by Catherine Ingrassia
The popular and critical success of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) has prompted a number of discussions about the status of the Western, Eastwood’s cinematic persona, and the currency of each in a changing cultural landscape. An accepted critical reading of the film that has already emerged suggests that it revises the Western genre.1 The myth of the heroic gunfighter enacting his moral code and resolving some sort of cultural conflict is allegedly laid bare with Unforgiven’s depiction of a decidedly unheroic, morally ambiguous, and brutal existence. Yet critics eager to find a revisionist quality in Eastwood’s film ignore the centrality of the text—the written text—both to the film and to the construction of the hero and genre it interrogates. The film recognizes the Western’s reliance on the writer to inform and construct the images on which that mythos depends. Unforgiven literally and repeatedly imposes a textual account over the cinematic landscape to reveal the gap between sign and signified, between the cultural potency of the Western tradition and the reality it represents. Such devices as the written on-screen prologue and epilogue, the valedictory inscription at the end of the film and, most important, the function of the hack writer, W.W. Beauchamp, all recognize the privileged role textual accounts play in this cinematic and cultural tradition. The currency of the written word within the film anchors it within the traditional genre of the Western. Through its exploration of the primarily textual construction of the Western, Unforgiven illustrates the symbiotic relationship between the man of words and the man of actions, and ultimately affirms rather than resists the conventions of its genre.
The film opens with the iconic use of a cinematic past presenting the silhouette image of a solitary man, presumably William Munny (played by Clint Eastwood), against a panoramic burnt orange sky.2 Yet Munny’s action, digging his wife’s grave, grounds the limitless possibilities otherwise suggested by his visual landscape. Similarly, the image collides with the seeming neutrality of the written prologue scrolling up the screen. The prologue offers the brief history of Claudia Feathers Munny, “a comely young woman, and not without prospects,” who, to her mother’s disappointment, entered “into marriage with William Munny. a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.” Mrs. Feather’s narrative assumptions for her daughter’s future, based on Munny’s reputation, do not occur when her daughter dies of smallpox rather than “at the hands of Munny.” The spectator, like Mrs. Feathers, is immediately confronted with a gap between the text he is forced to read coupled with the visual image, both of which have a certain weight within the genre, and Munny’s “real” life and his confinement, and seeming contentment, within the domestic sphere.
It is a connection that Munny has difficulty making as well, and the appearance of the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) forces him to confront the mytho-poetic distance between his current life and his past reputation. The Kid visits Munny to convince him to accompany him to Big Whiskey and kill two abusive cowboys for a $1000 reward. The Kid initially regards Munny with suspicion, observing, in the hyperbolic language of a dime novel, “you don’t look like no rootin’ tootin’ son of a bitchin’ full-blooded assassin.” It is appropriate that the Schofield Kid rouses Munny from his pig-farmer existence since the Kid cannot readily assimilate any gaps texts offer him. Indeed the Kid is the most uncritical reader in the film. He has fully embraced the mythic experience of the fictional West and constructed his own completely fictional past to give himself currency within that primarily textual economy. Renaming himself the Schofield Kid after a Smith and Wesson pistol he’s never shot, he claims to be “a damn killer [him]self.” Invested in the tales of Munny’s past glories, the Kid compliments him in the linguistic code of the West that subtly suggests the discrepancy between language and meaning: “Uncle Pete said if I ever wanted a partner you’d be the worst one, the worst meaning the best.”3 The Kid has also fully, uncritically accepted the increasingly embellished tale of the cut-up whore Delilah whom the cowboys abused. The scarring of her face has now escalated to near mutilation when the Kid claims they cut out her eyes, and cut off her ears and breasts. (Significantly, Munny participates in this textual embellishment; when he describes the situation to Ned Logan he claims “they cut up everything but her cunny I reckon ”)4
The Kid’s verbal urging is bolstered by his visual presence for both Munny and the viewer. As the Kid rides “West on the Western trail,” Munny, mired in pig dung, spots his image on the horizon—a lone man on a horse, the cinematic icon of the Western. Yet, as shot, it is object-glance shot cued by the object—not by Munny’s glance—underscoring the external location of that icon and the alluring tradition it represents. In an interview with Peter Keogh. Eastwood elaborates on the effect of this shot:
When the Schofield Kid rides off into the horizon and Munny looks off, there’s a sort of a dream, a feeling of “I could go back to doing what I do. I’m obviously not a pig farmer. I could go off and do what I know how to do best—I could eliminate these guys with the justification that they committed a heinous crime. And my conscience certainly wouldn’t be any worse off.” (Keogh 15)
Munny is initially resistant to the deal of partnership the kid offers—and attempts to puncture his own persona claiming, “I ain’t like that—was the whisky done it.”5 After the Kid’s departure, we see Munny’s fumbling attempts at target practice, his inability to mount a horse, and his repetition of tales about the children’s “dear, departed mother.” Though the domestic imagery and Munny’s apparent lack of skill are designed as pan of a revisionist function of the film, showing the machinery behind the gunfighter, their potency is undermined by the more powerful cultural icon of Clint Eastwood. Eastwood’s very presence in the early pan of the film, punctuated by traditional Eastwood poses, implicitly overrides the film’s initial act of revision—the iconic value outweighs the cinematic text.6 The cultural knowledge of Eastwood conflicts with the seeming limitations of his character and apparent narrative logic of the film.
The film’s fascination with the simultaneous need for and limitations of myth-making is further explored with the presence of W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubineck), the writer who attaches himself to a succession of gunfighters in his pursuit of pulp prose. His character represents one of the many dime novelists and chroniclers who produced hundreds of fictions about the West from the 1860s until well into this century.7 But he also serves as a constant reminder of the absolute necessity of such story tellers to any “heroic” tradition.
He travels with English Bob (Richard Harris), the ‘‘Duke of Death,” and publishes lurid and successful accounts of Bob’s exploits. Beauchamp relishes the act of myth-making, which he believes to be grounded in truth, because it allows him to be partially responsible for the accrued power of his textual subjects. Beauchamp possesses an uneasy fascination, indeed pleasurous anticipation of English Bob’s future exploits, balanced by an awareness of his own vulnerability and profoundly mortal status. Often against his better judgment, Beauchamp resists warning English Bob of possible trouble to help ensure continued story lines; indeed Beauchamp, despite his screen presence, remains virtually silent for the first hour of the film. He observes, reacts, records.
The first scene with English Bob and Beauchamp on a train into Big Whiskey demonstrates the pervasive pow er of the author’s prose. Bob, the most publicly “literate’’ character in the film and the only one we see reading with ease, holds forth on the Garfield assassination and the superiority of a monarch to a president: “the majesty of royalty you see.” With his faux Oxbridge accent, Bob verbally spars with another man on the train in a way that could lead to an armed confrontation. Suddenly, someone suggests that he might be English Bob (much to Beauchamp’s delight). The man’s response, “Is that a fact mister?” reveals how fact and fiction, reality and image have been temporarily conflated by the power of the literary text. Certainly he is English Bob, but what that means has very little to do with his own skill at gun fighting and very much to do with Beauchamp’s skill at writing. The weight of this textually constructed legend is enough to deter any idle challenges, and he, like the monarchs he heralds, is wrapped in a cloak of reputation and the “majesty” of his legend in the West.
When the two men arrive in Big Whiskey. Bob. still pontificating, fails to read the sign requiring all individuals to surrender their guns, prompting a confrontation with Sheriff Little Bill Dagget (Gene Hackman). When Little Bill and his men initially stop Bob and Beauchamp by confronting them with aimed rifles. Bill and Bob speak to each other in the “code” of the West. Bob claims not to have a gun, only a “peacemaker.” Beauchamp recognizes Bill’s name only after hearing a list of the cities in which Bill has had gun fights. And Bill and Bob trade tales about each other (“I heard ..“Someone said …”) underscoring the currency of reputation, gossip, and misinformation. As Richard T. Jameson observes, “In Unforgiven, everyone has a history and other people know it, even if it’s fictional” (14).
Beauchamp represents a textual manifestation of that verbal tradition, yet Little Bill has no initial conception (and a great deal of suspicion) of the writer’s function. (In fact every’ time Bill pronounces Mr. Beauchamp’s name it sounds more like Mr. “Bullshit.”) Rendered nearly speechless in the face of such firepower, Beauchamp (who has urinated on himself out of fear) professes his role as an observer, a chronicler, rather than a participant in these fictions. “I write,” he pleads. Bill, just like Munny later in the film, responds. “Letters?” and reveals—or at least feigns—his lack of understanding about the textual economy accounts of lives like his motivate. Beauchamp’s attempt to provide evidence of his profession—a book—nearly proves deadly as all the deputies cock their guns when he reaches into his bag. His book and pen supplant a pistol for him (indeed. Bill orders his deputy to “see what kind of book Mr. Beauchamp is packing”). They also supplement a pistol for the gun fighters who ultimately rely on writers like Beauchamp to construct and maintain their personas.
The confrontation between Little Bill and English Bob escalates in the jail-house scene. Little Bill compounds the physical brutality he inflicted on Bob with a psychological humiliation when he offers a detailed revision of his published history. The Duke of Death, which chronicles Bob’s shootout with Two-Gun Cochran.8 Bill subverts Bob’s history and begins to construct his own, demonstrating how the absence and presence of power is determined. in part, by textual accounts. Slowly reading aloud from the “‘Duck’ of Death” as he insists on pronouncing (or renaming) it. Bill recognizes the gap between the sign and signified, the event and its textual recreation. When queried, Beauchamp admits to “a certain liberty” with the cover scene “for reasons involving the marketplace.” but insists “that the events that are described in there are taken from the accounts of eyewitnesses.” (The eyewitnesses being English Bob. not Mr. Beauchamp.) It is indeed “an accurate depiction of events” albeit with “a certain poetry to the language.” Although a successful writer within his genre. Beauchamp himself is not always a discerning listener and has a fundamental ignorance of the culture he is describing, which often leads to his hyperbolic expressions. Little Bill, as an actual eyewitness, offers another, apparently more credible account and he completely revises Bob’s experience in the Blue Bottle Saloon. The chivalric defense of a dishonored lady against the unprovoked attack of Corky “Two-Gun” Cochran described in The Duke of Death dissolves into Bob’s drunken, inept confrontation over a sexual jealousy with a gun fighter named not for the number of pistols he carries but for the prodigious size of his penis. Indeed Bob’s heroism completely evaporates when it is revealed that he shot an unarmed man when Cochran’s pistol blew up in his hand.9
In the next scene Beauchamp, liberated from his jail cell (and perhaps his illusions about English Bob), gleefully records Little Bill’s musings as he teaches the author further “truth” about gunfighting, demystifying, as Munny does early in the film, the machinery behind the image.10 Bill renders literal his truths when he places the writer in the position of the killers he mythologizes by actually putting a gun in his hand. Bill attempts to conflate the factual and the fictional, the literal and the mythic, by forcing Beauchamp to recognize fully the impossibility of the fictions he has created. Instructing Beauchamp to cock and point the gun, and pull the trigger. Bill watches as Beauchamp dissolves in failure, proving Bill’s tenet, “It ain’t so easy to shoot a man anyhow, especially if he’s shooting back. That’ll actually rattle some men.’’ The film supports Beauchamp’s failure here—indeed the Schofield Kid (who is ultimately revealed to be more storyteller than gun fighter) similarly discovers the truth about the glory of gunfighting when he rather ingloriously kills a man in an outhouse. Beauchamp’s failure simultaneously brutalizes the notion of the carefree gunslinger easily killing men, and glorifies it further—it ain’t easy, so those who are able are all the more unique. But most important, Beauchamp can’t and shouldn’t pull the trigger, now or ever, since the culture and the film need their writers, their mythmakers, to ensure their own continued existence. As expected, Beauchamp’s encounter also increases his respect for and awe of Little Bill, who provides a new subject with more eyewitness accounts and heroic exploits. Armed with a biographer. Bill now offers his own platitudes (“I do not like assassins and men of low character”) and subsumes his sadism under a comfortable and presumably complimentary textual construction.
All of these characters, with the exception of Munny, embrace and cultivate the attention of Beauchamp. This series of relationships comments not on the vanity of gunfighters or any would-be heroes, but on the attractiveness, indeed necessity, of textual validation to create and promote the existence of their deeds. The gunfighter is located in a textually based economy, a world of reputation, hearsay, and verbal embellishment. A gunfighter’s currency—his mythic stock so to speak—rises and falls with each adjustment or alteration to his persona: you’re only as good as your last shoot-out. The status of a gunfighler is ensured, in part, by writers like Beauchamp who deal in the material economy of sales and the literary marketplace. Though geographically and ideologically removed from the subject of their stories, the writers help create the myth which powerfully lures men to travel to a non-existent West and readers to turn the page of another dime novel. The collision of these two systems results in the over-capitalization or inflated value of a gunfighter like English Bob, whose fictionalized exploits sell, but whose real experiences with a gun are limited primarily to the shooting of Chinese workers for the railroads. By contrast, a figure like Munny presents endless possibilities for growth within both economies. Yet Munny, whose very name suggests the strength of his currency, resists participation in this circulation of reputed deeds, perhaps recognizing that his silence only enhances his mystique.11
While Munny does not participate willingly in the textual construction of self, he encounters a succession of people who, like the Schofield Kid, ask him for verification of their imaginative rendering of his past exploits; his only response is “I don’t remember, I was drunk most of the time.” He apparently rejects the economy of the gunfighter. What Munny will participate in is the fulfillment of narratives created for him by his absent intimates—his wife, Claudia, and partner, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman). His foray into the world of gun fighting is depicted as an aberration motivated only by his financial concern for his children; otherwise he, a reformed man, follows the tenets and memory of his dead wife. When he learns of Ned Logan’s death at the hands of Little Bill, Munny is spurred by Ned’s dying claim that Munny would “come back and kill him [Little Bill) for what he done,” causing the film’s shift into revenge narrative. He is further motivated when he discovers they have displayed Ned’s body in front of Greely’s saloon with the message, “This is what happens to assassins.” With this gesture, sign and signified are collapsed, reducing Ned to nothing more than a pure text whose meaning resists the ambiguous free play that characterizes the other texts circulating in the film. Only such an unequivocal marker can propel Munny into the film’s economy of meaning—this is a text he can read all too well. This sign and Claudia’s grave marker, which has almost a talismanic effect, arc the only ones that have any power over Munny. They serve as signifiers of his past and his future.
Once in Greely’s Saloon, Munny (now a fully formed Eastwood character) provides the spectacular explosion of gunfire the genre’s narratological grammar demands. In sharp contrast to the protracted and slightly comic murder of the abusive cowboys, Munny’s performance here is swift and deadly (and consistent with any number of Eastwood vehicles). The crucial difference from other Eastwood films is the presence of a writer, of Beauchamp, the only man left alive (in part because he is covered by a dead body).12 Regarded as a possible killer by Munny, Beauchamp claims. “I don’t have a gun, I’ve never had a gun. I write. I’m the writer.” Suddenly the literal truth, lying bloody before him, is more overwhelming and real than any fiction he has created. To render it understandable he must, as always, put it into textual terms—from the literal and material to the mythic and iconic. He immediately launches into a post-killing interview, amassing the details (type of rifle, order of shots, etc.) that he needs for his accurate, truly eyewitness account. But what he himself has seen far exceeds anything he has written about before. Munny’s final display elevates him above any of Beauchamp’s other subjects with their greatly embellished tales. Yet Beauchamp is confronted by a distinctly unassuming killer who claims only, “I was lucky in the order, but then I’ve always been lucky when it comes to killing folks.” As he leaves the saloon and the town of Big Whiskey, however, Munny for the first time employs the hyperbolic rant of the fictional texts he has avoided throughout the film. “All right. I’m leaving. Any man who tries to shoot me. I’m gonna kill him. I’m gonna kill his wife, and all his friends, and bum his damn house down.” While Munny’s threats seem vaguely possible in light of the recent massacre, they serve to arm him like another rifle. Munny implicitly concedes that such hysterical rhetoric has a role in his own safety and his continued existence. Watching Munny ride off. Beauchamp prepares to write about the gunfighter whose mythic status has both propelled and eluded the whole film. The author’s presence in the last shot of Big Whiskey signals the film’s recognition that the textually constructed myths will and must endure, even if careful readers can discern their gaps and limitations.
The final text is not Beauchamp’s but the neutral, seemingly simplistic epilogue that belies the complexity of issues the cinematic text forces us to confront. The epilogue repeats the visual image from the first shot of the film except now Munny stands at his wife’s grave. The written text tells us that Munny disappeared, possibly to San Francisco,13 and that his mother-in-law made a trip to the grave of her daughter only to find “there was nothing on the marker to explain to Mrs. Feathers why her only daughter had married a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.” The film returns to the brief textual account of Munny’s life, a coded summary the viewer recognizes as both true and utterly false. However, the grave marker does not provide that same information; it only creates an ironic gap that neither it nor the pulp fiction can explain to a reading subject marginalized by gender and experience. The end of the film speaks, ultimately, to the failure of language—cinematic or linguistic—to challenge successfully the power of the myths it simultaneously helps construct.14
Finally, however, the end of the film and the credits juxtapose another set of icons. After the textual epilogue, the silhouette image of Munny dissolves on the screen and is replaced by the credit “Directed and Produced by Clint Eastwood.” This textual inscription, like the ultimate dedication, reveals Eastwood’s attempt to locate himself in another cinematic tradition and place his text within a generic history that has always threatened to dismantle itself.15 Ultimately, that inscription and the film as a whole, force us to move outside the literal and cinematic text to the largest cultural and textual construction the film offers, Clint Eastwood. As powerful as the iconography of the traditional Western is the calculated iconography of Eastwood himself. By straining the seams of the Western, Eastwood adds another layer to his own critical and cinematic persona, something confirmed by his success at the Academy Awards and at the box office. It also speaks to Eastwood’s financial and artistic value within the economy of the motion picture industry—the business in the Western and the business of the Western.
The film’s final dedication, a lapidary inscription “To Sergio and Don,” occurs at the very end of the credits and speaks in a manner that excludes the casual filmgoer (who has probably already left the theater) who might not recognize Sergio Leone and Don Siegel. The inscription, like the texts in the film, reverts to a code that produces only gaps for the uninitiated reader. That, perhaps, is the lasting message of Unforgiven—the effectiveness of the texts in the film and the text of the film is completely dependent on the readers. By acknowledging the inescapable power of the written text, the film recognizes our simultaneous complicity with and resistance to a genre we can never fully revise. We can never stop writing the West, we can only start reading it differently.
Virginia Commonwealth University
1. Discussions of the genre are many and include but are not limited lo such works as John G. Cawelti. The Six-Gun Mystique. Bowling Green. Bowling Green UP. 1971; Philip French. Westerns: Aspects of a Movie Genre. New York: Viking P. 1973; Jim Kitses. Horizons West: Anthony Mann. Budd Boetticher, Sam Peckinpah: Studies of Authorship Within the Western. Bloomington and London: Indiana UP. 1969; Thomas Schatz, Hollywood Genres: Formulas. Filmmaking and the Studio System. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1981, esp. “Chapter Three: The Western”; Will Wright, Six Guns and Society: A Structural Study of the West. Berkeley: U of California P, 1975. For a more broad discussion of the mythos of the West, sec Jane Tompkins, article and subsequent book, “West of Everything,” South Atlantic Quarterly 86:4 (1987): 357-77, and West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.
2. For a discussion of the use and reading of cinematic icons see Stephen Prince. “The Discourse of Pictures: Iconicity and Film Studies,” Film Quarterly 7:1 (1993): 16.
3. At times the film also seems to reveal the 1970s composition of the screenplay with language that occasionally seems anachronistic but is ultimately proved to be code of the West.
4. As is often typical of both the Western and Clint Eastwood films, women are excluded from the economy the film privileges, in this case a primarily textual economy. The prostitute Delilah is, in a sense, inscribed by the cowboy at whom she has dared to laugh; her face is the “textual” expression of his rage. Strawberry Alice and the rest of the prostitutes create the tale of the $1000 reward for the killing of that cowboy and his friend, but not only must they rely on the cowboys passing through town to circulate their story, they also lose control over the resolution of that narrative. Finally, Munny’s wife, Claudia, allegedly has the greatest effect on him. Yet she, long dead, exists only in texts he creates and repeats—the grave marker and his own stones—or texts literally imposed on the film, the prologue, and epilogue. These all prove inadequate to explain her history or her self. Her mother. Mrs. Feathers, is frustrated by the textual markers of her daughter’s life that leave a narrative gap that she, and to a certain extent the audience, cannot fill.
5. Munny later tells Ned Logan. Tm just a fellow now, I ain’t no different than anyone else,” a plea that seems grounded more in his current attempts at self-delusion than on the inadequacy of his past representation.
6. In his recent book Clint Eastwood: A Cultural Production (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P. 1993), Paul Smith suggests that Eastwood films use “a repertoire of shots and conventions .. . [that] can be mined to produce a little semiotics of the heroized male body,” i.e. Eastwood s body (158). Among the shots he mentions arc under-the-chin shots, heavily backlit shots, and facial close-ups “used especially often to deliver Eastwood’s characteristic snarls and
slight facia! movements'” (158). Eastwood, directing himself, employs ail those shots in the first pan of the film, before Mimny returns to his elevated status as a legendary gunfighter.
7. While certainly the newspapermen (Peabody and Maxwell Scott) play an important role in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962), I would argue that the role of the text per se is less pronounced, certainly in terms of its mythmaking ability. Peabody’s interest, so he says, is in “news” and in upholding the responsibility of the press: “I’m your conscience, I’m this little small voice that thunders in the night. I’m your watchdog that howls against the wolves. I’m your father confessor” As Douglas Pye observes. “Actual people became the basis of heroes of dime- novel sagas in a constant process of romanticizing actuality in the service of sentimental fiction and the adventure story ” “The Western (Genre and Movies)” in The Film Genre Reader; Ed by Barry Keith Grant, Austin; U of Texas P, 1986; 148,
8. Although when Little Bill beats Bob. he claims. “I’m not kicking. I’m talking” indicating the different, equally valid forms of symbolic action the film displays. For a discussion of the use of violence in Unforgiven see John C. Tibbets, “Clint Eastwood and the Machinery of Violence.” Literature/Film Quarterly 21.1 (1993): 10-17.
9. English Bob even loses his linguistic high ground. When he is sent off, bound, to the railway station his curses on the town reveal his cockney accent.
10. As Henry Sheehan observes, when Little Bill “begins to romanticize his own exploits and gaseous ‘philosophy’ … the bars that cage English Bob are also seen to imprison Little Bill as if within his own self-delusions.” “Scraps of Hope: Clint Eastwood and the Western.” Film Comment 28:5 (1992): 27.
11. In fact Eastwood himself recognized the value of a taciturn hero. Commenting on his notoriously laconic hero in A Fistful of Dollars he observed. The character talked a lot more in the script; I took a lot of his dialogue out. My point of view was, the more the leading character talked, the less mystique he had, and the more dissipated the strength of the film ” Richard Combs, “Shadowing the Hero.” Sight and Sound 2.6:13.
12. While Eastwood fans might point to the role of the press dogging Harry Callahan in any of the Dirty Harry films, that relationship seems much more antagonistic and politically charged Beauchamp, though perhaps something of a pest, acts to valorize and elaborate. He questions details, not motive or politics.
13. As more than one critic has noted, San Francisco is the home of Harry Callahan and Clint Eastwood himself, thus complicating the intertextuality of the film—the iconic texts within the film and iconic text, the self production of Clint Eastwood.
14. Even the title of the film speaks to the fundamental ambiguity of language. Is the word a noun or an adjective and to whom does it refer? The possibilities are multiple.
15. Hany Sheehan, writing of the inscription, observes, “the reference seems to be there to anchor Eastwood’s odyssey within a hallowed tradition, rather than to show off about the hallowedness of that tradition.”
Jameson, Richard T. “’Deserve’s got nothin to do with it’” Film Comment 28.5 (1992): 12-14
Keogh, Peter. “Ghostly Presences.” Sight and Sound 2.6 (1992): 15.
Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 1 (1998), pp. 53-59