Compared to the rest of the civilized world, the history of America is minuscule. While you can visit countries in Europe and Asia and see structures that are thousands of years old, in America a house that is more than fifty years old already has its days numbered. Yet, because our nation’s history is so concise, most of the period pieces about our country’s past are set in one particular genre, the Western. Because of the moral basis in which the Western genre finds its foundation, Westerns heavily reflect the current state of society; hence why it is said if you want to understand a society at any given period, take a look at the Western that was made. With that being said, Clint Eastwood’s seminal film, Unforgiven, completely encapsulates the societal transformation America was going through in the early 90’s in regards to violence, gender, and acceptance of a new world.
When one thinks of the Western genre, they envision a tough brooding anti-hero that has no regard for the law and does what he needs to either make himself, or the world, happy. This idea rings even more true when one thinks of a Western lead by one of the toughest actors to graze the silver screen, Clint Eastwood. In the opening minutes of Unforgiven, text on screen appears over a setting sun to set up not only the main character William Munny, (Eastwood) but also the tone of the film as a whole. Upon learning that the lead character’s background exemplifies much of the stereotypical Western anti-hero, the audience sits and waits to see the main character fulfill the violent urges we all suppress. Yet, during the two-hour plus story, the violence of Munny is seemingly absent until the climax of the film that in all honesty could be missed if you picked the wrong time to go to the bathroom. This adherence to staying away from violence may not sit right in the hearts of those that grew up on the blood bath Westerns of yesteryear, but to the modern audience they coldly reflect the contemporary issues of violence in America. In the spring of 1992, violence in the country boiled over as the Los Angeles riots began and showed America not only the race issues that still existed in our society, but also the violence that we were all capable of. Instead of indulging in the violence America loved, Unforgiven, released ninety-two days after the riots, demonstrates the atrocities that violence is responsible for and condemns it. Throughout the course of the film, Little Bill (Hackman) is dead set on keeping violence away from Whisky, Oklahoma by taking guns from those who enter his town, but in his quest to do so, he incites more violence as he severely beats English Bob (Harris) senseless. By setting up Little Bill as a character that is against vigilante violence, the film gives off the message that a complete ban of violence would not help society as his character creates the most violence in the film even though he is the one that tries to ban it. Yet in contrast, through the Schofield Kid, (Woolvett) the film also implies engaging in moral violence also causes heartache that can haunt you for years in life. Purposely, throughout the film Eastwood provides palatable discussion on age old questions of vigilante violence while at the same time addressing contemporary violence issues such as the treatment of black Americans by police through Ned (Freeman) and the issue of gun laws in Little Bill.
While the center point of the film certainty revolves around the idea of violence, the film also fights the conventions of the Western genre in terms of gender roles in both men and women. Typically in Westerns, and culture in general for that matter, men are presented as rugged individuals that do not express emotions, especially towards women. As a result, many of the anti-heroes in the genre do not observe monogamy and prove their masculinity through the conquering of women. Yet Unforgiven goes against the grain with Munny. Throughout the film, anytime someone tries to pressure Munny into committing violence or sleeping with other women, he explains how his deceased wife would not approve of his actions. This action not only speaks volumes about how Eastwood decides to depict masculinity as a state of caring about his wife and what she thinks, but it also lends weight to the strength of feminism. The common representation of women in Westerns is strikingly similar to that of the femme fatale in film noirs, where women in films were either devoid of any significant action that would impact plot, or were only there to serve as the downfall of man. In Unforgiven, Eastwood sets up the women prostitutes in the film early on as damsels in distress that need the aid of the sheriff to be saved, but when the sheriff fails to do so, the women take matters into their own hands and become the inciting incident that sets the film into motion. In doing so, the woman’s roles throughout the rest of the film is pivotal as they help aid Munny after he is beaten and give him medical attention so he can live. With that being said, while the film does make great strides in advancing females importance to plot, there is not a singular woman who drastically impacts the plot and meaningful work only gets done when they work as a whole, not to mention all of the women in the film are still prostitutes showing that there is still a long way for women to go in Westerns.
In conjunction to addressing issues of race and gender, Unforgiven also tackles the idea of letting go of the past to move to the future; an idea at the forefront of America in 1992 as the world was about to become drastically different with the advent of the Internet. Throughout the course of the film, several characters harp on things that once were. In Munny, we see it through his remembrance of his late wife, and in English Bob, we see it through his constant dialogue about how great things were in England. Aside from the actual working parts within the film, the idea of reminiscing about the past is present in the overall production of the film itself. Anyone familiar with the history of Cinema understands that by the time the film was released in 1992, the Western genre was all but dead compared to its heydays of yesteryear, yet Eastwood struggles with letting go of the genre that made his career, and through the film is able to find what was needed to leave the Western genre for the rest of his career. While the film is obviously full of messages, the idea of leaving the past behind is the one the film chooses to end on as the audience learns through on-screen text Munny’s mother in law never found the answers to the questions of the past she had been longing for. What Eastwood tried to capture about the idea of the past and leaving it behind is it often seems like when we move on from a chapter in our life we are moving into the darkness, something unknown that we can never return from, yet if one stays stagnant the sun will still set so the only solution is to journey with it.
Even though it is impossible to tell if the Western genre will ever have life breathed into it once again, many would be satisfied with Unforgiven being the last great Western. The film not only serves the task of explaining society to its viewers, but it also calls back to its own genre origins. Ironically enough, for a man known for his emphatic on screen presence, Clint Eastwood’s biggest contribution to the Western genre may not come from his acting roles but possibly from his work behind the camera.
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