Friday, July 27, 2012

Unforgiven (1992) - "'Deserve's Got Nothing To Do With It"

Unforgiven: Clint Eastwood's Final Western is a Good One, and never forget, "Deserve's got nothing to do with it"

Unforgiven 1992 film poster
"Unforgiven" (1992).

"Unforgiven" (1992) is Clint Eastwood's last Western, and it is a good one. "Unforgiven" also is trite, derivative and wanders all over the place, but "Unforgiven" has something simple to say, says it, and then lets it go. You really can't ask much more from a Western like "Unforgiven." It is great seeing Clint in "Unforgiven" play an unredeemed tough guy one last time. However much you may sympathize with his quest in "Unforgiven," there is no question about one thing: Clint's character still, throughout, is nothing but a despicable killer who deserved far worse than he got. Bill Munny looks good only in comparison to his opponents in "Unforgiven," and that's not saying much.

Bill Munny Clint Eastwood Unforgiven 1992
Bill Munny retired from gunfighting for this in "Unforgiven."

I saw "Unforgiven" on it its first run, and "Unforgiven" was memorable. "Unforgiven" came out during a unique period in American history, right after the fall of the USSR and the First Gulf War but during a painful Recession. In some ways the US was riding high, but at the same time the country was the captive of its own painful vulnerabilities and imperfections. That is the story of "Unforgiven," transmuted to the Old West.

English Bob Richard Harris Saul Rubinek Unforgiven 1992
"English Bob" (Richard Harris) and W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek).

A tough farmer, Bill Munny (Clint Eastwood), is asked at the beginning of "Unforgiven" by a Madam (Frances Fisher) from a nearby town to come and avenge a horrible infraction committed against one of her girls, Delilah (Anna Levine for no reason. There is a reward, but that is not enough motivation for a man like Munny, for Munny has retired from the pain and grief of trying to make the world conform to his vision of it, but his sense of honor and dignity is offended when he hears that the working girl was scarred on her face by a brute. He saddles up and collects a couple of comrades to see what he can do.

Clint Eastwood Unforgiven 1992
Bill Munny, played by Clint Eastwood, hasn't come to talk - well, he hasn't come to talk very much.

The key to "Unforgiven" is to learn exactly what Clint Eastwood's character, Bill Munny, stands for. At first we don't know what is special about him, or why anyone would approach him for help. Bill Munny is just a simple farmer, and not a very successful one at that. But Munny is taken by a story of a prostitute who was unnecessarily and cruelly disfigured in a town called 'Big Whiskey.' While a bounty is involved, it's as insignificant to the quest as the payment in "True Grit." There are much larger issues at stake. There is an underlying air of chivalry that comes straight out of "True Grit": a wronged woman demands justice, vengeance is required, and the worthiness of those involved is irrelevant. Munny thus hooks up with an inexperienced young partner (an obvious commentary on the Glen Campbell role in "True Grit") and his reliable old comrade Ned (Morgan Freeman) and off they go.

Sheriff Daggett Gene Hackman Unforgiven 1992
Sheriff "Little Bill" Daggett, played by Gene Hackman. Hackman won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Gene Hackman is "Little Bill," a pompous windbag of a sheriff who rules Big Whiskey with the proverbial iron fist. Little Bill is riding high, and delights in not just beating his victims, but degrading them. Richard Harris ("English Bob"), a phony dime store novel hero, unwisely ventures into town accompanied, improbably, by his very own biographer (Saul Rubinek). English Bob doesn't last long there, and he is lucky to escape with his life (but no longer with his biographer).
Clint Eastwood Unforgiven 1992
This is as iconic a shot as you will find of Clint Eastwood in "Unforgiven." While "Unforgiven" did not give him an Oscar for Best Actor, the film won "Best Picture," and Eastwood won "Best Director." 

Perceptive and clever despite his own faults, Little Bill knows there are hired guns out to kill him. He captures and interrogates Ned (Morgan Freeman, then kills him. When Munny is told this, he at first appears to simply accept it as something that happens in their line of work. Watch, however, his reaction change when he is told that Little Bill put Ned's corpse on display with a big sign saying "This is What Happens to Assassins Around Here." That reaction, one of the most dramatic in any Clint role, sets in motion the climax of the film. We also learn at this point that Munny himself is not, can never be, and cannot consider himself better than anyone else. That fact is important because it shows the source of his humbleness, the demons that haunt him and why he is driven to drink. His character is not the issue here, though, only what it impels him to do.

Clint Eastwood Unforgiven 1992
"Anyone who wants to live better go out the back right now." - "Unforgiven."

Right after the 2001 terrorist attacks, I was riding in an airport van back to a hotel after being grounded. Rumors were rife, but everyone knew the world trade center was gone. Nobody knew what to say, but a fellow in the back said simply, "Someone's gonna pay for this." That is precisely what "Unforgiven" is all about, a uniquely American idea that when somebody crosses a certain line, nothing on earth will prevent that person from suffering just retribution.

Clint Eastwood Bill Munny Unforgiven 1992
Clint Eastwood as Bill Munny in "Unforgiven."

Munny has another companion in "Unforgiven," another flawed man simply called "The Schofield Kid" (Jaimz Woolvett), but Munny rides into town and wreaks vengeance on his own because it is just something he has to do. It is not giving anything away to say that when Munny and Little Bill finally meet at the end of "Unforgiven," there is a brief but epic exchange. "I don't deserve to die like this," Little Bill says as Munny contemplates killing him. Little Bill is pleading his case at this turning point in "Unforgiven," as a member in good standing of the community. He thinks his entire life's work should be taken into account before he is sentenced for what both of them know are unpardonable crimes. In other words - Little Bill is asking for some human charity and kindness, neither of which he has shown to others.

Unforgiven 1992
"Unforgiven" (1992).

The stage is set for "Unforgiven" to reach its true climax - the passing of a sentence on "Little Bill" Daggett. Munny replies:
Deserve's got nothing to do with it. 
Before I go any further, I want to point out that Eastwood said a very similar line in "Hang 'Em High" (1968). In that film, he says to the character played by Pat Hingle:
God's got nothing to do with it.
I don't think the similar lines are a coincidence. Perhaps David Webb Peoples, who wrote the screenplay for "Unforgiven," borrowed that line, or maybe he didn't and it was Eastwood's idea. Only they know.

The whole meaning of the Munny character and, indeed, "Unforgiven" is encapsulated in that one line, in the same way that, say, "A Few Good Men" comes down to "You can't handle the truth."  Munny unhesitatingly rejects the sheriff's defense out of hand in "Unforgiven" while still acknowledging it and his own fallibility. Here we get to the film's murky "point," which requires interpretation and generates disagreement. Little Bill unfortunately had broken a tacit code of tough men: you may kill people that you must, but you don't take pleasure in their humiliation. A lady of the evening must not be deprived of the only thing she could be proud of, a harmless visitor should not be unnecessarily disgraced, a dead but honorable foe should not be publicly mocked. That sort of sadism shall be, in a word, "Unforgiven." There shall be no mitigating factors whatsoever when you cross that line. "Unforgiven" gives voice to the true unspoken code of the West, a code that survives to this day - a demand for common decency.

Munny Ned Schofield Kid Unforgiven 1992
Munny, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett).
wrote a perceptive, naturalistic script in "Unforgiven" about a man in the twilight of his active life. Anyone who can't see similarities between "Unforgiven" and other Westerns like the aforementioned "True Grit" simply isn't looking hard enough. The truth is, though, that all Westerns have common themes, and "Unforgiven" is simply following in the same footsteps. There is nothing wrong with pounding the eternal verities one more time in a film like "Unforgiven."

Clint Eastwood holding Oscars Unforgiven 1992
Clint Eastwood collects his two Oscars for "Unforgiven."

"Unforgiven" reflects its times. You have America in 1992, with all its flaws and weaknesses, finally kicking Saddam Hussein out of his intended conquest, Kuwait, and Gorbachev finally tearing down that wall as President Ronald Reagan demanded. None of those things were achieved by perfect people, just simple souls doing dirty jobs. Saddam Hussein was "Unforgiven," just like Little Bill. At the film's climax, Eastwood rather ostentatiously places in the background what appears from a distance to be a modern American flag. The point of doing this appears to be to emphasize that, just like Munny, the US may be flawed, but ultimately it does the right thing and sets things right.

Clint Eastwood Unforgiven 1992
The stars and stripes waving proudly in "Unforgiven."

Bill Munny, vile murderer and failure, rights some simple wrongs, and that is all anyone can do. As he rides out of town at the end of "Unforgiven," you feel as if something greater than a man is present. It is not Munny riding that horse into the night in "Unforgiven," but the eternal Avenger of honor and decency in this most humble of human forms. Munny's final words temporarily bring the world back into simple balance at the conclusion of "Unforgiven." And, sometimes that's the best you can hope for.

Below it the trailer for "Unforgiven."

"I don't deserve this."



  1. This is a great article! I would only add that theme of unforgiven also implies original sin - not necessarily in a biblical way, but in the sense that we are all guilty if something in our lives (the opposite of innocent). As the sherif dies and Munny rides away "derserve's got nothing to do with it" also means that they are both flawed men, each one underserving of mercy and in a world that does not concern itself about everyone's destiny (ie it could have ended any other way)

    1. That is a great way to put it, Prism, and thanks. Perhaps another way to put it is that none of us deserves anything in this life. This is a very philosophical film with murky implications, and a point they try to make is that outcomes are not dependent upon "goodness" but rather man-administered rough justice.