Period Piece Pandemonium
Seeing this movie when I was younger, I wondered what the deal was with Gene Hackmanís character, Little Bill. Even though weíre introduced to him before Clintís Will Munny, Little Bill isnít the protagonist. However, although we donít necessarily root for him and his mission to keep the town of Big Whiskey free of fire arms, he certainly canít be classified as an antagonist either. Thereís nothing to dislike about a sheriff trying to clean up his town, but in the end, itís hard not to feel satisfied that Munny comes out on top, even if he is a gun slinging assassin.
Fortunately for myself, my intellect in the cinematic arts has grown considerably since last seeing Unforgiven and I can now see the uniqueness this film presents by having both Little Bill and Will Munny. Clint Eastwood certainly revitalized the western with this film, but he did so by messing with the conventions of the genre. Many westerns have been told about the sheriff of a town either restoring order or maintaining it, and being praised as a hero in the process. We also have had many westerns about the lone gun slinger riding into town, and, despite a checkered past, proving himself a good man by doing the right thing in a time of need. The confusion I had came from the fact that Unforgiven is both of these types of western, with two hero types that are each doing something good (Little Bill upholding the no guns ordinance; Will avenging the whore who was cut up) while at the same time doing something bad (Bill treating the women very poorly; Will purposefully killing two men he doesnít even know). It also doesnít help that both men basically share the same name, blurring the lines even further.
Furthermore, the moral compass is left ambiguous not only by having two opposing western archetypes face off, but by having two very different takes on violence and death as well. Although most westerns arenít out to glorify violence on its own account, many certainly praise the hero for vanquishing the bad guys through the use of violence. Many a young boy must have grown up imagining themselves as John Wayne in any number of his famous roles, not just because he saved the day, but because he saved the day while killing a whole bunch of guys in the process, and coming out unharmed. In Unforgiven, we get the classic western hero in Little Bill who seems to be most happy when regaling others with tales of past battles and gun fights, and who won and who died. He exercises violent tendencies almost gleefully when he beats up English Bob and whips Ned, but because heís the man with the badge, itís all in the name of maintaining peace. Bill is even justified with the arrival of W.W. Beauchamp, an Easterner chronicling the most badass cowboys he can find. His inclusion is sort of a meta-analysis of westerns as a whole, as he represents the myth surrounding the genre and the stories told therein. Beauchamp is continually awed by increasing amount of violent people he meets, showing that it doesnít matter who pulls the trigger, just how many times theyíre able to do so.
Opposing this viewpoint is the filmís true hero, Will Munny, who used to be the meanest and most deadly cowboy around. The film makes sure that the audience knows Will was the deadliest man in the West, slowly building up his mystique throughout, which pays off immensely in the final scene. However, itís Willís giving up of a life of violence that concerns the film the most. Itís clear that a hole was left inside of Will after his younger days, and now killing has become the hardest thing for him to do. While Little Bill is hooting and hollering about a saloon shootout, Will is haunted by the images of menís head being blown off. After killing his first man, the Schofield Kid becomes completely distraught, unable to truly comprehend what he did. Willís offer at condolence? ďIt's a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have.Ē Not exactly the sort of tall tale that Little Bill is regaling Beauchamp with. Itís a somber statement because violence isnít something to be glorified. Will is there to represent the fact that killing a man cuts just as deep for the one pulling the trigger, and once youíve killed, there is no going back. Killing stays with you forever, try as you might to rid yourself of it.
Itís hard not to love the final scene of Unforgiven, when Clint goes full on badass in the saloon. Itís a fantastic payoff for a movie full of methodical hints at how deadly Will was in his youth, and although itís actually quite short, really bookends the movie in a memorable way. The thing is, Iím sure Will would have much rather had Ned alive and not shot all those men. He even would have given the money back if it meant he would have never gone on that journey in the first place. Sure, weíre treated to an amazingly told story and awesome ending, but itís Will who has to ride off, not into the sunset, but into the rainy darkness of night.