Why Unforgiven?

YOU COULD HEAR A GASP from the audience when Clint Eastwood suddenly appeared on the screen. It was just a preview of his new movie, Unforgiven, but there he was in a long, dark slicker, his face in profile, staring menacingly from beneath a dark hat with a flat rim: Eastwood¹s version of the classic western hero. People gasped because they hadn’t seen Eastwood look that way for a long time. In fact, no one looks that way in movies these days. There aren¹t many western movies anymore because the tenor of the times has made it impossible to make them.

I went to see Unforgiven as soon as I could. Epic westerns have always required a leading man whose real talent is to be a looming screen presence, someone who is more a movie star than an actor. Clint Eastwood is the last major star in whose identity is at one with the western. I thought it would take someone like Eastwood, who produced and directed as well as stars in the movie, to cut through the resistance that has slowly built up against western movies. Changes in attitudes throughout society have eroded certain assumptions about the history of the West and, in turn, have eroded the myth of the West that the movies celebrate. A growing opinion is that what had always been known as the “winning of the West” was nothing better than theft from the indigenous tribes and genocide. Dances With Wolves incorporated those notions and became successful simply by reversing the traditional loyalties of the audience. It made every Sioux a wise and admirable member of a culture completely in tune with its environment. Every white was a crude and venal threat to the admirable Sioux and beyond that to nature itself. Eastwood escaped all these difficulties by ignoring them altogether.

Except for one woman who appears briefly, no one from any native tribe is anywhere in the West of Unforgiven.

Whether the West was won or taken, in the world of movies the cattle kingdom was the West’s great glory, the source of its continuing romantic appeal. To work with cattle on the range was hard but honest and exhilarating work, ennobling in itself. Even now, from Texas to

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