Thoughts On: Unforgiven - Worth, You And Used To Be


Unforgiven - Worth, You And Used To Be

Thoughts On: Unforgiven

I'm going to start this with an apology--ish. Sorry. I hate to promote my work, but I've got to. As you might know if you've poked around my blog or read a few posts, I love watching and writing about films as much as I do writing them. I've recently published my fourth screenplay called Apologetic? It's free to download on Smashwords and will also be free on Amazon soon. To sample it, check this out...

Or to just read the whole thing...

Again, sorry, but, thanks if you checked it out. What I'm using this promotion to talk about though is westerns. Apologetic? is a western inspired fantasy, and so, what I'd love to talk about is its inspiration. I'm going to be a writing a series of talks looking at a variety of westerns. I'm starting with Unforgiven, will probably move to older pictures and then look at my favourite westerns of all time: Leone's Dollar Trilogy and then Once Upon A Time In The West. If you like westerns and would like to have one of your favourite westerns talked about, please comment. Either way, let's go...

Unforgiven centers on the assault of a prostitute, the revenge herself and her friends seek and the bounty hunters they'll be using to get it.

This is a tough one to start with. But I like a challenge. This is a late great western and is so because it stands in face of almost everything that came before. The western is almost as old as cinema itself with The Great Train Robbery coming out in 1903 as one of the first great narrative films. With this very title, The Great Train Robbery, we can understand just what Unforgiven is despite of, and 99 years down the line. 'Great' obviously means extraordinary, huge or noble. The Great Train Robbery utilises all such connotations and paints a picture of the mainstream western for decades and decades to come. Westerns are myths and legends. Everything is romanticised: the huge open skies, the honor, credence, grit, freedom, masculinity. We all know this, just like we know the likes of The Godfather isn't an realistic portrayal of gangsters in general. I mean, Goodfellas is the much more likely narrative: fear, no real friends, constant disillusion, prison, drugs, addiction, a witness protection program--if you're lucky--and a rat. Unforgiven is the Goodfellas to the likes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Both both deal with fantastical characters and situations, but with realism and an attempt to stay true to what would really happen. Unforgiven can resultantly be seen as a satire. We can see this through The Schofield Kid and W.W Beauchamp (the writer). We are, in short, these two characters. We want the myth. And put in realistic circumstances we're shown that the side of the old west that we're so infatuated with is not so much a good shoot 'em up, fun time at the pictures, but a 'holy shit, I want my mum' kind of place. This, however, isn't a flat out satire - such things are usually reserved for comedies. Unforgiven doesn't speak to the audience of westerns in an attempt to disillusion, to tell us all we're childish and don't know how the real world worked, but explore the idea of a myth and the contradictions behind the mythical. Before moving on to that though, I'd like to say that I started with this film because it says a lot about cinema today. We're all familiar with the idea that the comic book movies are westerns - just redefined. I've even seen videos making clear the parallels between this and The Dark Night Rises. What we are now trying to create is the comic book versions of Unforgiven. We can see this in the move toward realism and away from the fantastical elements of sci-fi/fantasy. This is only to the genre's detriment in my opinion. That's not to say that Unforgiven is in any way bad, but that its narrative and idea of satire needn't be exhausted. In other words, we can only take so many pokes at the idea that Hawkeye shouldn't be in the Avengers before we just call shitty writing. But, I've said this all before so let's move on...

Unforgiven works because, as said, it's not a flat out satire. It clearly didn't want to set a trend of gritty, real westerns, but use the idea to explore a character and his conflict. Bridging back to that idea, I'll leave the previous point by saying Unforgiven is great, but the shoot 'em up, fun time at the pictures is why the western as a genre is great. This is why I started with Unforgiven - to get the true realist idea of the west over and done with so I can explore the classic western movies and their tropes without reserve. Down to it, Unforgiven explores the idea of change; whether Will is a true black hat cowboy; if Schofield can live up to his own words and if Ned turn back to his old rifle. Change is an essential theme to the western. It's usually the world that is evolving around men of a time passed. Unforgiven takes that theme to heart and turns the question to the archetypal 'Man With No Name' antihero. That of course makes Clint Eastwood, as both director and actor, a perfect choice. The Man With No Name is finally forced to spill the beans and tell his own story. To explore this idea of change a few more archetypes have to be brought out and demystified before that. The good sheriff is ultimately a bully. It takes a little more than charisma, a rifle and John Wayne to keep a town clean and safe. It takes zero tolerance, it takes beating the slightest whiff of scum down to the ground and out of town. Next up comes the trusted partner or side kick. Not really there through thick and thin, not always got the quips, not always a loveable, yet grumpy, crone. After that comes 'the kid'. Little more than a mouth looking for a father figure in all the wrong places and trying too hard to prove himself something. Lastly is the prostitute. Callused, a bit nuts, not exactly the Angie Dickson type. With all these archetypes redefined comes the blaring question of worth. This is posed mere minutes into the picture. Prostitutes are seen as prostitutes, customers are customers, pig farmers are pig farmers. There is no question surrounding this idea--everything is called as seen. The prostitutes are key figures here. They parallel the struggle Will endures with the idea of perceived character. Like him they are seen as undeserving of affection, understanding and justice. It's only because they are proven to be property that the men who sliced Delilah's face were charged. But, that wasn't enough--at least not for them as a group. And so, Will comes into the picture.

A specific character is being drawn out here. The prostitutes attract the likes of Will, Ned and Schofield because they are very similar. This is proven after the introduction of English Bob that we can't skip. The promise of bounty, of reward for revenge, also brought him in--but only to meet the wall that is Little Bill Daggett. Here, the film can be seen in all it's parts. We have one central archetype: the prostitute. With this comes one central idea of retaliatory violence. In short what we have is mob rule, a democracy for anarchists, and it's all encompassed by the idea of cowboys taking the law into their own hands. Big Whiskey is a microcosm of the wild west--of lawlessness. But, it's becoming civilised, it's got boarders - Little Bill. English Bob trying to pierce this bubble is a step toward devolution. With Unforgiven, what we have isn't knights and princesses, but the caveman and his cavewoman. This is almost the true wild west. Cowboys are lawlessness, they are fuelled by primitive ideas of honor, of respect, of the individual. They are cavemen because they just want to smash the bad guy on the head with a rock instead of waiting for the court session. So, what we have initially set up is our bubble. Inside is our cavewoman, and civilisation is protecting, yet confining, her. As a result the cavemen are now coming in to save her. First in is of course English Bob. He thinks himself the shining knight type. This is all self-evident with his constant ramblings of queens, presidents and civilisation. But, alas, that's all a lie. English Bob is nothing more than a poser laced in myth. But, here's where the theme of change comes thundering back in and all because of another key idea of contradiction. Bob is not the cowboy he pretends to be, he never has been, he never will be. He cannot change and he is a contradiction--a lie. Another contradiction comes with our image of civilisation - Little Bill. The beating he gives the caveman trying to move in on his patch of land is tantamount to beating a guy over the head with a rock and then kicking him when he's down. Not very civilised. Contradiction is so rife throughout this film because it's trying to make obvious the fact that to change you must retaliate--you must almost become what you are trying to destroy. This is obvious with Little Bill. To sustain civilisation he must be uncivilised. In the same sense, to comfortably service men in an around-about affection way, the prostitutes must be callused and vengeful. The Angie Dickson character in Rio Bravo worked because in the image of a dancer and flirtatious gambler came this idea of affection. Unforgiven opposes this idea and proves such characters exist because of contradictory natures instead of hidden essence. This is probably easiest seen in English Bob. He can only be so confident, so smug, because he's lived a life of a very stupid, yet very lucky, man. How can he not assume his luck wouldn't run out after such a great run?

This leads us onto Ned, Schofield and, most importantly, Will. They are the second wave of cavemen - and they too have their contradictions. Ned is a dead-shot with a conscience and Schofield a bark without a bite. These contradictions kill their characters--Ned literally. Schofield, however, is taught the simple lesson of murder not being so glorious. All characters' arcs are of devolution. Characters cannot change into what they used to be and that destroys them. But, this brings us to Will. He is the viscous thief and murderer who fell in love with a wife that changed him, that is now turning back to bounty hunting. With Will we get the clearest picture that this film is as much about change as it is cycles, or at least changing back. The sheriff started in bad towns and moved to an easier one, just like Will gave up the life of crime for a wife. Both men managed to change and are being forced to change back. To look at this in metaphorical terms, civilisation found peace and the criminal turned recidivist. But now, tables are turning themselves. To keep peace civilisation has to devolve and to stay the changed man the criminal must turn back to his old ways. In short, what can't be escaped is the initial idea of worth. Just like a prostitute is just a prostitute, a pig farmer is a pig farmer and a black hat cowboy is a black hat cowboy. What I'm hoping you caught there was the contradiction. Will is both a pig farmer and a black hat cowboy. He's killed women and children but also fallen on his ass and in mud a thousand times. Here is the crux of the film. There is no black and white, there is no definites with true characters. All characters in Unforgiven are made up of contradictions and seek change only to find themselves in cycles because that's there irrevocable character. Everyone is made up of a simple facade--the irrevocable character--but underneath comes the contradiction and complication. With this comes the argument that people do not change, not much. Will is always going to be the black hat cowboy as shown by the end of the film. He has an inherent capacity for violence. But, like he says, he's lucky he gets away with it. What kills characters is the situations they get themselves into. This is the core idea behind the prostitutes starting the whole mess. They want change. They want justice when they don't see it coming - or maybe don't deserve it. Will wants a good honest life despite his sins. Schofield wants glory with bloodied hands despite never being able to kill someone. Little Bill wants a peaceful town despite being a tyrant himself.

What Unforgiven demonstrates is the cycle people drive themselves through when wanting change that cannot really be sympathised with. What it does, however, also cite is the change stumbled upon or given to us. The comely young woman married the known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously viscous and intemperate disposition, because she saw him as the fevered and weak figure we do in parts of the film. She saw change, she saw a difference, where no other did. In short, who we are is contextual, in large, out of our control. Forgiveness is ultimately being forgotten--it's being seen as a person you are said not to be. With his wife gone Will lost all forgiveness. With the end of the film comes his opportunity to gain yours, leaving us with the question of: what explanation would there be on that marker to resolve why the comely young woman had married the known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously viscous and intemperate disposition?

Before you go, I just want to remind you of my free book. To sample it, check this out...

Or to just read the whole thing...


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1 comment:

Unknown said...

Great review!! I heard David Foster Wallace describe Unforgiven on Charlie Rose as "not a Western at all. It's a moral drama; it's Henry James." Both David and Charlie said they loved it, but neither had met a female who liked it. That made me curious.

Turns out, I didn't enjoy watching it at all, but I really enjoy hearing people explain what they see in it. I don't know if it's the style it was filmed or what but I just had real trouble staying engaged.

I am interested in all the topics you addressed, so I enjoyed your analysis a lot.

I hadn't seen enough westerns to know this myself, but I'm intrigued by the idea that superhero films are the new westerns as well as by the ongoing pull those kinds of stories have (all the way back to the old mythologies). G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis had a lot to say on the topic. Dont know if you will find this interesting, but here's an example: .