Westward the course of empire takes its way;
The four first acts already past,
A fifth shall close the drama with the day:
Time’s noblest offspring is the last.
George Berkeley, 1726
And now, four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.
Frederick Jackson Turner, The Significance of the Frontier in American History, 1893
, in William C. Davis’ book The American Frontier, with a photograph of two Native Americans in full dress playing ping-pong in front of a small group of cowboys and Indians, all likely on their day off. This was part of the cast of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and the year was 1902. “By then,” the text reads, “most people knew the score.” Indeed.
Following his death, Abraham Lincoln had been carted around the country in a special railway compartment named for him by the Union Pacific Railroad company. Before being laid to rest, his corpse was trotted from city to city so that the bereft and the bereaved could pay tribute to the man who had done so much for his country. It had been a sudden passing, in 1865.
There was something of the same memorial spirit, I think, behind Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. The West and the Western had both died abruptly, too. Yet Unforgiven lives on. Fifteen years on, its power has not diminished, but increased with age. It has not mellowed, but ripened.
Unforgiven is a movie about endings. An autumnal movie. If the Western, as the actor Robert Duvall says, is “our story,” our national mythology, then discussing Unforgiven may help us understand ourselves. The Western genre “died” a century after the American frontier did, but their passings reflect each other. Eastwood’s greatest film is concerned about the dissolution of both.
I understand Unforgiven to be an Apocalypse Book along the lines of St. John’s Revelation and kin also to the Buddhist Sutta Pitaka, the Hindu Kali Yuga, the Islamic account of the Day of Reckoning, or Judaism’s acharit hayamim. The prime business of this movie is eschatology.
Unforgiven is set in the 1880s; the story of William Munny (Eastwood), once a vicious, violent killer made worse by whiskey. The plot is as follows: A prostitute is cut up by cowboys in the whorehouse of Big Whiskey, Wyoming. The town sheriff and strong man, Little Bill (Gene Hackman), goes soft on the toughs and gives them a pittance of a whipping. He then releases them. In response, the bordello pools its money and puts out a thousand-dollar contract on the knifemen. This reward attracts the interest of the West’s diminishing pool of gunfighters, notably English Bob (Richard Harris), a rising star of the pulp magazines that have already begun to turn the Great West from dying reality into living myth. The sole member of Bob’s entourage consists of such an undertaker: his chronicler and publicist, a Eastern scribbler named Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), a writer of lurid paperback Westerns with titles like The Duke of Death.
Neither Briton, book, nor bounty, sit well with Little Bill, who administers to Bob the third of the several terrifying beatings administered during the course of the film. In effect, Hackman’s character is dealing with a fellow competitor in the field of gentrification; the Englishman’s working-over comes from his violating two of Little Bill’s civilizing rules; one written (no guns in town) and one unwritten (no “scum” or “bad types”).
Little Bill’s laws present a rebuke to the West’s chief characteristic; what the historian Turner called “the outer edge of the wave—the meeting point between savagery and civilization.” Part of Turner’s thesis was that the frontier was the pressure-valve in American society—where people like William Munny could go: “As has been indicated, the frontier is productive of individualism. Complex society is precipitated by the wilderness into a kind of primitive organization based on the family. The tendency is anti-social. It produces antipathy to control, and particularly to any direct control. The tax-gatherer is viewed as a representative of oppression.” Anti-social. The Western movies of mid-century Hollywood seem eminently social, in retrospect. What would the men of The Magnificent Seven say to such a professorial rebuke?
But Unforgiven is a revisionist epic. So Munny has used this opportunity to become a violent murderer and a lousy herder of swine; Little Bill uses his rules as a mask for his psychopathy and power-hunger. In Eastwood’s Wyoming, freedom’s made bad men; but civilization makes worse. Hackman’s rule over Big Whiskey gets a dexterous metaphor of its own: Outside the settlement, Little Bill is building, with his own hands, his dream house; a house where, we are told, no angle is straight—“crooked timber,” truly.
Despite Bill’s throttling of English Bob, word gets out about the reward, which brings The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), braggart man-child, to Munny’s door. Munny, we’re told in the prologue (reminiscent of She Wore A Yellow Ribbon), was cured of drinking and wicked ways by his wife, who died and left him with two children, three years before our story begins. Having turned his back on violence, like the hero of Shane, he is called to resume his craft.
After debating and assuring himself he’s no longer a “bad man” (“I’m just a fella now.”)—a sentiment he will repeat ad nauseam for the rest of the film, trying to convince himself of something he knows not to be true—he recruits his old partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and, together with The Kid, go to Big Whiskey to discuss the reward. Freeman and Woolvett visit the upstairs bordello, leaving Eastwood, shivering with rain chills, alone in the first-story bar. Fever-ridden Munny, now apparently a pacific man, is discovered to have a gun and is beaten up horribly by Little Bill. Rescued, he has a vision of the Angel of Death and, after several days near death, is healed and sewn up by Logan. Recuperated, Munny and company pursue the cattlemen. With the elderly Logan now psychologically unable to murder and The Kid too nearsighted, it falls upon Munny to kill the offender. He does so. Logan leaves the group, vowing to meet Munny later; instead, he is caught by Little Bill’s posse. Whipped by Bill for information, he dies. Meanwhile, the Kid and Munny find the second cutter.
The Kid kills him; his subsequent emotional breakdown puts a lie to his claims that he’s a “damn killer.” Munny begins drinking again during these scenes. Meeting a prostitute with the reward outside Big Whiskey, Munny and the Kid find out about Logan’s death and Little Bill’s displaying of Ned’s body outside of Greeley’s tavern. We then hear the full extent of Munny’s past; he’s killed many, many people, including women and children. Eastwood, planning to seek vengeance, orders the Kid to go home and begins to empty a whiskey bottle down his throat.
That evening, Munny, fully transfigured now into the Angel of Death of his vision, rides into town in the rain on a pale horse and kills Little Bill and five other men. Riding out, he warns the cowering townspeople to “give Ned a decent burial” and not to “cut up any more whores” or he’ll kill them all. A man with Munny in his gunsight is unable to shoot. The movie then ends, with the epilogue suggesting that Munny and his family went West to San Francisco, where “it was rumored he prospered in dry goods.” We are left with the same shot of Munny’s house, tree, and wife’s graveyard that opened the film.
What is this movie about?
My thesis is this: I think most myths are incomplete without an ending. Arthur goes to Avalon. Robin Hood shoots an arrow to mark his grave site. Davy Crockett dies at the Alamo. Like Ragnarok was to Norse myth, Unforgiven is to the Western; the “end myth.” It was made in 1992, long after Americans had chosen Star Wars, sci-fi, action, and urban noir as their preferred entertainments. It was Eastwood’s goodbye to the genre that’d made him.
And because it’s the end of the Western, its subject matter was necessarily an elegy on the West and simultaneously a “true history” of the American frontier: nobody is what they seem; deception is everywhere; morality is not black and white; killing scars you in every way; justice is either too light or too extreme; the West was full not only of individualist pioneers, but sociopaths; good men are sometimes bad men and vice versa. Demystification could be the word for it; “revisionist”—already used above— is another. Unforgiven is in part a fulfillment of the trend began by movies like Shane, Little Big Man, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and, to some extent, High Noon and The Searchers. Impressive as that pedigree is, however, Eastwood’s movie has a self-consciousness none of its progenitors can match. Some of the best speeches in the film come from Little Bill’s explanation to the pulp writer Beauchamp of the way the West really was; no, not that way, this way. Again, deception: Munny isn’t a farmer but a natural killer; the Schofield Kid is a liar; Little Bill is a bully, English Bob is a fraud who kills unarmed men.
“Where” is the film historically? Unforgiven is set in the weeks and days before and after September 18, 1881 (the date President Garfield died; we see the newspapers with this headline during the railway car scene). Why? Because this is when the west died; as a famous author once put it: “when they [historians] begin working on your biography, it’s like someone chiseling your tombstone.” Two years later, in 1883, Buffalo Bill would found his Wild West show, featuring real cowboys and Indians. 1883 was also the year Civil War general William T. Sherman said “I now regard the Indians as substantially eliminated from the problem of the army.” Almost every Native American tribe—teeming an estimated 300,000 in 1845—had been relocated to a reservation.
Eight years after that, on January 19, 1891, the whole Sioux nation—the last true holdouts—surrendered formally to the United States, ending 400 years of off-and-on racial warfare. Other Plains inhabitants had fared just as poorly; by 1890 there were an estimated 750 bison left alive, down from an estimated herd of 60 to 100 million 40 years earlier. A year before that, the 1890 bulletin of the Superintendent of the Census would report “Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line.”
It was this report that inspired Turner’s paper. The fact was amazing. The frontier had always been a fluid concept; initially, it was any land more than 100 miles from the eastern seaboard. Jefferson Davis and Lincoln were considered “Western men.” But what we think of today as the true frontier, the “West,” the Wild West, once called the “Great Desert”—2.5 million square miles of wilderness, 700 miles of plains and arid steppes, dominated by mountains that trumped the Alps—that West, was done and finished in about 77 years: conquered by McCormick’s horse-drawn reaper (patented 1834), Deere’s clod-breaking sleek steel plow (c. 1837), and Morse’s telegraph (1844), but most of all by the Transcontinental Railroad. When the last, gold spike was driven in on May 10, 1869 at Promontory, Utah, they had it hooked up with telegraph wires so the hammered pulse could transmit its own news like a nervous shock to both coasts. They might as well have sent an earthquake.
It’s appropriate, in a way, that Lincoln serves as the opening to this essay, for reasons other than the news of another murdered president opens Unforgiven. 1865, after all, was also the year America’s vast energies, no longer sapped by war, turned to the frontier. The martyr himself had made it possible. Lincoln had signed the—literally—groundbreaking Homestead Act on May 20, 1862, finishing a political effort that dated back to 1844, partially the result of Horace “Go west, young man” Greeley.
The Homestead Act opened that West to white settlers—by the end of century, some 600,000 farmers had received clear title to about 80 million acres of public lands. Life in the middle of death—for this was the postbellum age, as Lewis Mumford wrote in The Brown Decades: “Dead men were everywhere. They were present in memory; their portraits stoically gathered dust in empty parlours; they even retained possession of their bodies and walked about the streets; they spoiled gaiety, or rather, they drove it to fevers of license and distraction.” But in the North, 900,000 immigrants were replacing the war dead. Even the South, which had lost a quarter of its white male population, was full of movement: veterans returning home, freedmen roaming, Union soldiers on patrol.
It is this mixing of the quick and the dead that is at the heart of Unforgiven—a funeral cortege and eulogy for the Western and by extension, the West, that is unafraid to show its subject for what it is. Unforgiven is a Western that rebukes Westerns—not only their glibness, but their moral simplicity, their glossing over of history, their shallowness and embrace of easy killing and violence as solution. William Munny may very well threaten the townspeople of Big Whiskey with fire and death if they don’t take down Ned’s corpse from its humiliating public display, but his real-life counterpart Eastwood is doing just the same thing; only with an idea, not a man. If Unforgiven does an especially good job of both celebrating and castigating the West and the Western, if it displays its wares too well, if it takes a dour page from Buffalo Bill—or if we find this practice too odd, we might take counsel from the example English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who thought all corpses should be flayed, then publicly displayed (and whose mummified corpse is on display at the University College, London); who, in his own will, asked his executor, Dr. Smith, to
. . . take my body under his charge and take the requisite and appropriate measures for the disposal and preservation of the several parts of my bodily frame . . . The skeleton he will cause to be put together in such a manner as that the whole figure may be seated in a chair usually occupied by me when living . . . The body so clothed . . . he will take charge of and for containing the whole apparatus he will cause to be prepared an appropriate box or case . . . my executor will from time to time cause to be conveyed to the room in which they meet the said box or case with the contents therein to be stationed in such part of the room as to the assembled company shall seem meet.
“There was nothing on the stone to explain to Mrs. Feathers why her only daughter had married a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.” So the epilogue of Unforgiven tells us. To watch this movie is to also visit a grave, and see that Eastwood has taken Bentham’s advice. We, too, have had a strange romance.