Unforgiven, by Albert W. Vogt III

Westerns have changed over the years, but Clint Eastwood has remained the same.  I mean, he is older, and looks it, but he has stayed as gruff as ever.  The genre predates the actor and director, but when he began making them, he was part of a shift from the more heroic stories of the first decades of cinema to the anti-heroes we typically see today.  One of these days I will have to get to the so-called “Spaghetti Westerns” he made popular in the 1960s, getting that name for being made in Italy instead of the United States.  Their trademark lone gunslinger with a questionable past has been a hallmark of the genre ever since.  By 1993 when the sixty-eighth movie on the American Film Institute’s (AFI) list of the 100 greatest American films of all time, Unforgiven, came out, Eastwood was still playing the same kind of character.  As such, what separates this one from its Italian forebears other than being shot in Canada?  I am not sure, but read on and maybe you can tell me.

Somewhere in Kansas in 1878, a woman dies who had married a thief and a murderer.  That man is the Unforgiven, William Munny (Clint Eastwood).  A couple states over in the Wyoming territory, in the town of Big Whiskey, Quick Mike (David Mucci), cuts up a prostitute he had been with when she laughed at his, er, manhood.  The local lawman, Sheriff “Little” Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) is called upon to to deal with the situation.  In the end, he fines Quick David and his associate, Davey Bunting (Rob Campbell), six horses and sends them on their way.  The matron of the house, Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher), is incensed by such a light punishment.  In response, she encourages her ladies to take up a collection, sending out word that they have $1,000 for anyone who can kill Davey and Quick Mike.  The person who answers this call is The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett).  He claims to be hard-nosed bounty hunter, but he had heard of William’s reputation as a cold-blooded killer and decides to enlist the older man’s help.  William turns him down, saying that he has given up that way of life when his wife died.  Besides, he has a farm and two children to look after.  Yet, the promise of the fiscal reward proves to be too much to resist.  Though his practice shots are not promising, he nonetheless collects his weapons, manages to mount his horse, and heads off after the Schofield Kid.  Oh, yeah, William also leaves his children at home by themselves, saying he will be back in a few weeks.  Things were different in the nineteenth century, I guess.  Before catching up with the Schofield Kid, William goes to recruit his former partner, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman).  It takes some convincing, mainly telling Ned what had been done to the girl, but he and William eventually go and find the Schofield Kid.  He is not thrilled about taking on another partner, but he reconsiders when William says he does not go without Ned.  Meanwhile, back in Big Whiskey, we learn that the Schofield Kid is not the only one to hear about Strawberry Alice’s bounty.  Arriving in town is the refined English Bob (Richard Harris), complete with a biographer, W. W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek).  They enter the sleepy village, and English Bob refuses to give up his weapon.  Little Bill comes to deal with the lawbreakers, and he happens to know English Bob.  Outnumbered, he is forced to give up his weapons and is savagely beaten by Little Bill.  The next day, English Bob is sent off on the train, which William notices as he, Ned, and the Schofield Kid get to Big Whiskey.  They enter the Skinny Dubois’ (Anthony James) saloon, which is where Strawberry Alice and her girls ply their trade.  Ned and the Schofield Kid go upstairs to get acquainted, leaving William to deal with Little Bill alone.  In a repeat of what happened to English Bob, William is roughed up by the sheriff.  However, Ned and the Schofield Kid are able to pick up William as he crawls out of the bar and ride off into the night.  They find an abandoned barn to hide out in while William recuperates.  When he is well enough, they are able to figure out where Davey and Quick Mike can be found.  Our trio locate Davey first.  Ned shoots the cowboy’s horse out from under him, but is unable to deliver the final shot.  William finishes the job.  As they are riding away, Ned decides he wants no part of what they are doing and leaves.  Unfortunately, he is found by the cowboys and brought to Little Bill.  The sheriff tortures Ned to death wanting information about the Schofield Kid and William.  As this is happening, the other two are staking out the house where Quick Mike is stationed with other cowboys.  When he goes to the outhouse to do his business, the enthusiastic Schofield Kid makes his move, murdering Quick Mike on the toilet.  As they wait outside town for their reward, so distraught is the Schofield Kid by what he has done that he swears he is done killing.  William is ready to return to his life, too. What keeps him around is when the prostitute bringing them the money also tells them that Ned is dead.  Taking a shotgun and the Schofield Kid’s trademark pistol, William takes a swig of whiskey (his first in years) and marches alone into Skinny’s saloon.  Starting with Skinny himself for displaying Ned’s corpse in front of the establishment, William proceeds to kill five other men, including Little Bill.  There were others in the bar, but they all scatter when the shooting starts.  William then gets back on his horse and rides away.  The postscript before the end credits roll claim that he gathered his children, went to San Francisco, and became successful in the dry goods business.

I guess it is lucky that William’s kids were still there at the end of Unforgiven.  It is also fortunate that he is not killed in the final shootout.  This part is less interesting to me than the interaction he has with Delilah Fitzgerald (Anna Thomson), the prostitute he had been severely injured in the first few minutes of the movie.  She makes a shy proposition to him, her hesitation owing to her deformed face.  When he refuses, she takes it as him being put off by the scars.  Instead, he reminds her that they are both scarred.  It is meant to refer to what had happened to their faces, though the deeper meaning is clear.  She has the physical and emotional wounds of her encounter with Quick Mike, while William deals with trying to put his criminal past behind him.  Something I have heard a lot in recent years of my faith journey is how we all bear emotional scars.  Indeed, all our experiences form us in some way, leaving their mark.  The hope is that the good ones have a positive effect, while we seek to somehow survive and learn from the bad ones.  This last part is not easy, and there are a number of negative ways with which people cope.  Making the wrong choices in this regard exacerbates the problem.  In this way, I find the title interesting.  William apparently made a good choice at one point, finding a wife, settling down, and giving up the life of corruption and crime.  Because of this, there is conflict in him about killing.  That is a good thing, and I do not support the decisions he makes in the end.  Ultimately, he and all the rest of us are forgiven by God.  It is the best step, but only the start, in healing those wounds discussed in this paragraph.  To be sure, scars will form.  Instead of being reminders of failure, as they seem to be here, they can bring us closer to God.

I have to confess to being a little distracted while watching Unforgiven.  It is a pretty standard Western as I described in the introduction.  I was also relieved that William lived in the end, even if I did not approve of his quest for vengeance.  What I could not get over, however, is the fact that he left his kids alone for weeks!  He is not getting any dad of the year awards.  Otherwise, it is an okay movie.


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