But in the first five minutes of the film, Eastwood quickly whisks us deep beneath those conventions and gives us not an illustration of how good triumphs over evil but instead a demonstration of degrees of brutality and how they play against each other.
Throughout the film, three of its five lead characters--William Munny, Little Bill Daggett, and English Bob--are presented to us, the viewer, as practicing violence for the sake of violence, they like the thrill of killing and brutality--it seems to be in their nature.
We see the film’s main character, William Munny, ostensibly having some past experience as a very successful gunfighter, at the film’s outset, a pig farmer and single parent, in financial straights and about to embark on a bounty-hunt for the needed reward money. Munny intimates to his friend and supposed one-time crime partner, Ned Logan, that he has been cured of his “wickedness,” by his late wife Ansonia, and we see initially that Munny is making an effort to raise his two young children by himself and manage a farm--although failing at both. Munny at first seems even to have forgotten how to use his pistol or ride a horse, skills he realizes he will need if he is to go on the manhunt.
Yet Ned, who functions both as Munny’s de facto chronicler as well as the film’s only moral compass, relates how Munny was, at one time, quite a cold-blooded killer, frequently referring to him having been “one crazy son of a bitch.”
Despite, difficulties throughout the film, Munny ultimately does exhibit a level of terror and brutality that, at the climax, is simply more than that any which his nemesis Little Bill Daggett is able to muster.
Indeed, when I attempt to contrast Munny with his opponent, Little Bill Daggett, I am hard-pressed to do it because while Little Bill is himself, the sheriff, a character, who, in any other western, would represent justice and righteousness in an otherwise lawless world, he is really no more than a brute, albeit one who wears a badge.
We learn of Little Bill’s coldness and lack of any humanity in the film’s opening, where he must address the mutilation of Anna, one of the young prostitutes in Strawberry Alice’s whorehouse. We, the audience, experience almost at once the disappointment in Little Bill as his powerful bearing and presence--to me reminiscent of a John Wayne or Randolph Scott-- and even his opening lines of apparent compassion--asking Strawberry Alice whether or not Anna will survive her wounds--quickly turn out to be a sham with Little Bill quickly reducing what is a crime of horrific brutality into a business transaction, imposing a “fine” as he calls it, in the form of six ponies, on the two perpetrators, Quick Mike and Davey.
In return Bill will not charge or arrest the two or even punish them by whipping. Bill seems quite satisfied with his resolution to the whole affair and gives not a second thought to the plight of the injured Anna let alone getting any kind of justice for her. When Strawberry Alice challenges his response to the the situation, Bill strong-arms her into silence, making clear that he will brook no opposition.
Likewise, we see how Bill rules the town of Big Whiskey not through benevolence or strength of character but with sheer physical brutality--this exemplified in two key sequences--the first his encounter with the outlaw English Bob--a mercenary who kills Chinese railroad workers for pay.
While English Bob is portrayed as a vile albeit sophisticated outlaw, his arrival in Big Whiskey in itself poses no threat to the town or its people--he is simply a mercenary responding, like so many others mercenaries, to Strawberry Alice's offer of a bounty to whomever kills Quick Mike and Quick Mike for their assault on Anna.
Yet Bill responds with violence and humiliation, at first taunting English Bob in front of the townspeople and then beating him bloody through the streets of the town.
Much later, Bill demonstrates himself as not only a bully and a brute, but also a sadist in his interrogation of Ned Logan, using his bull whip to torture the latter into giving up Munny’s location. He even displays Ned’s flogged corpse for all the townspeople to see, in a grotesque exercise of power and intimidation.
In the film’s climax, Munny confronts Little Bill with only a very small amount of moral contrast--ostensibly Munny declares himself as avenging Ned’s death and attempting to make sure that “no more whores get cut up” in the town. Yet Munny and Bill are for all intents and purposes brute against brute.Their final confrontation is not good against evil, but merely degrees of evil, degrees of willingness to hurt and kill and destroy and bring chaos--and since it is Munny who is the more adept at all of these qualities and can take them the furthest, he wins--a triumph of wills not morals.
Munny understands, far more than Little Bill, this reality and his place in it. When Little Bill declares Munny a murderer of women and children, the latter responds almost gleefully , acknowledging his slaughter of innocents and going on to affirm that he has “killed pretty much anything that walks or crawls, at one time or another.” Munny points out Little Bill’s demise as if it is already fact before he even touches his trigger--so confident is he in his powers to dispense death. We see in the final tour de force of editing--inspired by Eastwood’s 1960s work with director Sergio Leone--that Munny makes no idle boasts, transforming into an 1880s equivalent to The Terminator.
Even before this scene, Munny has already become (or returned to) a killer persona. During the ambush of Davey in the canyon, Ned cannot bring himself to shoot the boy from the cover of the rocks--essentially what would amount to, for him, cold-blooded murder--but rather only wounds Davey’s horse, causing the boy’s leg to be crushed. It is Munny who steps in and finishes Davey off. Munny is cold and steady as he administers a “gut shot” into Davey. While Munny does show some compassion by allowing Davey’s friends to give him water and comfort him as he dies, there is no mistaking the steely nerve of a man who has an instinct for bringing death.
The American West is the closest thing that we have in our culture, to an ancient mythology, and it is one that has been exploited in books, films, and television in countless ways--but more often than not showing the violence/action-packed aspects, along with the heroic ideals, of its inhabitants.
While Unforgiven shuns the expected black-and-white morality of many such westerns, making Munny and Little Bill both equally horrific, in their own ways, it is also offers what is for me an unparalleled insight into the nature and power of cultural myths and their fragility--how truths get distorted over time and often deliberately. In Unforgiven even the characters themselves seem unaware of these distortions of fact--either of their own pasts or others.
These distortions of truth begin almost at the film’s start with the accounts of Anna’s mutilation. While terrible, they are exaggerated wildly by first Strawberry Alice and then The Scofield Kid, in order to create sympathy and a desire for revenge. But this misrepresentation is small compared with what we are presented with in the characters themselves.
In the case of Munny, the viewer only has Ned Logan’s account for how vicious and destructive, how much of a “crazy son of a bitch,” Munny was in his past life, before marrying. All of Munny’s exploits during his supposed outlaw days are recounted solely by Ned, while Munny himself repeatedly claims not to remember any of them inasmuch as he was “drunk most of the time.” Yet Ned’s accounts of Munny’s lawless exploits are hugely at odds with the latter’s present life, in which he appears not to even be able to use his firearms effectively or ride a horse properly.
Similarly, with Little Bill Daggett, we learn that he “came out of Texas and Kansas,” and “worked tough towns,” only from the conversation of his deputies. Ultimately, with his beating of English Bob, the viewer is given at least some evidence of truth in what the deputies related, yet his past is still left mainly a mystery inasmuch as we see only his penchant for torture and sadism rather than any actual past heroics as a virtuous lawman.
Yet, the best example of myth at odds with reality lies in the character of English Bob--all we actually see of his qualities is that he is a very capable shot--specifically, during the pheasant shooting scene on the observation deck of the train into town--and that he has apparently been engaged as a mercenary for the railroad, “killing Chinese”--this last seemingly borne out when we see him doing mock target practice on the Chinese citizens of the town, as his carriage rolls through the street.
Yet, it becomes clear that any other information about English Bob is highly suspect, particularly the heroic accounts of his biographer, Beauchamp, who travels with him.
In fact, English Bob’s myth is totally destroyed in the “Jailhouse” sequence, the longest and in some ways most pivotal in the movie--second only to the climactic one. Here Little Bill has confined Beauchamp and English Bob, after his beating of latter, and it is here that Little Bill proceeds to destroy English Bob in the audience’s eyes, painting him as a comical drunk and womanizer in stark contrast to the chivalrous hero of Beauchamp’s biography--The Duke of Death--even intentionally parodying the title into The Duck of Death.
At the end of the sequence, it is not enough for Little Bill to have dismantled English Bob’s myth--even to the point of winning over Beauchamp. Little Bill must play a sadistic mind game with him, as well, actually giving Bob the apparent opportunity of escape by offering him a loaded revolver--in effect giving English Bob a chance to reconstruct and re-validate his myth as a great outlaw hero--if he can simply shoot him and make a getaway.
I think the audience really wants and even expects English Bob to take the gun, kill Little Bill, and redeem his own legend--and in any other western that might be what happens--but not in this one. English Bob cannot bring himself to take up the weapon and use it. Perhaps, English Bob is afterall a coward and Bill is right in his depictions--yet we will never know the truth--it is long since distorted through time and the characters’ own biases.
In terms of distortions, we finally have the young, supposed gunfighter, The Scofield Kid. Throughout the film he paints himself as an up and coming killer, an outlaw who seeks to apprentice himself with Munny.
But his reality is also vastly differently from the figure that he initially portrays himself to be. We learn first that The Kid is in fact woefully nearsighted and cannot see to shoot anyone unless they, as in the case of Quick Mike--the other of the two men who mutilated Anna-- are literally right in front of him. Also, The Kid ultimately confesses to Munny that his earlier boasts of killings were entirely fictitious. His one and only kill, the ignominious murder of Quick Mike in the privy, acts as an epiphany for The Kid, who makes clear to Munny that he is not like him and never will be.
Munny’s actions, in the climactic scene at Greeley’s, are at the heart of this whole idea of myth against reality. Here Munny guns down Little Bill, his deputies, and the proprietor, Skinny. Munny’s actions here make the whole question of his past meaningless--in a sense it does not matter whether the accounts of his brutal outlaw years are true or not--exaggerated or not. Whether Munny was or was not that person then, he is that person now--the myth and reality have collided. We see it, on the screen, with our own eyes--or saying it another way, as viewers, we can only be certain of what we see--anything that we are told in this film may be suspect.
By the conclusion of Unforgiven, Munny has either returned to or transformed into--depending on what we choose to believe--the murderer and outlaw that Ned so clearly depicted. Munny’s return to (or emergence as) the bringer of chaos, a kind of one-man apocalypse, is complete.
Unforgiven is without doubt, as has been pointed out on many occasions, an anti-western, with William Munny bringing chaos and death rather than order and peace with him wherever he goes. It depicts a universe of evil winning out over more evil.
Munny’s story is not one of redemption, then, but instead one of anti-redemption. His salvation is everyone else’s destruction or vanquishment.
But Unforgiven is equally an exercise in how a film’s audience chooses to invest credibility into its characters--and why they do it. Unforgiven, reminds us that all narratives are subjective and usually created to give us what we want to believe, with objective truth either of little importance or flat out irrelevant.