Why I Can’t Quite Call Unforgiven One of the Great Westerns

I first saw Unforgiven soon after its 1992 release. Everyone else was calling it a masterpiece, but I was deeply disappointed. Last Saturday, no longer remembering clearly why I didn’t like it,  I saw it again.

Now I view it in much the same way as Apocalypse Now. For most of its runtime, it is an absolutely brilliant motion picture. But it falls apart at the end.

In some ways, its collapse is worse than Apocalypse Now‘s, because it’s a cop-out. The ending is too much like a conventional western. The blame goes to writer David Webb Peoples–as I understand it, it was shot as he wrote it–and director Clint Eastwood, who didn’t insist on changing it.

I’m assuming you’ve already seen Unforgiven. The rest of this post contains spoilers.

For most of the film’s runtime, it brilliantly critiques and deconstructs the western genre. Violence is ugly, painful, and cruel. Even more so if the violence results in death. "It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man," says Eastwood’s character,  Will Munny. "You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have."

More than any other character, Munny represents everything false about the westernunforgiven_1 myth. Once a cruel and violent outlaw, usually drunk, he’s been reformed by a good woman. When we meet him, he’s a widower, a father of two young children, a tea-totaller, and a struggling pig farmer. He’s also, quite clearly, no longer a competent killer. Using a pistol, he can’t shout a paint can from a few paces.

Nevertheless, he teams up with old friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and a young, inexperienced, near-sighted braggart calling himself "The Schofield Kid" (Jaimz Woolvett), to kill two cowboys who cut up a prostitute. Munny tells himself that the cowboys have it coming, but he’s done worse himself. He’s after the reward.

The bulk of the movie follows these three killers, as well as the sadistic sheriff (Gene Hackman) maintaining the peace by bullying others. Of course, if he had properly handled those cowboys in the first place, the peace would not have been threatened.

Peoples and Eastwood make the themes clear. Violence is horrible and solves nothing. Western gunfights were never like the heroic, romanticized versions. There are no happy endings.

They also make it clear that Munny is no longer able to do this sort of work, and because he is sober, he no longer wants to.

The film is a masterpiece…up until the point where a prostitute, paying off Munny and the Kid for killing the cowboys, tells them that the sheriff has killed Ned Logan. Then everything falls apart.

Munny grabs a bottle of whisky and starts drinking. He rides into town, confronts the sheriff and a large posse. When his shotgun misfires, he pulls out his six-shooter, shoots the sheriff, and then kills enough deputies to convince the others to run away. Then he safely leaves town.

In other words, Peoples and Eastwood give Unforgiven a conventional, happy ending. unforgiven_2True, it’s shot to look uglier than usual, but its still about the hero killing a lot of bad guys. It violates everything the film has said about the west up until that moment, as well as everything we know about Will Munny. Yes, the whiskey could have loosened his inhibitions, restoring his violent disposition. But the whiskey could not have improved his hand/eye coordination, turning him from a bad shot to a great one.

Forgiven deserves a better ending, and Will Munny, as a character, deserved a worse one. I can imagine two preferable ways this picture should have closed:

  1. Munny kills the sheriff, then his deputies shoot down Munny like a dog.
  2. When Munny hears that the sheriff has killed his friend (which, let’s face it, is no worse than anything Munny has done), he should have just rode away, feeling bad.

Those endings would not have been as commercially successful. But they would have kept the film’s promise.

One thought on “Why I Can’t Quite Call Unforgiven One of the Great Westerns

  1. Yes, yes, 1000 times YES. Thank you! Why do people fall all over themselves to praise this movie? It’s great right up to the cornball conventional happy ending which betrays everything the film seems like it’s leading up to. The film does a nasty 180 and goes from anti-western to boring normal western which glorifies violence instead of criticizing it. UGH.

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