By B.E. Earl
06/12/2006 4:16 PM EST
Hey cowboys and cowgirls! It’s yer old friend Earl here again with a little something for your perusal. I guess it has been a little while, and Slyde’s been bugging me to chip in. I had a few current thoughts on my mind that I was gonna write about, but that all changed due to the rainout of the Yankee/Red Sox game tonight. It’s been raining all day here on Long Island (and in much of the Northeast), and I was in the mood to just hang at home and watch a good movie in my pajamas. The rainout gave me an opportunity for just that.
I had one of five movies in mind for this cold and dreary evening. Five films that I had recently thought about and happened to have on DVD, so I wouldn’t have to bother with a trip to the video store. Snatch was on my list, I guess because of all the recent media surrounding the birth of Brangelina’s baby. Road to Perdition was number two, for really no reason at all other than that I haven’t seen it since first purchasing it on DVD. High Fidelity was also there because I have this odd fascination with all of John Cusack’s films, but I hold this one in a special place of honor. Bull Durham was right in there because, well, I WAS going to spend the evening watching baseball anyway and this is just about my favorite baseball film.
But no, I decided upon my umpteenth viewing of Unforgiven, the last greatest Western ever made. That last part was my own humble opinion, of course. I’ve been a fan of Westerns for a long time and if you had told me back in college that I would someday see a better Western than The Searchers or My Darling Clementine or The Wild Bunch, well I guess I would have told you that you were just plum nuts. But in 1992, Clint Eastwood did what I thought was impossible. Not only did he make a Western as good as those classics, but (once again, IMHO) he surpassed them. Just check out the simple and elegant title card that we viewers were greeted with that set the stage for what was to unfold:
She Was a comely young woman
and not without prospects.
Therefore it was heartbreaking
to her mother that she would
enter into marriage with
William Munny, a known thief
and murderer. A man of
notoriously vicious and
When she died, it was not at
his hands as her mother might
have expected, but of smallpox.
That was 1878.
What a fantastic way to start a film. “That was 1878.” With that one sentence we are given so much. No long backstory or exposition, just a simple peek into the world that we were just about to immerse ourselves into. From there the story unfolds. Will Munny (Eastwood) has become a pig farmer with two children from his marriage to Claudia. Times are hard, but he works hard at remaining a good man to his family in honor of his dearly departed wife. He has given up drinking, swearing, violence towards animals and killing. His wife had saved him from that life. As we are told time and time again in the next hour or so, “he ain’t like that no more”.
Over in Big Whiskey, Wyoming (what a great name) two cowboys were having some fun with the local whores when one of the young ladies giggles at the size of the teeny gun one of the fellas is packing. He proceeds to cut up her face in a fit of furious rage, and we now have the fuel that drives the rest of the film. Strawberry Alice (a ferocious Frances Fisher) convinces the rest of the whores to combine their savings to hire assassins to kill the two men who cut up poor Deliliah (a thoroughly underrated Anna Levine. I can watch The Crow just for her scenes especially when the Crow tells her that “Mother is the name for God on the lips and hearts of all children”. Her reactions were fantastic. Plus she has big cans).
Soon, The Schofield Kid (James Woolvett) comes looking for Will to help him out with the dastardly deed. His uncle had told him stories of Will’s past deeds and told him that he was the meanest son of a bitch he had ever met. Will joins up with the Kid, after convincing Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), one of his former partners in crime, to accompany them. The town’s Sheriff is Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), a former gunfighter himself who keeps the peace at any cost. The interplay between Bill and those entering his town to break the law drives much of the action for the rest of the film.
But action isn’t really what Unforgiven is all about. It’s about deconstructing some of the myths of the Old West that had previously been portrayed on the silver screen. In some cases by Eastwood himself. The Kid turns out to be a naïve young man who is star-struck at the thought of becoming one of the famous gunfighters that his uncle had told him tales about. When he finally sees how low and dirty the job of killing a man actually is (wonderfully represented by a killing in an outhouse), he finds he doesn’t have the stomach for it.
My favorite character in the film is W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), a writer and chronicler of the Old West who has come to town with English Bob (Richard Harris). Bob has heard the tale of the whore’s gold and he has come to town to collect. Before he has a chance at contacting Alice, he is confronted by Bill who, in turn, proceeds to kick the living crap out of him. Beauchamp learns from Bill that English Bob is not the legendary gunslinger of yore, but a drunken coward who is lucky to still be alive.
Two tales are examined here. The Kid wants to know about something his uncle had told him about an incident in Lexington County where Will had killed two deputies who had come to arrest him with guns drawn. Beauchamp wants to know the real story behind the killing of a man named Corcoran by English Bob at the Blue Bottle Saloon. Will won’t or can’t comment on it as he insists he doesn’t remember what happened, although we find out from Ned that there most likely were more deputies than just two. Little Bill is only too happy to let Beauchamp know that Corcoran had done little to deserve being shot by English Bob, and in fact was unarmed at the time of his death because his weapon had backfired.
What is truth? What is myth? These are the answers Eastwood is searching for. Through the outsider’s eyes of Beauchamp, the moviegoer sees the transition from the deception of English Bob to the brutality of Little Bill and finally to the resignation and determination of Will Munny. Where is the honor in any of it? Was there any honor at all? Will Munny was a man just like any other man, he feels. His demons overcame his better angels in his younger days before his wife saved him. It’s only after the vicious and unreasonable killing of his best friend that we see those demons again. But it isn’t legendary skills with guns that lead to his success. It’s determination and luck. Will tells Beauchamp at the end of the film that he’s “always been lucky when it comes to killing folks.”
Will has no hope for redemption. He knows that he can never be forgiven for the things he has done even though he has done the best he could do to change the kind of man he is. When Little Bill utters his last words and tells Will that he will see him in Hell, all Will can do is accept it and respond with a soft-spoken “Yeah” before ending Bill’s life.
Friends often ask me what my favorite movie is. I usually respond that I love so many movies that it would be impossible for me to settle on just one. Every time I see Unforgiven, it becomes easier and easier for me to finally and truthfully answer.
“I guess they had it coming.” – Schofield Kid
“We all have it coming, kid.” – Will Munny