena as is necessary for the purpose of the narrative, all else left in obscurity; the decisive points of the narrative alone are emphasized, what lies between is nonexistent; time and place are undefined and call for interpretation; thoughts and feeling remain unexpressed, are only suggested by the silence and the fragmentary speeches; the whole, permeated with the most unrelieved suspense and directed toward a single goal…remains mysterious and “fraught with background”
Only by specifying a time and place does Unforgiven depart from these stylistic traits; and even then, “Wyoming 1880” means little more than “once upon a time.” That’s precisely what makes the western a useful genre for Eastwood. It’s his stepping-off point to the supernatural.
He’s been even more explicit about this otherworldliness in previous westerns, such as High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider. Here, by contrast, he evokes the uncanny rather than presenting it. (He also reins in the grotesquerie that runs loose in those earlier pictures. In keeping with the mood of its central character, Unforgiven often proceeds with the solemn deliberation of someone who badly wants a drink.) Still, it should be obvious that Eastwood means the title to be taken seriously. If this movie is about America, it’s also about a longing for redemption that antedates our Republic by 2,500 years.
So much for “about.” Let’s move on now to a more fruitful question: What is the western good for?
During the first twenty years of film history, the answer was simple: action. Moving pictures needed to move. They thrived on chase scenes, fight scenes, hairbreadth escapes and hurtling vehicles. Though the modern city could and did serve as a setting for such thrills, the West seemed more fitting. It was more manageable, too. In a period when many pictures were still filmed on location, rural California simply interfered less with shooting than did New York City. Not only was it easier to get the job done, but with so much less stuff in the landscape, there were fewer extraneous details on the screen to distract audiences from narrative sensation.
You can gauge how useful the West proved by watching, say, The Girl and Her Trust, a 1912 film by D.W. Griffith. It comes from the cinematic equivalent of the fifth century B.C., when Griffith, like the Greek sculptors of the classical period, seemed to have glimpsed in a flash all the possibilities of his medium and then developed them to perfection before breaking for lunch. Is there anything Griffith didn’t do in that film? Yes—he neglected to tell us anything at all about the West. Even the date of the story seems uncertain—does it take place in the recent past, or the present? The answer, of course, doesn’t matter. All Griffith wanted from the West was a train, two bad guys and a stretch of open country sufficiently large that it would take time for help to arrive. Anything else—history, economics, politics, manners—he saved for his social-issue dramas, where such information belonged.
To rephrase my first answer: The western was originally good for making pure cinema. If we keep that in mind, we’ll also understand how the western became good for all sorts of other things as well. Some directors—John Ford, above all—were so persuasive in their use of the genre that they made it seem as if the vessel of the western had meaning in itself. What really mattered, though, was the vessel’s void, into which filmmakers could pour whatever they wanted.
In Ford’s case, he poured in nostalgia, a bittersweet fatalism, a code of personal and civic ethics. The western was especially useful to him on the latter count, since he could pretend that his values came straight from the sacred text of American history. When we speak loosely of the western as being about America, that’s usually the aspect of the genre we have in mind. But try finding a sense of sacred history in Red River, Rio Bravo or El Dorado To Howard Hawks, the West often seemed to be nothing more than a convenient place where men could hang around and pretend to fight, though they really were in love with each other. As for Nicholas Ray, Budd Boetticher, Anthony Mann, Sam Peckinpah, Don Siegel—
I’ll stop. My point is simply that Clint Eastwood’s westerns are distinctive, and that Unforgiven, as the most fully realized, is the most distinctive of all. It’s true that Eastwood makes use of some conventions—how could he not? He fills the picture with talk about the old days and how they’re passing, with interplay between a brash kid and sadder, wiser men. And as I said at the start, Eastwood does allegorize American history, a little. But if there’s any picture in which he makes the West into a vision of America, it would be his 1980 romantic comedy Bronco Billy, which is set in the present and has him playing a shoe salesman from New Jersey. When Eastwood makes a real western, everything looks a lot darker—literally.
Just compare the richly toned murk of his cinematography to Ford’s floods of sunlight, his highland settings to Ford’s Monument Valley, his controlled-migraine performances to John Wayne’s swagger (even when Wayne was at his most driven or doubtful). To sum up with a reductive but handy opposition: John Ford made Hellenic westerns, and Eastwood makes Hebraic ones. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why women matter so much in Eastwood’s pictures, why in Unforgiven he goes so far as to identify with the slashed-up prostitute. Though it’s true that the patriarchs in Genesis have the power, the matriarchs all have wills and voices of their own.
Yes, Unforgiven is about America. Mostly, though, it’s the story of a man with the suggestive name of Munny, who was expected to murder his wife but did not. See it twice.