As he glancingly returns to the genre with his new film, Cry Macho, it’s worth taking a look at the last Western that Clint Eastwood made, 1992’s Unforgiven. While he’s circled back to certain themes and concepts endemic to the Western in films since then, Unforgiven was his last film specifically and explicitly set in the Old West and was — as he said at the time — his final word on the subject.
Eastwood has pretty much stayed true to that, even as Unforgiven stands nearly 30 years later as a masterpiece in its own right and arguably one of the greatest Westerns of all time.
Much as Cry Macho attempts to strip away modern myths about what it means to be a man or “macho,” Unforgiven tears down the longstanding mythology built around the American Old West and propagated through scores of Westerns that Hollywood pumped out for decades.
Notions about authority, heroism, violence and nobility are all turned inside out in the film, which uses its traditional structure and characters to upend every narrative trope and plot point such a film may have embraced in the past. The result is a haunting story of what happens when vengeance and violence corrupt the souls of everyone drawn into their wake, with devastating results.
After two cowboys in the sleepy, remote town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming mutilate a prostitute, her fellow sex workers at the local bordello raise a bounty to see that the two men face justice after the local sheriff (Gene Hackman) settles the matter without punishing them.
A former killer and criminal with a notorious past, named William Munny (Eastwood), is alerted to the bounty by a young would-be assassin called the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett). Munny has long since renounced his ways, settling down to a quiet life on a hog farm with his wife and two children. But with Munny’s wife having passed on and the farm failing, he sees the bounty as a chance to save the farm and set up his children’s future.
Enlisting his former partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) — like Munny, a reformed criminal turned farmer — to join them, Munny, the Kid and Ned set out for Big Whiskey. Even as they hunt down the cowboys and come into direct conflict with the brutal Little Bill, the three men each deal with their own responses to being drawn into an escalating spiral of violence. Ned and the Kid ultimately renounce it, while Munny reverts back to the cold-blooded murderer he used to be.
Unforgiven begins in 1880 in Big Whiskey, Wyoming, with a horrific act of violence enacted by a man who sees slicing up the face of a young prostitute as fair repayment for laughing at the size of his penis. While the genre hasn’t been completely dismissive of women over the years (see 1954’s Johnny Guitar or 2011’s more recent Meek’s Cutoff for just two fine examples), Unforgiven tackles the trope of the “gold-hearted whore” head on and destroys it.
The women of Greeley’s saloon/bordello (led by Frances Fisher’s furious Strawberry Alice) are not going to take the mutilation of Delilah (Anna Thomson) lying down, so to speak — especially after local lawman Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) decides that the two cowboys involved in the altercation can simply give some horses to Greeley’s owner Skinny Dubois (Anthony James) as compensation for the money he’ll lose from taking Delilah out of service. Little Bill sees the whole affair as something he can settle quickly and efficiently, even if it leaves the women seething and now willing to seek justice elsewhere.
Pooling their resources, the women muster up a $1,000 bounty that they hope will attract someone to Big Whiskey to kill the two cowboys. But while Strawberry Alice, Silky (Beverley Elliott) and the rest of the women remain defiant to the end, their own need for vengeance — brought on by Little Bill’s idea of “justice” and the town’s acceptance of it — poisons them. By the end of Unforgiven, Alice and the women are horrified by what they’ve wrought, even if they had no other choice.
Little Bill Daggett
Gene Hackman deservedly won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his turn as the brutal, sadistic Little Bill, the sheriff of Big Whiskey and more or less the little settlement’s de facto tyrant. No virtuous lawman is he; it’s implied that Little Bill has his own violent and possibly criminal past, but he has somehow managed to overcome that and become a representative of law and order in this distant outpost — or at least his version of law and order.
If he can avoid it, Little Bill actually prefers not to let the law work its proper course. He eschews the notion of a trial, preferring to settle disputes and crimes in his own way, either through (literal) horse-trading or his own cruel means of corporeal punishment — which often involves torture. He at first intends to whip the two cowboys for their transgression before coming to a different, more “peaceable” settlement, but he is also quick to bring out the whip again and use it mercilessly on the back of Ned Logan until Ned literally keels over and dies.
Little Bill is also efficient with his feet, giving a severe kicking to assassin English Bob (Richard Harris), the first man to arrive in town in hopes of securing the bounty, and Munny himself, when the latter is sick with fever and too confused to hand over his gun to Little Bill (who has all visitors to Big Whiskey turn in their weapons upon entering the town).
In fact, despite supposedly being an arbiter of law and order in the still unruly West of the 1880s, the one thing that Little Bill is good at is violence. His idea of justice is authoritarian, with himself as judge, jury and executioner, and he can’t even build his own house properly: the roof is full of leaks and one of his deputies remarks that there isn’t a “straight angle” in the “whole house…he is the worst damn carpenter.” Little Bill claims he just wants to relax in his house, but what he’s best at is being a tyrant, a killer and a torturer (mirroring Munny, who’s top-notch at killing but lousy as a farmer).
The Schofield Kid
The Kid, as he’s dismissively called by both Munny and Ned (we never learn his real name), is the young bro-dude who comes calling on Munny to join him on his journey to Big Whiskey to kill the cowboys and collect the bounty.
The Kid claims to have ruthlessly killed five men and seems intent on building his own dark reputation, modeled on the past exploits of men like Munny. He is disgusted by Munny at first, making fun of the life he leads now and later disappointed when Munny catches sick in a rainstorm and, weakened, allows Little Bill to kick the living crap out of him.
But we soon learn that the Kid himself has made himself a legend in his own mind. When he and Munny head to the Bar-T ranch to kill the second cowboy (after Munny has already dispatched the first), the Kid does indeed pull the trigger, killing cowboy Quick Mike with three shots while the latter is sitting on the toilet. It’s an ugly, undignified death, and as we almost immediately discover, it’s actually the Kid’s first killing — he’s lied about the five men he allegedly killed previously.
The murder of Quick Mike shakes the Kid to his core. He’s stunned and horrified by what he’s done, and the finality of it. “It don’t seem real… how he ain’t gonna never breathe again, ever… how he’s dead,” he says, his voice wavering on the verge of tears. “And the other one too. All on account of pulling a trigger.” To which Munny replies, “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man.”
The Kid renounces his ways right there, giving his beloved Schofield gun to Munny and vowing to never kill again. One thing Unforgiven does so brilliantly is strip away any romantic notions about killing in the Old West: as portrayed in the film, it’s not noble or satisfying. It’s messy, ugly, often drawn-out and unbearably painful. Confronted with that reality, the Kid pulls away, presumably never to be seen again.
Aside from the graceful Delilah, Ned Logan is perhaps the character in the movie who comes closest to being its “conscience.” Munny’s former partner has his own violent, ill-reputed past to deal with, but he seems to have come to much better terms with it than Munny himself, and seems content to live on his farm with his Native American wife, Sally Two Trees (Tantoo Cardinal).
When Munny does decide to go with Munny on his mission, we get the sense that he’s not doing it so much for the money as to watch over his friend. The reproach in the silent Sally’s eyes as the two men ride off says it all: she knows that their journey can come to no good end no matter how they rationalize it to themselves. Right from the start, Ned tells Munny that things have changed for them: “Hell, Will. We ain’t bad men no more. Shit, we’re farmers…how long has it been since you fired a gun at a man?”
And that’s exactly what happens. But first Ned comes to a startling realization: preparing to shoot the first of the two cowboys, Davey Bunting, he aims his rifle and has the young fellow dead in his sights — but can’t pull the trigger. He turns helplessly to Munny, desperation and pain in his eyes, barely able to get the words out: he can’t kill a man in cold blood anymore. For Ned, those days are over for good.
Which makes it even more ironic and bitter that toward the end of Unforgiven, he’s captured and tortured until he dies at the hands of Little Bill. Ned — who complains about missing his wife and his bed — is the only one of the three bounty hunters who doesn’t actually kill anyone, and yet he faces the worst punishment, ending in his own death. It’s a symptom of the story’s widening gyre of violence and revenge that Ned — the most reluctant of the three — doesn’t survive. And it’s his death that sends Munny over the edge, sealing the fate of the town and its people.
English Bob and W.W Beauchamp
English Bob (Richard Harris) is the first assassin who comes to town to collect the bounty, trailed by his biographer, W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek). Unlike Munny and Little Bill, the British-born Bob has capitalized on his past to gain some fame for himself, with Beauchamp writing a book that glamorizes the gunfighter’s life and exploits. Bob also promotes the idea that his is some sort of noble profession, when conducted in a gentlemanly way that only an Englishman like himself can provide.
But, as with so much in this story, English Bob’s legend is built on lies. After Little Bill beats and jails him, the sheriff tells a stunned Beauchamp that he and Bob go way back, and that Little Bill was around for many of the adventures that Beauchamp has written up second-hand in his book. Most of the time, nothing happened the way that Bob has told it — and Little Bill further tells Beauchamp that most of what he’s heard about the life of a gunslinger is either false or exaggerated.
Beauchamp himself is an interesting if minor character, only because he’s once again indicative of Eastwood’s often hostile attitude toward the press (see the horrific and heavily criticized caricature of late reporter Kathy Scruggs in his otherwise excellent 2019 film Richard Jewell). Enamored with the larger-than-life Bob, enraptured with his own success and access, Beauchamp doesn’t realize that he is a purveyor of lies and misconceptions until he is given that eye-opening talk by Little Bill. And like everyone else in the film, he is shaken by the events that unfold and the real violence he witnesses.
Munny is the protagonist and heart of Unforgiven, an aging outlaw and gunslinger who has abandoned his wild, murderous, criminal past and settled into a quiet life as a hog farmer. Meeting his wife Claudia and having two children with her seems to have calmed Munny down, leading him to quit drinking and put away his guns. Even her death (three years in the past as the film opens) doesn’t seem to have knocked off course, as he still tends to the farm and his kids.
Or tries to, anyway. When we meet Munny, he’s covered in mud as he’s separating the hogs and not doing such a great job of it. The farm itself is in trouble, and the arrival of the Schofield Kid with news of a bounty provides Munny with a chance to stabilize his and his children’s futures. But of course, that means Munny has to dust off his guns and get back into the business of killing, and we can see from his perpetually haunted eyes that he’s tormented by that very idea.
Munny can’t forgive himself for his past, and constantly seeks reassurance from Ned Logan that he’s a different man now. And early on, he is: his aim isn’t very good, and he can barely get on his horse with one try. In Unforgiven, William Munny is the exact opposite of both the traditional Western hero and the standard Western villain — he was once a bad man and now wants to see himself as a good man, but he can neither escape his past nor successfully refashion himself as something new.
And when he does arrive in Big Whiskey to kill the two cowboys and collect the bounty, a series of events — his beating at the hands of Little Bill and the death of Ned at the latter’s hands, even though Ned is innocent — leads Munny to finally revert back (with the help of a bottle of bourbon) to the man he once was.
“I’ve killed women and children,” he says in the movie’s climactic sequence, when he confronts Little Bill — who now realizes who Munny is — and the men of Big Whiskey at Greeley’s saloon. “I’ve killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another.”
He then proceeds to kill six men in cold blood, one after the other, the living embodiment of Little Bill’s earlier assertion that the cool hand prevails over the quick one in a gunfight. One of those men is Little Bill, who tells Munny that they’ll see each other in hell. Munny doesn’t disagree; he’s now become a full-fledged monster who threatens on his way out the door to “come back and kill every one of you sons of bitches.”
He doesn’t act on that promise, however. After he rides out of town amidst blood, corpses, thunder and pouring rain, a title card informs us that Munny and his children disappeared sometime after, possibly up to San Francisco, where he allegedly “prospered in dry goods.”
So Unforgiven does hold out a slight ray of hope at the end that Munny did once again reign in his worst impulses and find his way back to his family and, possibly, redemption. But at what cost? Unforgiven informs us that the price of vengeance is high, and that we may spend the rest of our lives paying it — even if the ones we seek vengeance against, in the words of the Kid, “had it coming.”
As Munny says in one of this brilliant movie’s most chillingly truthful lines, “We all got it coming, kid.”