26 May 2014

Unforgiven: A Genre Analysis

Of all the genres in the history of American cinema the Western is easily the most popular -- or at least the most abundant.  The 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s saw hundreds upon hundreds of films depicting various aspects of the American West.  Though the genre is not as prevalent now, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), has proven itself to be one of the best examples of the genre.  The film takes a revisionist approach to Western conventions and unlike classic Westerns leaves viewers with many questions about what constitutes good and bad or right and wrong people.  Despite the ambiguities, Unforgiven still follows, often modifies, and sometimes violates Western standards.  This includes its presentation of stock characters, settings, plot and story events, and issues/questions that Westerns raise.

Like all film genres, the 
Western has its share of stock characters.  And though he is the protagonist, William Munny is still a Bad Guy in Unforgiven in terms of classic Western conventions.  We are told throughout the film by various characters, including Munny, of his violent past.  “I’ve killed women and children,” Munny says before the final showdown at Greely’s, “I’ve killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another.”  And it’s Munny’s history of wickedness that brings The Schofield Kid around to seek his help in killing the cowboys.  “You shot Charlie Pepper, didn’t you?” The Kid says, “You’re the one who killed William Harvey and robbed that train over in Missouri.”  Many shots of Munny have his face drenched in darkness and shadow, giving us a visual manifestation of his dark side. When he comes into Big Whiskey for the final showdown, the camera takes an ill-omened point-of-view shot -- an evil presence is coming...  But worth mentioning is that William Munny is portrayed by Clint Eastwood, an actor many know and remember for his Westerns – so while Munny may be a Bad Guy, Eastwood’s iconography easily makes him the character to root for.
Opposing Munny’s lawlessness is Little Bill Daggett’s lawfulness.  In one scene – the confrontation with English Bob – he’s standing in front of an American flag:  as sheriff he represents America.  And even though he is seen as more physically violent than Munny –- Bill brutally beats English Bob, Munny, and Ned on separate occasions –- Little Bill is the law in Big Whiskey.  Some may disagree with his methods, but he is all about enforcing law and order.  When deciding upon what to do with the cowboys after they cut up Delilah, Skinny informs Bill that he has “a contract that represents an investment of capital” –- with Delilah being the capital.  The whores are property, so Bill sees that the lawful thing to do is replace property with property.  Order is restored.  As for Bill’s punishments toward English Bob and Munny – both men were illegally possessing firearms and lied to Bill about it.  Yes, compared to the crime the beatings are an extreme punishment (and the ponies in exchange for disfiguring a woman is appalling), but Bill is in charge.  He may not be a hero, but he is the sheriff.

Then there’s Claudia Munny, the Light Lady.  She’s seen only once,in a photograph which is quickly put aside in preference to a pistol, the first indication that Munny might not be as changed as he insists he is.  Since she’s already deceased, her power to keep Munny reformed diminishes as the film moves on, though her influence is there:  “If Claudia was alive you wouldn’t be doing this,” Ned says when Munny asks him to help kill the cowboys.  Without his wife’s encouragement and urging to do his duty and conform to societal expectations, Munny reverts back to how he was before. 


Typical of many Westerns, Unforgiven uses its town, Big Whiskey – a few establishing shots show it isolated from the world by the Rocky Mountains – as the site/source of all violence, specifically Greely’s Billiards Parlor.  Interestingly, despite being upfront about prostitution, Unforgiven follows classic convention by still putting a veil over the whoring –- the whore house is called a billiards hall, and everyone knows that “they burned the tables in ’78 for firewood.”  Anyhow, Greely’s is where most of the violence takes place -– the initial cutting of the whore Delilah, Little Bill’s beating of Munny, and the final showdown when “justice” is served.  Most, if not all, scenes in Greely’s happen at night, adding to the dark nature of the establishment.  Also, the orange, fiery lighting makes it look and feel sinister –- it’s a kind of Hell, which ties it to the film’s themes of redemption, death, and what one deserves.

Little Bill’s sheriff’s office is not unlike any other we’ve ever seen.  It has a desk, munitions storage, a couple of cells, “SHERIFF” printed on the window...  Even what happens there is expected – the sheriff tries to discover the truth and impart it to others.  Yet, as is typical of Little Bill, the methods are debatable.  This is especially true with his questioning of Ned
after Munny has killed the first cowboy.  We see Ned through the bars – seen as a criminal already, though he hasn’t done anything wrong – being whipped by Little Bill.  Most sheriffs use violence as a last resort, but for Bill it’s the first and sometimes only option.  Worth noting is that most significant event that happens at the office –- Ned’s murder –- is not seen onscreen.  We do see Ned’s body displayed at Greely’s, though, furthering that building’s symbolism as Hell.

Other than the rain and green fields, Unforgiven uses its scenes on the journey to Big Whiskey like most classic Westerns.  The men ride with the sunset silhouetting them, they camp around the fire, and they talk.  The topics of conversation, though, are quite atypical:  Munny and Ned talk not just about sex, but masturbation; Ned and The Kid argue not how well a guy can shoot, but if he can even see to begin with; and then there’s Munny’s constant ruminations about remorse and regret over killing.

Plot Events

Certain events happen in Westerns that tend to happen in most Westerns:  an innocent entity (a woman, child, or even a town) is victimized; the protagonist practices or showcases his gun skills; and the final showdown, usually at “high noon” on the town’s Main Street, between the lone “hero” and the villainous gang.  Unforgiven is no exception, but it does provide twists on these events. 

After a brief prologue, Unforgiven begins in Big Whiskey.  Rain pours onto the empty nighttime streets, but there’s “activity” at Greely’s.  The scenes are lit only by gaslights, causing stark shadows to fall across the rooms.  In Delilah’s room, Quick Mike brandishes a knife and gets doused with Delilah’s chamber pot.  Mike has Davey hold Delilah while he cuts her face –- viciously multiple
times.  A few shots are from Delilah’s point of view so we also experience the attack with her.  And why did Mike go after Delilah so brutally?  Because, as Strawberry Alice tells Little Bill, “all she’d done when she seen he had a teensy little pecker is give a giggle.”  Unforgiven plays upon this convention by having the victim be less of an innocent but definitely undeserving of her attack.  Whores in Westerns were typically run out of town, considered worthless.  At least the film has Delilah’s disfigurement worth eight ponies. 

After The Schofield Kid propositions Munny to go after the cowboys, Munny digs out his old pistol and practices his shooting.  A wide angle shot shows a tin can set up maybe 10 yards from Munny –- an easy distance for any skilled gunslinger.  But he misses.  A second camera shot, a bit closer, shows his kids standing by the house, and the can now in the foreground -– onscreen it’s almost as large as Munny, but he still misses.  A few more shots and a few more misses.  Munny then retreats into the house and reappears with a shotgun, this time finishing the can off.  To have the protagonist be a bad shot is a great twist on the “best gun in the West” trope with many Western heroes –- if he’s the best shot, then how can he lose?  But Munny isn’t the best, so now we’re thinking if he does go with The Kid it might not end well for him.  And, of course, with Western hero Clint Eastwood we expect nothing but a straight and true gun, so Unforgiven is playing with expectations here in a couple ways.

Certainly no Western is complete without the final showdown between good and evil, the hero and the villain.  But unlike past films, Unforgiven forgoes the daytime street shoot-out and moves it inside -– and out of the night rain.
Munny steps into Greely’s, shotgun in hand, unnoticed by the 20 or so men in the saloon.  When he’s finally seen, he owns the room.  His ominous presence rivets everyone and despite most being armed, no one draws their weapon.  With the rain and darkness behind him, Munny is a sharp contrast to the lighter colors that surround Little Bill.  After killing Skinny for “decorat[ing] his saloon with [his] friend,” Munny turns his gun to Bill, who is unafraid to die.  But instead of an easy kill, the gun misfires – the second time such an event is mentioned in the film.  What then follows is a clumsy gunfight:  Munny, Bill, and the deputies each struggle to draw their pistols; the deputies fire random shots and are unsure of what to do in the situation as this is probably the first time they’ve actually been shot at; some men run away, or try to, while others stand dumbfounded with guns in hand; and Munny shoots a man in the back.  This is not your classic showdown.  There are no neatly choreographed dives or chases, no places to hide.  And the questions about who is on the right side are put into the play.  Do we celebrate the cold-blooded killer?  Should we be comfortable about the sheriff being killed for enforcing, albeit sadistically, law and order? 

Also, coinciding with Munny’s dark nature, the gunman rides out of town not into the sunset like a hero, but into the night, an ominous specter disappearing in the dark.   

But Munny does get his sunset in the final shot of the film.  In silhouette, he stands before his wife’s grave the same man he was before her death.  But the onscreen text gives hope that Munny did return to his reformed ways –- but for how long? 


Unforgiven touches upon many issues and questions often brought up in Westerns.  Two of these include the use of extra-legal violence and what makes a man a man.  Both of these topics are addressed in two separate plotlines.  One involves Munny and The Schofield Kid and their efforts to kill the cowboys who cut the whore and collect the reward.  Since the law won’t punish the cowboys further than a fine, the whores seek their own justice –- requiring the deaths of the cowboys by waylaying legal means, i.e. vigilante justice.  

With Little Bill and English Bob, the idea of extra-legal violence takes on a different form.  English Bob arrives in Big Whiskey to collect the bounty on the cowboys, but Bill stops him with a savage, embarrassing beating -- but Bill’s actions satisfy his brutal nature and are somewhat sanctioned by the law, hence a twist on the definition of “extra-legal.”  When it comes to asking what makes a man a man, The Schofield Kid enlists Munny as his partner because he’s heard that Munny is “the meanest goddamn son of a bitch alive.”  The Kid wants someone he sees as a man’s man and is eager to prove he’s just as good (bad?) as Munny.  Going back to Little Bill and English Bob, we learn that Bob has been riding on a false reputation as “The Duke of Death” -- after Bob’s stories are uncovered as lies, W.W. Beauchamp sides with Little Bill, a real man of the West.  But the theme of being a man is better expressed through the events involving Munny and The Schofield Kid. 

The plotline with Munny and The Kid begins with a sequences initiated by The Kid’s arrival to Munny’s farm.  Munny is sorting pigs, but he’s in the mud just as often as the pigs -- we apparently shouldn’t expect too much from this lowly farmer.  Shot from a low angle, The Kid rides high on his horse, shotgun sticking out from his saddlebag, and exudes incredible confidence and bravado despite his young face.  Even though The Kid is the Tenderfoot of the film he’s already acting the Hero/Bad Guy.  The conversation moves into
Munny’s house, and The Kid begins talking about how mean he’s heard Munny had been.  In the middle of The Kid’s speech, Munny walks from in front of the door, with light surrounding him, and crosses to a dark corner.  We realize that Munny isn’t just a farmer, but something more sinister.  The Kid wants a part of it, though he’s not as experienced with killing – or being a man -- as Munny “on account of [his] youth.”After The Kid leaves, Munny is again separating hogs and falling in the mud.  He looks up and sees The Kid riding into the vast plain and one of the few instances of music occurs in the film – a melancholic tune that sings of yearning. 

Later, after Munny procures Ned’s help and the two catch up to The Kid, the three men lay around a fire as thunder indicates the coming storm.  The Kid wants to know if Munny killed two men in Jackson County who had had the drop on him.  But Munny doesn’t “recollect.”  The Kid then glares over the fire to Ned and asks, “Say Ned, how many men you kill?”  “What’s it to you?” replies Ned.  “I got to know what kind of fellow I’m riding with, in case we get into a scrape and all.” (As a side note, an earlier scene shows Munny and Ned talking about Munny “ain’t like that no more,” and Munny saying he’s “just a fellow now.”  The Kid uses “fellow” in this exchange, perhaps signifying that Munny isn’t as reformed of old ways.  Or it could just be the way these men spoke at the time.)  When The Kid confesses he’s killed five men Ned is dismissive, placing his hat over his eyes and going to sleep – he’s maybe realizing that The Kid is all talk.  But the scene shows that The Kid continues to associate killing and murder with how much of man someone is.

The end of this plotline happens after Munny and The Kid have killed the cowboys.  They wait to collect their reward well outside of Big Whiskey by a pair of trees.  The grey sky casts a pall over the scene.  Munny stands and watches the town as The Kid sits at the trees and drinks.  Munny is used to this feeling of having killed someone, but The Kid isn’t -- “That was the first one.  First one I ever killed.”  The Kid realizes that killing doesn’t make a man a man.  “It don’t seem real,” he says crying.  “It’s a hell of thing, killing a man,” replies Munny.  “You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.”  Munny has shown The Kid what he wanted and The Kid doesn’t want to be a part of it.  Even after learning of Ned’s death and giving Munny his Schofield, The Kid let’s Munny on his own for vengeance: “I won’t kill nobody no more.”  The two share a look.  “I ain’t like you, Will,” The Kid says.

This plotline’s ending shows that it’s not murder and killing and causing violence that makes a man a man -- though it may be true in some cases – but that knowing who are makes you man.  After two hours (of the film), Munny finally acknowledges the killer he is when he decides to avenge Ned’s death.  He owns up to his true nature, and the same can be said of The Kid.  “I ain’t like you, Will,” is The Kid’s rite of passage.  He bought into the Wild West and murdering gunman mentality and learned that he was wrong in his assessment of masculinity.  Even Munny recognizes The Kid’s passage into manhood:  “You’re the only friend I got.”

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