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Shitholes And Other Things Coming

Our esteemed president’s use of the word “shithole” got me thinking the other day, not about Haiti nor Nigeria, but rather the climatic scene in “Unforgiven.” William Munny (Clint Eastwood) walks silently into Greely’s Saloon where his partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) is displayed out front in an open, upright coffin with a torch-lit sign reading “this is what happens to assassins around here.”

Munny (pointing his 10 gauge double barrel at the assembled group): “Who’s the fella owns this shithole? You, fat man, speak up.”
Skinny: “I own this establishment. Bought it from Greely for a thousand dollars.”
Munny (to men behind Skinny):”You better clear out of there.”
Sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman): “Just hold it right there .. Hold it! ..” (Munny fires, blowing Skinny back against the wall.) “Well sir you are a cowardly son of a bitch. You just shot an unarmed man.”
Munny: “He best arm himself, if he’s gonna decorate his saloon with my friend.”

The economy of words in Unforgiven is remarkable. Credit goes to David Webb Peoples, the San Francisco screenwriter who authored the film. Eastwood had the insight to buy the script, which had been optioned once to Francis Coppola, and hold on to it until he was old enough to play the role. But as with most great efforts, it’s the writing. Peoples was invited by Eastwood to attend a screening of the film in its final version and, expecting to see a full theater, was shocked to realize just he, Clint and the projectionist would be watching. As the reels turned and it became apparent that not a single word of his original work had been altered, he cried.

What makes Unforgiven so special? To some, not much happens in the film. A broken-down ex-outlaw pig farmer mounts a comeback, a cliched final gunfight ensues, and credits roll. In the hands of a lesser writer it might play as a parody of Eastwood’s early roles. Will Munny is Dirty Harry minus the magnum and spiffy sport coat; Josey Wales minus the cocksure tobacco spitting. And he is both these characters, with a little more time under his belt. Munny is described as “cold as snow” in his younger days and having neither weak nerve nor fear. But this last job he’s going to pull — killing some cowboys for cutting up a whore — is strictly a utilitarian undertaking. He’s in it to pocket some cash to buy a few more pigs or perhaps move somewhere where his kids can have a better life. As pieces of his legend are recounted by secondary characters it’s clear Munny wants no part of his old self. When his partner Ned corrects one account of Will’s earlier exploits (“I remember it was three men you shot – not two ..”) Munny tells him he “ain’t like that no more” and, laughably, that he’s “just a fella now.” Just a fella hunting down two cowboys for cutting a whore. “It was mostly the whiskey that done it,” he explains. As Will regresses to his old ways, darker elements of his legend are revealed. He’s said to be the “same William Munny who dynamited the Rock Island and Pacific in ’69, killing women and children and all.” This is emphasized by Gene Hackman’s Sheriff Bill with one chilling sentence after Skinny is killed.

Little Bill: “You be William Munny out of Missouri, killer of women and children.”

Munny: “That’s right. I’ve killed women and children. I’ve killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another. And I’m here to kill you, Little Bill, for what you done to Ned.”

By this point the viewer has become complicit with Munny. We understand him to be a child-murderer by his own admission, yet we’re still enamored with the justice he’s about to exact for his dead friend. The moment is as thrilling as any in Eastwood’s previous films, yet we’re being reminded that there is consequence for indiscriminate violence; for every bullet fired or train dynamited. The script is married perfectly with Clint Eastwood’s career to this point. We don’t tolerate the antihero, we cheer him. For every ‘fascist’ label applied to Dirty Harry, trying to argue the catharsis is futile. As is trying to argue the effectiveness of well-constructed cinematic violence. We want to see justice served to the bully or unapologetic punk, collateral casualties be damned. With Unforgiven this idea has been taken a step further and we’re actually celebrating the badness of the protagonist, his sheer cold-blooded force as he recovers from the brink of death, starts taking harder hits off the whiskey bottle, and in hunched, aged form, returns to wreak havoc. As the sign on the wall in Specs’ tavern in San Francisco reads: “Old Age and Treachery Will Overcome Youth and Skill Every Time.”

Peoples’ script is filled with great detail that makes the film whole. The central female characters are whores but not passive in approach. They post the bounty on the cowboys and lure the string of outlaws into town. As the madame Strawberry Alice notes “just because we let them smelly fools ride us like horses that don’t mean we gotta let them brand us like horses.” The whores affect action in the only manner available to them and, oddly, are not punished as violence ensues. They are chastised and berated but none of them is put in jail. As Little Bill remarks when attempting to whip answers out of Ned Logan “when their (the whores‘) lies don’t match your lies .. well, I ain’t gonna hurt no woman ..” There are two other female characters who figure prominently: Logan’s wife, the Indian Sally Two Trees and Munny’s dead wife Claudia Feathers. Sally sees right through Will Munny to his murderous soul, still intact. And Munny’s deceased wife serves as hollow guidepost in the film’s early scenes where, despite embarking on this killing for hire, he invokes her guidance from beyond as new moral compass. He tells his kids that his dead wife “cured him” of his evil ways, teaching him not to mistreat animals. He tells Ned that Claudia steered him clear of whiskey, the spirit responsible for much of his past behavior. But as the story progresses it becomes apparent that true change, whether applied to present times or the Old West, is the rarest commodity. This is the film’s arc as it nears climax: Munny once again chastising an uncooperative horse as a “pig-fucking whore” and reaching for the bottle.

Munny’s partner Ned Logan is an interesting character too. No mention is made of his being black, and this at a time when it most certainly would have been noted. No racial epithets are hurled and he’s a land-owning equal allowed to survive on his wits like any other. Some may point to the whipping scene in the jailhouse as allusion to slavery, but Sheriff Little Bill doesn’t reserve his whippings exclusively for Ned and not once does he use a racially derisive word. This would perhaps compromise Little Bill’s portrayal of himself as a fair judge of men with “low character.” But none of the others note Ned’s color either and it’s a detail that can’t be overlooked. Ultimately Logan, as opposed to Munny, is shown to be a changed man. He can’t pull the trigger on his Spencer rifle to kill the cowboy and is forced to hand the gun over to Will to do the job. It’s this very change of heart or crossover to humanity that results in his demise as he is captured “going south,” having given up on the hunt. The other to drop out shortly after is the Schofield Kid, Will and Ned’s youthful and transparently cocksure third partner for most of the film. The kid serves a few purposes. In early scenes his swagger is false as he brags about his exploits and peppers Will with questions about his past. He is symbolically half-blind and wants desperately to be a “bad man” like Munny but when he finally pulls the trigger to end another’s life he is aged and changed instantly, filled only with regret. This leads to the movie’s most famous exchange with iconic lines delivered by Eastwood. “It’s a hell of a thing killin‘ a man,” he observes. “You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.” And then after the badly-shaken kid tries to compose himself by noting that the man he killed had it coming: “We all have it coming, kid.” Clint Eastwood may be a far cry from the best actor of our time, but nobody understands his own epochal legend better.

Saul Rubinek, as the writer/biographer W.W. Beauchamp, is another great character. He’s a novelty in a time when many didn’t know how to read or write, never mind pursue it as career. The running joke when Beauchamp reveals his profession as writer is the retort “you mean letters and such?” There aren’t many biographers in western scripts and this is yet another great detail at the hand of David Webb Peoples. Peoples is in a subtle sense pointing out his own centrality to the film; how writers shape everything. Beauchamp is a parasite of sorts wanting only to attach himself to the greatest legend. He begins with English Bob (another superb example of character and casting as portrayed by Richard Harris.) Bob is a proud Englishman, deriding locals for America’s custom of electing a president and espousing the majesty of monarchy. He then receives a beating at the hands of Little Bill (in another of the film’s brilliant scenes with Hackman deftly conveying both his character’s penchant for and discomfort with violence.) Shortly after the writer Beauchamp jumps ship to follow Little Bill as his biographer and this sticks to the film’s end when he attempts to gain access to Munny after he’s single-handedly shot and killed five armed men.

Beauchamp: “Who, uh, who’d you kill first?”
Munny: “Huh?”
Beauchamp: “When confronted by superior numbers an experienced gunfighter will always fire on the best shot first.”
Munny: “Is that so?”
Beauchamp: “Yeah, Little Bill told me that. And you probably killed him first, didn’t you?”
Munny: “I was lucky in the order. But I’ve always been lucky when it comes to killing folks.”
Beauchamp: “And who was next? It was Clyde, right? You must have killed Clyde ..”
Munny (eyeing Beauchamp): “All I can tell ya is who’s gonna be last ..”

And so Beauchamp beats a hasty retreat, writer as observer with the rest of us, as the others huddle hidden in the night’s driving rain outside Greely’s to watch Munny exit on his horse. Several have a direct and open shot on him but none will take it. He barks a few words of authoritative instruction — “You better bury Ned right! .. Better not cut up nor otherwise harm no whores or I’ll come back and kill every last one of you sons of bitches!” But it’s the exit of a man invincibly alone with another pile of bodies to account for when he eventually reaches his final authority. There is satisfaction in Unforgiven, but no redemption. Even if we can make things right against all odds it doesn’t equate to ‘true change.’ And it doesn’t stop any of us from having it coming.

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  1. Paulo wrote:

    I’m going to have to watch this movie again.

    Wednesday, January 31, 2018 at 1:52 am | Permalink
  2. admin wrote:

    One of the all-time greats. Perhaps the best example of Eastwood’s spare style as director. Also some great interviews on youtube with the actors in question about the experience. The one with Saul Rubinek and his first meeting Eastwood is revealing.

    Wednesday, January 31, 2018 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

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