Unforgiven; Exposing the Darkness Within America.
Unforgiven (1992) is a modernist western film that challenges the romanticised foundations established by American culture. Unforgiven questions the manifest destiny and the ideal of violence, two themes which define the western genre, this is done by creating a world of ambiguity where characters and situations can not be categorised as right or wrong. Instead Eastwood’s films highlights the hypocrisy of the American culture which claims to be founded upon religious principles but yet have managed to carry the ‘original’ sin from Europe.
The settlers which were moving westward across the new world were justified by their belief in the ‘manifest destiny’, just like how Americans had resisted the European tyrants in the War of Independence, the American spirit would be once again forged by violence and bloodshed on the western frontier. However Unforgiven questioned this age old belief that American civilisation created order and progress out of chaos, instead Eastwood highlights the demons and sins which plague life on the western frontier where communities live without the constraints of laws or morality. This is achieved through contrasting the beautiful, open and scenic landscape with the dark and dingy atmosphere within the houses; a symbol of civilisation. Often accompanying the landscape is a soft melody which emphasises the beauty of natural environment, in contrast the low key lighting of the houses accompanied by the rain evokes a sombre and claustrophobic atmosphere when audiences are first introduced to Big Whiskey. This is especially seen when Will Munny the ‘protagonist’ of this film talks to his children through the doorway, the brilliance of the sunshine is unable to plunge into the darkness of the house. In Unforgiven, nature is portrayed as tranquil and peaceful and contrary to popular myth, it is the inhabitants who are savage and aggressive.
Little Bill’s house could been interpreted as a metaphor for the creation of an American nation, whilst it looks sturdy and strong at first, it’s faults and flaws are quickly exposed when rains starts to pour. Likewise whilst American clings onto a glorified mythology of the past, a glance at American history highlights the hypocrisy of such a stance. Furthering this symbolism is the fact Little Bill is the sole creator of the house, American’s violent traditions were crafted by white men with violent tendencies who had convinced society that their use of physical force was righteous or were beneficial to society. Similar all the killings within this film are done underneath a roof, in particular the finale where the Will Munny of the past arises due to alcoholism and anger. It’s telling the two most populated establishments in Big Whiskey are the brothel and the bar, the underpinnings of the American west wasn’t the divine guidance of the ‘manifest destiny’, but of rampant alcoholism and prostitution. The savagery no longer rests in the American Indians or the landscape, instead it is reflected off the flaws of every American living on the frontier. American civilisation was built upon the mythology that the pilgrims were spreading civilisation to the savage Indians and taming a hostile landscape. Eastwood forces the audience to question the legitimacy of these cultural beliefs, instead the characters are stripped off the romantic glossing that are found in traditional westerns. All are portrayed as sinful and chaotic in comparison to the majesty of the natural environment.
Violence was and continues to be a defining theme in the western genre, the belief that the America was ‘baptised’ by fire and conflict transfers from the War of Independence to the western frontier, where the belief was an individual must rise up with force to resist evil and savagery. The notion of ‘sacred violence’ was coined by Allen Redman (2004) which was the belief that violence can be redemptive if used to oppose evil and tyranny. This mythology is embodied in the protagonist of most spaghetti westerns, however Eastwood once again challenges this fundamental American belief. Unforgiven is a film where the morality of the characters are ambiguous, the protagonist mirrors the antagonist and both share similar vices and positives as is foreshadowed in the similarities of their names. Will Munny like Bill Daggett are both men of violence who attempt to leave the bloodshed behind but are eventually sucked back into the violent cycle of society. Both men are vulnerable to hypocrisy, whilst Daggett attempts to lower the amount of violence by banning guns in Big Whiskey, he nearly beats Will and English Bob to death and eventually kills an unarmed Ned. Likewise Munny earns the approval of the audience by staying faithful to his deceased wife, but then in a fit of rage and alcoholism, he murders multiple people in the Big Whiskey bar. By merging the boundaries of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’, when Munny finally kills Daggett, Eastwood is creating a conclusion where violence doesn’t triumph over evil instead killing is seen as a natural cycle of the sinful American society. The classic showdown between two cowboys at noon, both who are reliant upon their physical prowess, is no where to be found in Unforgiven. Instead Munny kills Skinny Dubois unarmed and then proceeds to murder others in cold blood and under the influence in alcohol. Eastwood tears down the mythological image of violence, it isn’t presented as redemptive or righteous, instead it is seen as a product of a damaged society living on the western frontier, where morality like laws have no impact upon the citizens.
America’s belief that violence can be used to redeem past injustices is still reflected through out its society today, the western frontier was shifted towards Germany and Vietnam where once again America attempts to destroy the evil and thus cement the divisions between them and the tyrannical. Eastwood’s Unforgiven on the other hand, questions the legitimacy of violence, through presenting the victim’s perspective and having the protagonist question the validity of his actions. Davie-Boy’s death at the hands of Munny was slow, excruciating and sombre, instead of a thrilling shoot out, Davie slowly bled to left after Munny shot him unarmed. Davie-Boy’s youthful appearance, his high pitched wheezing “He shot me, I’m so thirsty…” combined with the fact he was willing to give the ‘cut up whore’ an extra pony for his accomplices’ crimes earns him the empathy of the audiences. Usually within a western the vanquished evil doesn’t have a chance to speak up and instead the story focuses upon the victory of the protagonist. However Davie-Boy’s assassination was cruel, uncomfortable and lacked the glamour and glitz of the western genre, forcing audiences to recalibrate their standing after his death. The blurring of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is also seen when Munny reflects on his killing of the ‘drover’ boy, “he didn’t do anything to deserve to get shot, at least nothin’ I could remember when I sobered up.” Unlike Ned, Munny or even English Bob who were ‘othered’ as ‘cowards, assassins and crooks’ before being beaten, allowing society to digest these violent acts, the drover stands as an innocent victim whose only wrong was living in a society without morals or laws. The need of ‘othering’ is also reflected in English Bob’s comments about how it is impossible to shoot royalty, violence is only accepted when it is used against the ‘wicked’ or in pursuit of a greater cause. In Unforgiven, violence is a fact of life, the citizens of Big Whiskey don’t receive “what they deserve” instead everyone is drawn into the cycle of violence found on the western frontier. Eastwood challenges the illusions of America being a just and noble civilisation, the western frontier is transformed from a location where American masculinity is forged to a lawless civilisation where the strong rule the weak.
The dream of America existed before the Europeans settled on the new world, it was supposed to be a land of spirituality and redemption, away from the vices and constraints of the old way, in a way America still clings onto that old mentality despite the under lying hypocrisy. Eastwood’s Unforgiven is a modernist western that attempts to tear apart the romanticised images of the western frontier, a symbol of white dominance over the savage Indians and landscape. America’s beliefs that it was establishing order in the once lawless outback is questioned, in the film it is civilisation that brings along malice and immorality, contrasted against the tranquillity of nature. A core component of westerns is the use of violence to conquer the wicked, traditional films of this genre often have rigid distinctions between the good and bad in order to justify the use of force. However Unforgiven presents the audience was a moral dilemma, the protagonist has flaws whilst the antagonist has moments of sincerity. Instead of sacred violence being used as a means to an end, violence and bloodshed in presented as an integral part of the western fronter and it doesn’t discriminate against the right or the wrong. The concept of America was once noble, however the vices which the pilgrims wished to escape from sound festered within American society. Eastwood’s Unforgiven aims to point out the hypocrisy of America, how equality must be paved by with blood and how violence was used indiscriminately on the ‘righteous’ as well as the ‘evil.’
WORD COUNT: 1537.
Eastwood, C. (Director). (1992). The Unforgiven [Motion Picture]. United States: Warner Bros.
Grist, L. (1996). Unforgiven. In Cameron, I. A., & Pye, D. (Eds.), The Book of Westerns (pp.294-301). New York, New York: Continuum.
Redmon, A. (2004). Mechanisms of Violence in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven and Mystic River. The Journal of American Culture, 27(3), 315-328.