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: Eastwood’s 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 aren’t 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 Utah and from the Dakotas to California, thousands of people earn their living ranching and cowboying in ways that, as much as they have evolved, would still be recognizable to cowboys on the trail drives of one hundred or so years back. They ride, rope, and brand and feel strongly a part of a tradition, although they fear, as cowboys always have, that the tradition is dying out. And they are the continuing inspiration for a whole culture of Western clothes, music, cowboy reunions, rodeos, and the like. Our continuing attitude that the work of cattle ranching is ennobling is one reason for the great popularity of both Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove and Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. This summer PBS ran several approving shows about working ranches, and Warner Brothers has formed a special record label to try to capture the mushrooming audience for cowboy songs and poetry.
However, even as people are listening to cowboy songs, they are swearing off red meat, often for their heath, but more and more commonly out of moral conviction. They place animal rights on the same plane as human rights, a view that I think is hard to maintain without drawing distinctions among the animals. Can you exterminate rats but not dogs? Can you exterminate fire ants but not sheep? And if you can allow those distinctions, why not allow one between people and animals? But for someone who thinks it is wrong to slaughter cattle for food, the work of cowboys, then and now, becomes not ennobling but ghastly and a western movie becomes a huge display of depravity. This is the view of Jane Tompkins, a professor at Duke University. Her recent West of Everything is perfectly attuned to current intellectual attitudes about the western. In discussing Red River, the great movie about a trail drive, her outrage over the fate of the cattle consumes any other reaction to the movie she might have had, including concern for the fate of the people: “The sacrifice of their [the cattles’] lives underwrites everything. Red River ends with the prospect of a gigantic river of blood, but that river is kept offscreen because it has no place in the consciousness of filmmakers or of the society they cater to…. In order for the story to work, we must believe… that it is all right to make cattle walk a thousand miles to be herded onto boxcars, transported to stockyards, slaughtered, made into meat for human consumption and into dollars for people in the cattle business.” By this reasoning, a cowboy is the moral equivalent of a guard at a concentration camp.
But it isn’t just the cattle that are oppressed in Tomkins’ view of the western. So are horses: “It’s not that the Lone Ranger doesn’t love Silver; it’s not that the Ranger isn’t Silver’s friend. It’s that he can switch a t will from mate to master while Silver has no choice in the matter; Silver’s unacknowledged slide from pal to vehicle of transportation doesn’t bother anyone but him.” This sounds silly at first—and of course Tompkins can’t possibly know whether Silver is bothered or not. But, as much as I intend to continue relishing beef and riding horses, these notions about cattle and horses have a crotchety persistence that makes them hard to shake. Certainly they have made their way into Unforgiven.
Eastwood does ride a horse in this movie and it is white, but it is an old plow horse that fights Eastwood when he tries to mount it. Eastwood is a gray-headed farmer with a young boy and girl, barely scratching out a living. But he had been a notorious killer, legendary for his cruelty and his drinking.
He was reformed by his wife, who has recently died. For strength and inspiration he visits her grave under a lone tree near the bleak farmhouse. Meanwhile, in the wretched town of Big Whiskey, two cowboys cut up a prostitute. The sheriff lets them off lightly, and the other prostitutes band together to offer a reward to anyone who will kill the cowboys. A youngster, the self-proclaimed Schofield Kid, arrives at Eastwood’s farm to ask him to help kill the cowboys and get the reward. At first he says no, but then, of course, he agrees. A lot of westerns begin more or less like this, and this movie has more familiar elements: the town where one has to check his guns with the sheriff; the wimpy dime novelist; a weary conversation around the campfire; Eastwood’s truly great moment when the sheriff is rallying a posse in the saloon to go find Eastwood in the morning, and alone against them all, carrying a shotgun and a pistol, Eastwood steps calmly out of the darkness and into their view. The sets, locations, and cinematography are magnificent. There’s adventure, there’s humor, and there are thrilling performances from practically every actor on the screen, including those in the smallest supporting roles. Every one of the sheriff’s deputies, for example, has a distinct and interesting personality. Its skill and power and familiarity are what are best about Unforgiven. What’s worst is that it embraces current attitudes and notions so completely that it finally has no convictions of its own. How odd that it took a western by Clint Eastwood to prove you can’t make westerns anymore. Every single male in the movie is bad, with one exception. Every single woman is oppressed. Killers drink, and drinking causes killing. Working cowboys see women as property, like livestock. Authority, in the person of the sheriff, is nothing but a sadistic oppressor. Male loyalty to another male produces nothing but destruction all around.
Even the one exception—the one good man—is filtered through a modern lens. Before going after the cowboys, Eastwood stops to pick up his old friend from his younger days, who is played by Morgan Freeman. Freeman is black, but the character apparently is not. None of the other characters refer to his race. The Schofield Kid, angry that Eastwood has brought Freeman along, curses at him without referring to his race. Even when the sadistic sheriff is torturing him, there are no racial taunts. Perhaps actors should be able to play any role regardless of their race, but it is hard to believe that one hundred years ago a town like Big Whiskey would not hold at least one racist. Freeman is superb. A lesser actor would have made the discontinuity seem even greater.
To its credit, Unforgiven does not take killing lightly. There is a real attempt to show how momentous and morally debilitating it is—not by splattering gore on the screen but by showing the moral confusion of the characters. The Schofield Kid is afflicted with an uncontrollable remorse that destroys his bravado and him. Morgan Freeman, once a professional killer, now cannot do it. He has truly seen the error of his ways. Eastwood, however, descends again to killing, solemnly but with pleasure. He has his reasons, but they are not enough to justify the unrelenting brutality of his final outburst. “We all have it coming,” Eastwood says, to justify his killing. That would be a great line, except it’s not true. The classic western, however it treated cattle or horses or the tribes along the frontier knew that there was good and there was bad and that good should be the winner. Unforgiven is the perfect modern cultural artifact. It recognizes every newly perceived evil without recognizing any good, new or old.