Why the truth and myth of “Unforgiven” feels more real today
Every week, Ultimate Movie Year looks back into the past to highlight the best film that came out that weekend.
Released Aug. 7, 1992
Directed by Clint Eastwood
“Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”
This line from Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” is one I think about a lot. Through our lives, we may hear about people saying, “you deserve this” during success, and “you don’t deserve this” during failure and heartbreak, and I think about that line uttered during the climax of the 1992 film. So much of life is out of our control, and our lives can be changed by something we had nothing to do with. Whether you deserve it or not simply doesn’t matter in the face of circumstance and reality, it just is, but it still doesn’t stop us from drawing meaning and making our own stories today just as these characters did in the Wild West.
So much of what happens in “Unforgiven” is out of the control of the characters. William Munny (Eastwood, who starred, wrote and directed) had left a life behind to settle and raise a family, but nobody told him a young cowboy would ride up to his ranch one day, bringing his past and sins to the present. Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher) demands justice to atone for a crime of violence committed to one of her girls, but she must relinquish control of it to other men to get what she wants.
Alice rallies against her position in the grand order of the West. They’re prostitutes, and therefore have no agency or value as human beings to the men around them beyond how much money they can earn for their boss. They are treated the same as cattle, a viewpoint expressed directly in front of them as though their opinions and feelings meant less than nothing, but unlike horses and cows, these women have the presence of mind to do something about it.
The violent johns initiate the events of the movie, creating a chain reaction from the prostitutes pooling their money to hire hunters, the hunters making their way into the town of Big Whiskey, and Sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman), using ordinances and intimidation to maintain order, or, at least, his version of it. Many people die, but all are somewhat complicit in continuing the cycle of violence seen throughout, justified or not. Does anybody here deserve to die for trying to maintain their own sense of justice and order? Maybe not, but again, “deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”
After the women post the bounty, the “Schofield Kid” (Jamiz Woolvett) rides up to Munny’s ranch in search of a partner. Munny is a legendary outlaw, a mean drunk known for killing even women and children, but he’s changed his life after getting married and sober to raise a family on a pig farm. Now a widower, Munny quietly watches his children, but now the Kid reminds him of his past and delivers an offer to return to his old ways, if only briefly. Munny rejects the offer, but it can’t leave his mind as he wrestles with pigs in the mud. It’s inferred that pig farming is not what Munny hoped it would be, and there’s good money to earn in this contract kill.
Munny changes his mind and rides off to catch up with the Kid, picking up his old friend Ned (Morgan Freeman), who is itching for the first opportunity to ditch the homestead and his Native American wife staring on in silent disapproval. Ned is ready for an adventure, but one that’s akin to a weekend in Vegas in the modern parlance. He soon realizes that the life he gave up is beyond him now.
Munny, too, thinks he’s beyond it all as well. “I ain’t like that anymore,” he says again and again to convince the people around him, but he cannot even convince himself. Munny is a man at war with himself, struggling to suppress his instincts and desires wrapped up in violence and booze, but he must ultimately submit in order to see his journey through.
On the other side, Little Bill seems like an amiable sheriff, but it’s revealed how much his quest for order hides a desire for dominance underneath the surface. Big Whiskey has an open ordinance law, as English Bob (Richard Harris) ignores as he rides into town. Little Bill and his deputies surround him to confiscate his weapons, and then violently beats the newly unarmed man into unconsciousness. He nearly does the same to Munny later on in the film. Little Bill is an alpha male, ready to destroy anyone who questions or challenges him. Even his poor carpentry skills cannot be criticized in his presence.
English Bob’s travel companion is writer Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), who’s documenting the adventures of the old West with his interest in exploring and expanding the mythology of these lawmen and outlaws. Beauchamp quickly tags onto Little Bill after his confrontation with Bob, and soon receives close encounters that highlight the differences between myth and reality.
Mythology is the film’s major theme, as Little Bill looks to deflate the notions of others in his unyielding quest for control, while Munny struggles with his own past, letting his partners (and the audience) peak in with some specific incidents. But truth and memory are flexible concepts here, and we can only truly know what we see, as these characters and ideas come to a head in a tense climax.
“Unforgiven” feels even more relevant today than it did upon release, as news narratives, branding and social media has given everyone the ability to write their own truths and stories. United States politics has heeded way to people who relentlessly define their own reality, and when challenged on any point, use their incredible powers and influence to assert dominance over their own myths. Truth in 2019 is as malleable as one of Beauchamp’s outlaw storybooks, which stretch, lie and distort reality to create myth.
As we preside over our own myths and brands, reality occasionally pops our bubbles with unpleasant news and hard truths. Perhaps we might be inclined to respond to these events as being unfair, or undeserving, but truth and reality are unique forces, and deserve’s got nothing to do with it.
The Legacy: “Unforgiven” stands as a high-water mark in the prolific directorial career of Eastwood, which won Best Picture and Best Director at the 1993 Academy Awards (Hackman and Joel Cox also earned statues for Best Supporting Actor and Best Film Editing, respectively). It also marked the culmination of the kind of roles that brought Eastwood to fame originally, as the star appeared in influential westerns in the 60s and 70s.
The Weekend: Many other notable films debuted in early August, including “Risky Business” in 1983, “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” in 1985, “The Fugitive” in 1993, “The Sixth Sense” in 1999, “Collateral” in 2006, and “BlacKKKlansman” in 2018. You could make a case for any one of these worthy of inclusion in the Ultimate Movie Year, which stands as a testament to how good “Unforgiven” really is.
Next Week: “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”