Admitting Our Evil American Soul in Clint Eastwood’s ‘Unforgiven’

25 years later, we still got it coming…
Unforgiven Eastwood
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on August 9th, 2017

Resigned to a life covered in pig shit, William Munny collapses over his fevered collection of hogs, leers over his pathetic pen, and stares into a past life littered with corpses born from his trigger. Filling the bellies of his children has only been getting more difficult. Going through the motions of fatherhood, haunted less by the notion of their empty bellies than the maggot-covered face of his dead wife. William Munny was always lucky when it came to killing, but it’s all run out as a father and farmer. He was never made for this life. Why ignore the evil buried within, the evil that elevated him to a saloon-talk legend? Why pretend he’s nothing more than a monster? All on account of loving a woman.

For his sixteenth directorial effort, Clint Eastwood returned to the saddle for the last time (don’t hold your breath for any more oaters from the 87-year-old). After a few decades of playing several seriously badass cowboys, Eastwood was looking to explore the dirtier dusters of American heroism. The Man With No Name was always out for himself, but his code often aligned with Hollywood notions of justice. The Outlaw Josey Wales was that Dixie whistling folk hero that still somehow managed to align with the plight of the Native Americans.  Pale Rider and High Plains Drifter were dirtbags for sure, but again, their vengeance always felt righteous. For Unforgiven, Eastwood wore the face of those champions, but its narrative eventually exposes the black soul we all fear we possess.

When the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) rides up to the homestead only to find this dilapidated grump covered in feces and age, he spits disgust towards the wilting legend, “You don’t look like no rootin’-tootin’, son-of-a-bitch, cold-blooded killer.” Munny has spent years ignoring his past self in fear of it being his true self, and he’s certainly not going to kowtow to this wannabe shootist. He holds this ultimate fear close to his vest, exploring the question only with fellow one-time villain Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman). Munny blames the drink; Logan, their youth; neither able to resist the chance to make some much-needed income via their wretched skill set.

David Webb Peoples’ original title, “The Cut-Whore Killings” made no pretenses on how low the morality of the film would plummet, but certainly, would have cost the production its audience. Dropping “Cut-Whore” to “The William Munny Killings” kept it in tone with its Western dime novel roots, but the eventual “Unforgiven” was just metaphorically melancholic enough to secure its big britches as the inevitable Best Picture at the 65th Academy Awards. The title ultimately lands as the final judgment against William Munny. He’s not Josey Wales, he’s an assassin…a killer to the core.

Yet, Unforgiven does attempt to eat its cake and have it too. The inciting incident of two cowboys slashing the face of a prostitute as a result of her tiny-penis giggle certainly establishes a few bottom-feeders worthy of Munny’s boot.  Peoples’ script sinks even further into scum when revealing Sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman) as a condescending pragmatist willing to trade whore-flesh for horseflesh. This injustice produces the bounty that lights a bat-signal across the union, calling all men of low character to Big Whisky, Wyoming. Here are enough goons to confuse the audience onto the side of William Munny.

By train enters English Bob (Richard Harris). This dude is all confidence and contempt for Americans. As James Garfield succumbs to the wounds of another killer across the nation in Baltimore, Bob rattles out barbs of disgust towards the very notion of the presidency, prickling the nerves of the passengers around him. Tagging on his coattails is the dime novelist W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), lapping up his stories, hiding behind his shoulder when Bob’s comments stir potential conflict. Bob need not fear assassination; his legend keeps him alive.

In Big Whisky, however, Bob is all talk. When Little Bill steps to the Englishman after his shave and a haircut, Bob drops his bravado with “Shit and fried eggs.” Here is not legend. At least, Bill can back up his B.S. with a posse of armed deputies. The beating he unleashes upon Bob is disdain fueled by his own ego, and absolutely savage. He’s putting on a performance. He seeks idolization from his men, his town, and the writer. The Duck of Death mockery of the caged Bob sends Beauchamp’s yellow journalist heart to flutter. The tearing down of Bob builds up Little Bill, readies the audience for the colossal fall in the crosshairs of William Munny.

Gene Hackman is a terror. His emasculation of English Bob is nothing compared to the capture, torture, and off-screen murder of Ned Logan. That weak chin, resting on the whipped back of Morgan Freeman, and the quiet whispering threats oozing from his lips scored him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Those few moments, which explicitly represent hundreds of years of racial hatred in our country, primes the supposedly progressed audience to root for Munny when he finally returns to the drink and raises that shotgun in Grealy’s saloon.

While he seemingly can’t shut up about his evil past self, Munny spends the majority of the film chastising the wickedness of his youth. In the end, he cannot deny his nature. Munny’s rage upon hearing of Ned’s death results in a devastating pull at the bottle, falling off the wagon, leaving the embrace of his wife’s love once and for all. The Schofield Kid has already soothed his conscious with booze, and the confidence that the dead cowboys “had it coming.” The end arrives when Munny announces that “We all have it coming.”  We’re all guilty of something in this world. Why run from it? Why deny the satisfaction of helping all men to their demise?

Little Bill: I’ll see you in hell, William Munny.

William Munny: Yeah.

Ned Logan’s Spencer Carbine:  BOOM!

The damnation of Clint Eastwood is nothing to cheer. It leaves first-time viewers confused and often frustrated. We want to root for the home team. We want to celebrate the action aggression of our protagonists. Unforgiven gives us nothing to celebrate. If anything, it condemns every last one of us. America was built on violence, and we dare not admit our sins like William Munny. Stay away from the bottle, pretend that the love of our family is enough to sustain us.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)