Culture

The Last Great American Western Turns 25

A quarter-century after its release, the world of Unforgiven seems frighteningly familiar.

It was once hard to imagine that the Western would ever go out of fashion. As epitomized by the novels of Zane Grey, the movies of John Wayne, and television shows such as The Lone Ranger and Gunsmoke, the genre was a fictionalized reflection of American history, one of our few truly indigenous art forms.

Today, the Western has all but faded from popular culture, perhaps paralleling the dissipation of our frontier mentality and the loss of our connection to the land in an increasingly urbanized society. The traditional Western narrative, with its archetypes of good and evil, (“white hats” and “black hats”) seems far too simplistic and idealistic for an increasingly diverse and multiethnic society formed by the upheaval of the 1960s and the political scandals of the 1970s. The genre seems not just out of fashion, but outdated, a relic of the irretrievable American past.

If there was a coda to the Western, it came 25 years ago with the cinematic release of Unforgiven. Written by David Webb Peoples, starring and directed by Clint Eastwood, the film was a critical and commercial success, grossing over $150 million worldwide and winning four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director for Eastwood, and Best Supporting Actor for Gene Hackman.

Unforgiven came at an odd time in American history. When it was released, in August 1992, it landed in the midst of an America still coming to grips with the end of the Cold War and the smashing, if incomplete, success of the Gulf War. Just months later, Americans would head to the polls for a presidential election that saw the (permanent, as it turned out) transfer of political power from the Greatest Generation to the Baby Boomers, with all its attendant cultural implications.

The triumphalism of America’s victory in the Cold War could have naturally informed Unforgiven’s ethos. After all, nearly every post-war Western to that point had dramatized the conflict between virtuous, democratic individualism and authoritarian collectivism in one way or another. Besides which, with the U.S.S.R. vanquished, the United States was the world’s sole hyperpower and a new world order seemed on the horizon. The “end of history” was proclaimed, and the supremacy of the liberal democratic model seemed destined to last forever.

Yet you couldn’t guess any of this from watching Unforgiven. Its atmosphere, its philosophy, and its message all were far darker and more ambiguous. It was a starkly realist film without heroes, set in a world where authority was corrupt and vengeance was no less immoral.

Unforgiven was not the first revisionist, anti-heroic Western, of course. Sam Peckinpaugh’s The Wild Bunch (1969), and many of Eastwood’s own films, including the famous 1960s “spaghetti Westerns” he made with Sergio Leone, beat it to the punch by decades. Its genius, rather, was to take the barrenness and amorality of the subgenre to its logical extreme. The town of Big Whiskey, Wyo., where much of the film is set, may be a typical, hardscrabble frontier settlement, but it offers no sense of home or promise of a shining future — not even a church or a school, much less an America worth fighting (or dying) for. Similarly, the small Kansas farm of retired gunfighter William Munny (Eastwood) is a dilapidated, unwholesome place unfit for family life.

Instead, drinking and whoring set the boundaries of life in Unforgiven and drive its story. The co-workers of a prostitute brutally attacked by a drunken customer raise a thousand-dollar bounty on the head of the cowboy who knifed their compatriot, as well as on his companion, who participated half-heartedly in the attack and tried to stop him. Sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Hackman), a former gunslinger himself, is the brutal peacekeeper in town, and after he shows leniency toward the wanted cowboys, the women are forced to take matters into their own hands. The news of the bounty eventually reaches the isolated Munny, who has recently lost the wife who saved him from his own life of drinking and gunslinging.

More than Eastwood could have expected, it mirrors our age of never-ending warfare, our ineradicable cynicism, and our wary attitude toward authority.

By the film’s bloody conclusion, only Munny and a boastful young neophyte killer remain alive. One feels no satisfaction at Munny’s survival, for he is no paragon of morality. He long ago lost his soul, and avenging the death of his friend and fellow bounty hunter (Morgan Freeman) simply reveals his true nature as “a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.” Nor is there much lamenting at the demise of Little Bill, since it is by no means clear that his “peacekeepers” are at all preferable to the outlaws they oppose. Few viewers can manage outrage at Munny’s assault on the law, for Little Bill’s brutality and rage were a steep price to pay for whatever peace he imposed on Big Whiskey. Just as chilling is the unremitting vengefulness of the prostitutes, led by Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher), for their demand for blood justice seems far out of proportion to the attack, no matter how heinous.

Unforgiven clearly touched a nerve in early-1990s America. The late movie critic Roger Ebert gave the film four stars, but interpreted it in traditional terms, praising its unflinching portrayal of “that implacable moral balance, in which good eventually silences evil.” Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers, who also awarded it four stars, saw in it a lesson for an unreflective post-Cold War America: “Past sins can wreak havoc on the best intentions.”

A quarter-century on, the world of Unforgiven resonates in an entirely different way. More than Eastwood could have expected, it mirrors our age of never-ending warfare, our ineradicable cynicism, and our wary attitude toward authority. It shows us what a life stripped of security feels like — the nervous anticipation of violence, the weary realization that the shedding of blood is unavoidable, and that those who would bring order may be as threatening as the unlawful.

Nearly 16 years after 9/11, we have become inured to permanent war, unthinkable amorality, and horrific atrocities. Overseas is an unsolvable maelstrom of mayhem and violence. At home, we now accept that our children can be murdered going to school or that we can be gunned down at a concert or mown down strolling the street. Minorities live their lives in fear of being shot by police for no good reason. Crosses representing over 760 people murdered last year in one of America’s great cities, Chicago, are carried in a solemn procession down the streets where more than 3,500 shootings took place and parents teach their children to drop to the ground at the sound of gunshots. Less deadly, but no less damaging, justice is seen as partial and those who govern us from both sides of the aisle are seen as flimflam men, lining their own pockets while increasingly large numbers of the vulnerable struggle to survive. There are no longer any unifying national figures whose probity and rectitude could be held up as symbols of hope and civic instruction. In response, the wealthy wall themselves off from the masses, while too many of those struggling numb their pain in a haze of opioids.

The end of history was not supposed to be this way. It was thought that our Cold War triumph would usher in a golden age of opportunity, prosperity, and peace. What makes Unforgiven so prescient — and so sad to watch at this late date — is that it forces us to confront a profoundly disquieting idea: Sometimes in life, there are no heroes, no spots of refuge or compassionate respite.

The bright future we once thought inevitable is at risk of disappearing with little trace, like William Munny himself, leaving only hopelessness in its place.

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