The Un/forgiven Director

Uploaded 1 March 2001

The growing literature on Unforgiven (US 1992) suggests that the film attempts to examine several intersecting concerns. [1]  These include generic issues pertaining to the western, such as heroism, justice, violence, and myth-making, as well as screen violence generally, the inequity of gender relations, and contemporary socio-political parallels. However, this criticism tends to identify the most siginficant aspect of the film as “Clint Eastwood”, a figure that is the nexus of many critical debates. This figure, “Clint Eastwood”, then becomes the criterion of whether or not the film succeeds as a critique of the topics it raises. As Christopher Frayling states succinctly, Unforgiven is a film “where the story of the lead actor’s career and the film story become inseparable”.[2] For many critics the film marked this figure’s redemption as a director and/or cultural identity. Other writers, though, have derided Unforgiven for not breaking with the patterns of “Clint Eastwood’s” previous work. Others still have pointed to the film’s complexity and that of William Munny, Eastwood’s character, who is somehow also “Clint Eastwood”. Despite the critical importance of this “Eastwood” figure, there has been a tendency in Unforgiven criticism to conflate the actor/star, the character and the director into a single “Clint Eastwood”. There has been little analysis of how “he” is represented stylistically in the film, that is, how this is achieved through direction. Thus, it is precisely Eastwood the director who is repressed in these discussions. It is my contention that Eastwood’s direction constructs William Munny and the Eastwood persona in ambiguous and complex ways. If this is the case, why do critics eschew his direction in favour of “forgiving” or “damning” the less sophisticated “Clint Eastwood” they perceive in the film? Hypothesis: critics have an affective investment in “Eastwood” that underpins their interpretations.

In order to provide a basis for comparing Unforgiven criticism with the film, let us begin by considering the depiction of William Munny. Munny seems to be constructed in binary terms. Early in the film he appears to be a family man and farmer: if he returns to crime, it is because of financial desperation. William Beard argues that the film suggests his dead wife, Claudia, forgave Munny, in an unseen period that predates the film’s opening. This enabled Munny to escape from “a maelstrom of nihilistic compulsive violence and drunken self-obliteration”[3] . It is the (humiliating) death of Munny’s old partner, Ned Logan, late in the film that provokes his return to violence. Beard claims,
Ned’s death is also Munny’s loss of his “good” self, his loss of Claudia’s forgiveness and his own self-forgiveness. When he walks into Greely’s to kill Skinny and Little Bill he is a creature who has lost salvation, a damned soul, “unforgiven” (50).

However, the film indicates that Munny’s transformation is far more gradual. In this regard, Julia Kristeva’s discussion of forgiveness in Fydor Dostoyevsky’s work is useful. [4]  Kristeva argues that the act of forgiveness enables the criminal’s “confession” to be heard without judgement. Although the past is not forgotten, it is displaced. This creates an opportunity for psychological renewal (of the kind Munny apparently experienced after marrying Claudia). Yet it is important to note that, despite the redemptive act, the past is always present somewhere. While Kristeva does not consider it explicitly, it seems that the criminal will commit further crimes if he loses or rejects forgiveness.

When the Schofield Kid arrives at the Munny farm to invite Munny to join him in collecting the bounty offered by the wronged prositutes of Big Whiskey, the narrative and mise-en-scène look simple and clear. Munny is an old man flailing around in the dirt trying to save his hogs from disease. While he listens to the Kid’s story, he rejects the younger man’s plan. After the Kid leaves Munny returns to his hogs. We can accept his rehabilitation. This sequence, though, is more ambiguous than it appears. For example, Munny is barely existing in self-imposed exile. He tells the Kid, “I thought maybe you were someone come to kill me for something I’d done in the old days”. In this respect, the scenes of Will chasing his hogs can be read metaphorically as implying that he is (still) contaminated by his past. He tells his children before he leaves for Big Whiskey that the hogs are “getting even for the cruelty that I inflicted” upon animals “before I met your dear departed Ma”. His failure to separate the hogs and the increasing number of sick animals suggests that he is unable to contain an infection. In both scenes each side of his face is covered in dark mud, as if the filth is adhering to him.

When the men go inside their conversation is divided into two segments, the first dealing with Munny’s reputation, the second with Claudia. Throughout their discussion at least one side of the Kid’s face is well lit (notionally by sunlight via an aperture). However, Munny’s face remains noticeably in shadow most of the time, implying that the boundary between the “forgiven” and “damned” Munny is uncertain. During the first phase the Kid explains the purpose of his journey. As he talks, Munny moves around the shack cautiously as he assesses his seated visitor. The Kid relates how his uncle Pete Sathau characterised Munny as “the meanest goddamn sonofabitch alive”. The shot cuts to Will who moves backwards slightly, away from the light. The reputation of gunfighters is central to Unforgiven. Here Will pauses, as if considering this “recommendation” and its implications, before replying softly, “Pete said that, huh”? The Kid continues. When he mentions the reward there is a MCU of Will with one eyebrow raised as he looks back over his shoulder at the Kid – perhaps he is tempted. At this point Munny’s children appear in the doorway and the conversation shifts. As if reminded of Claudia, Munny refers to her for the first time, talking about her profound influence on him. But he also tells the Kid that, “She’s passed on”. He turns, looks in the direction of her grave and says, “Been gone near three years now”. This curtails the discussion, but also points to Munny’s psychological separation from her “forgiveness” at this early stage.

The two night scenes on the trail continue to articulate Munny’s “divided” character. On the first night Munny expresses remorse for his crimes to Logan, insisting that his redemption is not in jeopardy. The only (apparent) light source is the camp fire. The men are surrounded by darkness. In the establishing LS we can make out their saddles just behind them. As the scene proceeds it becomes more intimate gradually via a series of cuts. By the time Munny refers to Eagle (Hendershot), a former associate who hated him, he is shot in MCU from just below his chin at about 45 degrees. Here Munny’s face is bathed in the fire’s golden glow, but apart from his upper body we can see little else, his clothes blending into the night. While the men talk Logan twice adopts the mantra that Munny “ain’t like that no more”, as if his partner needs moral support. Munny asserts, “That’s right, I’m just a fella now. I ain’t no different from anyone else, no more”. However, while Logan settles into his bed, Munny remains seated in a rigid pose, using a hand to keep his overcoat closed to keep warm. We have the impression he is trying to protect himself psychologically against the physical darkness enveloping him. Although the way his face is lit is reminiscent of a halo, his forgiveness has again been questioned figuratively.

This impression is reinforced the next evening after the Kid has joined them. Munny’s determination to ward off the elements again implies an internal struggle. When the Kid questions the older men about past deeds, Munny participates reluctantly. While Logan and the Kid move around or sit up, Munny remains stationary beneath his blanket for the entire scene, with his just his head visible. Although the scene’s lighting is brighter than that of the previous night, Munny’s face is harder to see because of the flickering fire and his distance from the camera. Accordingly, he blurs into his surroundings. It seems that the closer he moves towards Big Whiskey, the harder it is to distinguish his “forgiven” and “damned” aspects.

This difficulty is evident when Munny reaches the town. While the Kid meets with the prostitutes, Munny and Logan wait in the saloon. Munny has a “fever” and experiences hallucinations. His ailment is partly psychological: the threatening “darkness” now begins to overwhelm him. This is emphasised by the mise en scene. Munny adopts a similar posture to that of the first night, but pulls his overcoat even tighter around himself as he hunches over. Although trying to stay warm, he also seems to be hiding, as if his clothing is a protective shell or armour. His eyes are obscured by the shadow cast by his hat brim (in this scene he is often shot from above or level with his face; when shot from below the chin the camera is positioned slightly higher than in the earlier night scene with Logan). Whereas his face had been visible during the two previous night scenes, here it all but disappears: his “halo” has been replaced by shadow. The sharp contrast between light and darkness provided by the fire on the first night does not exist in the saloon. Lit by oil lamps, the room has a smoky atmosphere. The colours of its walls and fixtures resemble those of the customers’ clothing in several instances (brown is predominant). Thus, especially in the reaction shots of the onlookers, characters tend to blend in with their surroundings. This depiction of Munny and the saloon suggests figuratively that it is increasingly harder to separate good from bad, aggressor from victim. If Big Whiskey represents the apotheosis of Munny’s temptation, then his tenuous grasp on forgiveness is loosened further as he merges into his environment.

Munny appears to resist temptation in Greely’s. He refuses Logan’s offer of whisky, declines to have sex with a prostitute, and does not fight back immediately when attacked by the sheriff, Little Bill Daggett. Once again, though, the mise en scène implies that Munny belongs to that class of men Daggett loathes: “assassins and men of low character”. When Logan asks Munny if he wants to visit the prositutes there are two shots of the Munny in right profile from eye level. In the first Munny’s face remains in shadow. In the second he turns slightly up and back towards Logan with his hat slouched so that only one eye is visible. He turns away, effectively giving his answer. However, his silence and awkward movements perhaps gesture to his longing. This is echoed when Daggett taunts him. The sheriff stands over him and says, “What if I was to say you were a no-good, son-of-a-bitch and a liar”? There are three left profile shots of Munny staring out and up from beneath his hat at Daggett. Although he does not yield to provocation, the steeliness of his glare indicates that he wants to respond violently. Arguably, these profile shots of Munny emphasise his conflicted personality. Notably, these shots prefigure several of him during the final shootout as he confronts, and then deliberately murders, the brothel owner, Skinny Dubois, and the sheriff.

The corollary of this occurs as Logan tries to treat Munny later that night. Although there is a fire just off-screen, the major (nominal) light source is a candle the Kid holds as Ned stitches Munny’s wounds. Although Munny does not wear a hat, the golden “halo” perceptible on the first night is here diffused into darker brown tones (similar to those in the shots of him crawling out of Greely’s), with shadows flickering across his face. The following night his face is also lit in brown tones when his hallucinations return (the scene also “lit” by an off-screen fire). This change in lighting patterns implies that Munny blends into, or is consumed by, the looming darkness.

When Munny recovers he seems to have experienced an epiphany. He gently declines Delilah’s offer of sex, citing his fidelity to Claudia. Although he kills Davey Bunting in the next scene, he acts compassionately, allowing the dying man’s companions to take him water. Yet again, though, Eastwood’s direction suggests Munny’s latent criminality. Note the incongruity of the heavy snow as Munny and Delilah talk (it is summer). Surely we must recall Pete Sathau’s comment that Munny was”as cold as the snow and don’t have no weak nerve nor fear”. Furthermore, Munny’s generosity towards Davey is the act of an experienced killer with the time to wait for a man to die. Unlike Logan, he displays no remorse. Instead, there are reaction shots of Munny just staring at the dirt as Davey screams in agony.

If Unforgiven represents Munny’s recidivism ambiguously, then the final shootout complicates the apparent resurrection of the Eastwood persona. Although by no means ubiquitous in Eastwood’s work, the Eastwood persona can be found in varying degrees in his films with Sergio Leone, most of Eastwood’s American westerns, the Dirty Harry films and several other action films in which he has appeared. Historically, this figure originated in Leone’s films. Don Siegel contributed to its creation, but Clint Eastwood, first as an actor and more importantly as a director, has also been a signficant factor. As a character this figure is a textbook example of what film and literary criticism calls the “anti-hero”. He has little or no past, and rarely has an emotional connection to other characters, hence the aptitude of the sobriquet “Man With No Name”. He is often violent, anti-authoritarian, ruthless, selfish, and sometimes amoral. He creates havoc which he exploits, and wreaks revenge where it suits him. His appearance is often rugged and scruffy. His demeanour is usually taciturn, with occasional touches of sarcasm. He has an uncanny ability to evade detection. He is so proficient at violence that he seems invincible, almost superhuman. Indeed, in High Plains Drifter (US 1973) and Pale Rider (US 1986) this character is a ghost or spectral figure.

Performance, costume and framing are integral to the Eastwood persona’s construction. Eastwood’s acting is often minimalist, his small facial gestures used to convey an emotion like contempt or imminent action. His voice tends to be thin and raspy, his delivery frequently emphasising the cruelty of his character’s humour. In the Leone films the character often wears a poncho and in Eastwood’s American westerns, a long coat. The effect in both cases is to camouflage the character’s body, giving him an iconic appearance, particularly when framed in LS or ELS while riding. The western character often smokes a cigarillo, which is used occasionally to indicate his presence when he is out of sight. The Eastwood persona is filmed in distinct patterns. Paul Smith contends that as a director Eastwood borrows a number of stylistic conventions from Don Siegel which add up to “a little semiotics of the heroized male body”.[5] These consist of,

under-the-chin shots (where the heroized male figure, shot most often from the waist up, seems to loom above the spectator’s eyeline); heavily backlit shots (in which either the details of the hero’s whole body or his face are more or less obscured while the general shape is given in silhouette); a preponderance of facial close-ups in which the actor’s gaze is directed from right to left at a roughly forty-five degree angle, used to deliver Eastwood’s characteristic snarls and slight facial movements; and traveling shots and pans that follow the male body’s movement in a relatively unsmooth motion and usually avoid centering the body in the frame (158).

Returning to Unforgiven, the figure who triumphs in the shootout in Greely’s resembles the typically sardonic, ruthless, almost supernatural Eastwood hero. Munny is represented according to the persona’s conventions. Dennis Bingham claims that as Munny enters Big Whiskey “old Eastwood motifs appear – the slow ride into town, [and] the subjective track to the saloon”[6]  Munny’s presence in Greely’s is announced to the viewer by the barrel of his shotgun in the frame. The crowd is alerted by a loud click. Only after the posse turns towards the door is there a shot of Munny. Bingham argues that this marks “the surprise emergence of the stranger figure – or his shotgun – from out of an ‘objective’ camera position (a favorite device of Leone’s, which he had borrowed from Kurosawa)” (240). Munny’s demands information with Eastwood’s usual aggression. “Who’s the fella owns this shithole? You, fat man, speak up”. Skinny Dubois’ murder is as malicious as any committed by an Eastwood character. When Munny aims the gun at Skinny there are two shots of the pimp that are almost strict POV shots. This aligns the audience with Munny, encouraging us to anticipate Skinny’s death. After Daggett complains of his cowardice, Munny replies with an example of Eastwood gallows humour (“Well, he should’ve armed himself if he’s gonna decorate his saloon with my friend”). From the time he points the shotgun at the crowd until he subsequently fires at the sheriff there are almost twenty shots of him from under-the-chin. As Munny admits to his past (“I’ve killed everything that walks or crawls . . . and I’m here to kill you Little Bill”) he displays the menace we expect of an Eastwood hero.

The ensuing gun battle after Munny’s shotgun misfires also seems to confirm the similarities to the Eastwood persona. Whereas earlier he had been physically frail and a poor shot, he suddenly recovers his aim with a pistol and his nerve as he shoots “five men single-handed”. Douglas McReynolds asserts that Munny “cleans out the saloon, his blazing six-gun as magically inexhaustible as Ken Maynard’s or Hoot Gibson’s ever was, and fully as large as anything Dirty Harry ever owned”.[7]  While Munny converses with the dime-novelist Beauchamp the under-the-chin shots resume. These continue as he stands over Daggett during their final exchange. The close-ups of Munny taking aim with Logan’s rifle are at 45Ú with Eastwood looking right to left, consistent with Smith’s typology. The murders of Fatty, Little Bill and Clyde are merciless. Munny’s final instructions to the town are barked in the manner of an Eastwood hero, and the low-angle of him on horseback emphasise his domination of the scene. The townspeople are so cowered they refuse to shoot at him – William Munny leaves Big Whiskey unharmed and invincible.

Can we be certain that Munny has been fully transformed into an Eastwood hero? Richard Combs argues that in the film the Eastwood “persona is for the first time turned into a fully developed character”.[8]  Munny has a complex personal history. Although Claudia dies before the film begins, her love had changed him from being a murderous outlaw into a peaceful man. In the film he is polite, diplomatic and compassionate. While he returns to crime, he struggles to remain faithful to her memory and tenets. His guilt and remorse seem genuine. Carl Plantinga contends, “Far from an invincible ghost or specter, Munny is clearly human and obviously flawed. His biographical history, which haunts him in his dreams, causes him pain and guilt”[9] .

William Munny’s appearance and physical attributes also distinguish him from other Eastwood heroes. Munny does not smoke, and before leaving for Big Whiskey he shaves. While he wears a long coat for some of the film, he does so with less self-conscious flair than usual, often pulling it closed to protect himself from the elements. Similarly, Munny is more physically vulnerable than the Eastwood persona. He is sickly, a poor shot, and has trouble riding his horse. Eastwood’s appearance contributes to this impression. In other films his youthful appearance and fitness allowed him to play action heroes convincingly. However, he looks old in Unforgiven, his hair grey and thinning, particularly while tending to his pigs. In terms of his performance, Combs claims,

For the first time, Eastwood seems to lose his sense of discomfort with himself on screen, to the extent that Unforgiven is about William Munny in a way that High Plains Drifter is not about the Stranger, nor Pale Rider is not about the Preacher (14).

The shootout itself differs from those of other Eastwood films. Bingham claims that “the characters in this scene pose no threat visually. Gone are the sweaty, wide-screen close-ups of smirking thugs” (240). Nor are the deputies sacrificial ciphers, as is often the case in Eastwood pictures, but delineated characters in their own right. Len Engel argues, “In previous Eastwood westerns, and, generally, in most westerns, climaxes are characterized by specific, stylized imagery and the gradual building of dramatic tension”.[10] This is not the case in Unforgiven. The gun battle happens quickly. Although Daggett urges Munny to pause before firing at Skinny, he does not. There is only a brief interlude as Munny confesses to his past before the firing commences. It is over in under a minute of screen time. There is also a great deal of visual confusion for the viewer, caused by a combination of mise en scène and editing. As with the initial confrontation in Greely’s, the scene’s low-intensity lighting makes it hard to see exactly what is transpiring. This is exacerbated by the similar colours – browns and oranges – of the setting and characters’ clothing which causes the actors to blend into their surroundings. Space is fragmented through editing in this scene. Just prior to Skinny’s murder there is a cut across the 180 degree axis of action. Before and during the shootout there are several cuts around the room between Munny, Daggett and the deputies (who are spread around the saloon). Thus, instead of a ritual cathartic purge of the Eastwood persona’s opponents, the chaos perhaps functions to induce a sense of panic, as well as demonstrating the sheriff’s thesis on the importance of a gunfighter remaining calm when threatened.

Munny’s prior suffering suggests that he may be capable of feeling guilt and remorse for these new crimes. It is interesting, therefore, that McReynolds’ observation about the “inexhaustibility” of Munny’s pistol is wrong – he fires precisely six shots. This is a significant detail because it alludes to the cyclical relationship between his crimes and forgiveness. Munny’s explanation to Beauchamp for his uncanny skill is luck: “I was lucky in the order. But I’ve always been lucky when it comes to killing folks”. Armando Prats contends,

Witnesses ourselves to the mythic deed, we now know that Will Munny’s humanity is no longer measured only by immitigable remorse. He lives with his singular luck, which is also, in a cruel and all too familiar paradox, the source of his guilt. [11]

The final shot of the film also indicates that Munny’s exile from grace may not be permanent. In a repetition of the opening shot a scroll is overlaid against an ELS of the Munny farm at sunset. A figure walks to Claudia’s grave as “Claudia’s theme” plays on the soundtrack. The scroll informs us that Claudia’s mother visited her grave years later. Munny has moved back into legend, leaving his mother-in-law with no explanation as to why her daughter married such a despicable man. The scroll informs us that Munny left the farm “with the children”. In this shot we also see clothes blowing in the wind briefly before they disappear via a dissolve (just before the first end credit, “Directed and Produced by Clint Eastwood”). This return to family life suggests that although Munny may have abandoned loving forgiveness, forgiveness has not necessarily forsaken him. While he displayed no remorse for his rampage in Greely’s, he could be haunted by his crimes in the future as he had been previously. Munny’s humanity is “his margin of hope, his chance for survival and redemption: that he knows what he’s done, and that only an awful man could do it”.[12] It is also what arguably distinguishes Munny from the supernatural Eastwood hero.

If the film represents Eastwood’s character and persona as ambivalent, how does Unforgiven criticism construct “Clint Eastwood”? As I have indicated, Eastwood’s critical “rehabilitation” or (continued) “damnation” has been preferred to formal analysis in the literature. This does not imply that such responses are textual mis-readings. Rather, in tracing the critical reactions to Unforgiven what concerns me is the implications for film criticism of this apparent divergence from the text.

In terms of Eastwood’s critical reputation, Paul Smith argues that Eastwood’s gradual transformation from a (mere) populist filmmaker into an “auteur-father” began around 1985. Eastwood was “seen to have to put in enough hard work and to have paid his dues” (245). For Smith, an auteur-father acts as the guardian of genres such as the western, as well as Hollywood craft traditions and the classical realist text (245-246). Thus,

It is no accident . . . that the canonization of Eastwood accompanies the process of ‘restitution’ . . . (where the integrity of the tradition is upheld and safeguarded against the threat of what we might call the postmodern westerns) (246).

The reviews of Unforgiven “offer the sense that the movie goes beyond the ordinary western, that its complexity and profundity endow it with the status of art” (264). [13] The critical assessment is that Eastwood has “surpassed his mentors by following a new direction” (264). Thus, his “status is enhanced even more on the grounds that he himself has gone further by adding an original contribution to American cinema” (264).

In relation to Unforgiven, the critical redemption of Clint Eastwood can be discerned in various ways. Some of the praise given to Eastwood and Unforgiven supports Smith’s argument directly. For example, Geoff Andrew insists: “It’s quite simply the best western since The Outlaw Josey Wales (US 1976), and a great film by any standards”.[[14]  He adds,

If Bergman had ever directed a western, even though it wouldn’t have had the leavening humour and expert action sequences, it must have ended up a little like Unforgiven (29-30).

Harvey Greenberg likens Unforgiven to the work of Thomas Mann, Shakespeare, Freud, Kubrick and Kurosawa. [15] He claims,

Its deconstructive task is accomplished with such fierce intelligence, mordant wit, and formal beauty as to place it within the pantheon of the genre’s finest achievements (52).

Richard Jameson says Unforgiven is the “first great Western since Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (US 1973)”. [16] He asserts that the final shot of Big Whiskey after Munny has left town contains,

something more in the shot than any interpretation can account for. The kind of something we associate with the most magisterial moments of Murnau, Mizoguchi, Ford. And now, Clint Eastwood (14).

Bingham claims, “Since the much-honored Unforgiven removed the patina of disrepute, it is clear that ‘Clint Eastwood’ will not ‘mean’ the same again” (243). In this respect, the critical redemption of Eastwood can also be delineated in the generic positioning of Eastwood and the film. For example, Plantinga notes, “When Unforgiven was first released, many critics lionized Eastwood for his directorial effort, seeing the film as penance and restitution for his earlier films” (65). Greenberg contends that in the film Eastwood accomplishes “the ‘taking back’ of every sagebrush shibboleth” of the western (52). Richard Corliss calls it “a revisionist Western”, adding, “Unforgiven questions the rules of a macho genre, summing up and maybe atoning for the flinty violence that made Eastwood famous”[17] . John Tibbetts argues that Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman and Richard Harris “are reviewing their past sins” in the film. [18] And Geoff Andrew writes, “One can’t help wondering if Unforgiven . . . is something of a personal testimony, a radical reassessment of his own career and quasi-mythic persona” (30). [19]

Unforgiven has also been regarded as a classical western. Frayling asserts that it is not a postmodern film. Rather, its references to other films “seem to be there to anchor Eastwood’s odyssey within a hallowed tradition, rather than to show off about the hollowness of that tradition” (58). Tibbetts states,

It can be argued that Unforgiven, far from being one more nail in the coffin of the presumably deceased western genre, in some ways marks the return to some of the more elemental propositions of the classical form (12).

In terms of Eastwood’s contribution, Geoff Andrew claims, “Clinton Eastwood Jr is crucial to the genre’s survival in its purest form” (28). Lem Dobbs also celebrates Eastwood’s commitment to (apparently declining) Hollywood standards because he is “a director who doesn’t merely photograph scenes but evokes them through such old-hat devices as camera placement, composition, and movement within the frame”.[20]

There is a further classification. According to Peter Babiak, “Unforgiven represents the emergence of a new sub-genre in American Western mythology . . . the post-Revisionist Western”[[21] Pat Dowell writes,

Unforgiven reunites the traditional Western with the revisionist, and morally questions them both, while reserving what pleasure in violence it can muster. That makes it just about the most self-reflexive Western Hollywood has ever produced. [22]

Philip Deloria comments: “Far from marking the end of the western, Unforgiven may signal another transformation of the genre”.[23]  He asserts that since the film “comments simultaneously on itself, the genre, contemporary society, and the frontier myth”, it can be accepted as the “first significant refiguring of the genre in a postmodern context” (1198). Eastwood is perceived to have played a pivotal role in this process. In Henry Sheehan’s opinion,

First as an actor, then as an actor-producer and actor-director, Clint Eastwood has helped extend and reimagine the Western with startling persistence and consistency throughout his career (17).

One way of reading these various assessments of Eastwood and the film is as a form of critical forgiveness that has an interpretive dimension. Kristeva argues that “Forgiveness is aesthetic” (206). She asserts: “To say that the work of art is a forgiving already implies leaving psychological forgiveness (but without ignoring it) for a singular act – that of naming and composing” (214). The underlying “affect” in the act of forgiveness is thus translated into the “effect” of discourses such as art or criticism. In Unforgiven criticism those writers who claim the film is Eastwood’s attempt at cultural atonement treat it as the culmination of his career which reconfigures its direction and meaning. Eastwood has been considered a driving force in ensuring the western’s survival among those critics who praise the film’s classical generic virtues. Although his films often questioned generic conventions, critics have “forgiven” him for these departures from the norm. Instead, they read his career in terms of continuing a tradition, comparing him to John Ford and Sam Peckinpah. It can be argued that in describing Unforgiven in terms such as a meditation on “Clintessence”,[24]  a “radical reassessment of his own career and quasi-mythic persona”, or a “harsh, brilliant culmination” of Eastwood’s westerns[25] , criticism implicitly conserves his past even as a new way of discussing “Eastwood” is being articulated. This arguably parallels Munny’s position when “forgiven” by Claudia: his crimes were displaced, not abolished. Finally, those critics who argue Unforgiven is a new type of postmodern or post-revisionist western contend that Eastwood is responsible for inaugurating this sub-genre and the cycle of films in the 1990s that belong to it. Thus, they “forgive” him because they regard him as a progenitor.

Of course, some critics have disparaged the film and Eastwood. They maintain that Unforgiven resembles other Eastwood films, and is not a critique of screen violence. Paul Smith argues,

Like Dead Pool (US 1988) before it, Unforgiven suffers from being unable to criticize convincingly the very violence that it itself is involved in and does not shrink from re-representing (267).

McReynolds contends,

Eastwood persists throughout the movie in telling anyone who will listen, including the audience, that he . . . isn’t The Man With No Name of the Sergio Leone films, and he isn’t Dirty Harry. . . .He ain’t like that no more. But he is, of course. He has to be (50).

In his opinion when William Munny “walks into Skinny’s saloon . . . he is transformed into that avenging angel which both the myth and the audience demand he become” (50). According to Hal Hinson,

Some writers have called Unforgiven Eastwood’s High Noon (US 1952), but it’s really closer to being his Billy Jack (US 1973). Though the thrust of the movie is that killing is hard, that every bullet is a wound to the killer’s soul, the men that Munny guns down seem to die pretty easily. . . .The point that Munny lashes out only when provoked in extremis rings hollow. We know why Munny finally draws his gun, and it’s not because he was forced to; it’s because it’s inconceivable that Eastwood could play a western hero who didn’t. Munny is trapped by the past, but it’s not his own past – it’s Eastwood’s. [26]

Mary Blundell and Kirk Ormand insist that, “The conflation of actor and role is a product of the actor/director’s self-image which he has promoted over many years”[27] .They claim,

When Munny finally turns to violence he is replaying not just his own “legendary” past but also the glory days of Clint Eastwood’s Western career. . . .In dramatizing Munny’s inevitable emergence from disguise, Eastwood is thus showing us the essence of his own quasi-mythic character, in the very moment that he seems to be renouncing it (563-564).

Yet they also acknowledge, “We, the audience, are complicit. We expect and want Eastwood the actor to resume his old persona, just as we want Munny to rise up and take revenge” (563-564).

Criticism that condemns Eastwood or Unforgiven also generates discursive effects from its affective impulses. Critics disavow the ambivalence surrounding Munny and the Eastwood persona by insisting on the coalescence of the two figures. They then claim that Unforgiven has not deviated from Eastwood’s screen trajectory. Like critics who regard the film more positively, Eastwood is thus linked metonymically to his previous films. This ensues a measure of interpretive stability because it establishes that Eastwood “makes sense” – the (apparent) ambivalence of William Munny is rendered more distinctively as a failed apology. In this regard, such critics resemble the sheriff who damns Munny by linking him indelibly to the terrible crimes of his past.

What of those writers, like me, who argue for the ambivalence of Munny, Eastwood and the film? These commentators try to displace their own affective investment on to “naive” or traditional Eastwood viewers (or critics, in this instance). In so doing they assume they have the power to scrutinise and judge the naive audience. For example, Beard claims,

But the viewer who will enjoy the spectacle without second thoughts, or without a twinge of horror in the knowledge of everything that the film has shown as accompanying this kind of action, is another naive Schofield Kid. . . .Thus Unforgiven deconstructs the Eastwood persona and the Eastwood fan (59).

Plantinga writes,

I sensed the deep satisfaction some audience members took when Munny blows away his enemies . . . suggesting that for many of us, the myth of redemptive violence has become so entrenched, and the pleasures expected of Eastwood’s violent persona so firmly ingrained, that they conflict with and perhaps override our desire for Munny’s redemption. In a sense, this “naive” response is more alarming than it might be in a traditional Western (80).

Note the interesting slippage in Plantinga’s remarks as he moves from scrutinising the “naive” audience (“I sensed”) to an increasing identification with them (“our desire”).

Pat Dowell asks,

“I ain’t like that any more,” Is it the biggest lie of all – or would that be our delusion out here on the other side of the screen? We are still convinced that we can tell the good guys from the bad guys (73).

Surely in the dim light of Greely’s saloon it is impossible for any of us – Beard and Plantinga; you and I – to tell. This gloom is not the “bronze darkness” that marks Eastwood films such as Pale Rider. Here it is diffused: light and colour bleed into each other, delineating and absorbing figures. Are we condemned, then, to enjoy that most familiar of postmodern situations: an array of ambiguous meanings, none more accurate or truthful than any other? Perhaps not. Kristeva argues that the abject is “the place where meaning collapses”.[28] For her, the “criminal with a good conscience” is an exemplary figure of abjection (4). Might the affective investment of critics in “Clint Eastwood” offer a way of detecting the figure of “Clint Eastwood” in the uncertain textual darkness of Unforgiven ? Such a gesture – our loving forgiveness or endless damnation – would enable the film critic to avoid the problem of abjection or undecibability by delimiting a figure that stabilises the process of interpretation. But which “Clint Eastwood” is un/forgiven? Actor, star, character or director?

As for me, when I first saw Unforgiven I rejected it as another violent Eastwood vehicle. However, when watching The Bridges of Madison County (US 1995) two years later, I forgave Clint Eastwood. I did not ignore the violence or masculine aggression of the Eastwood persona, but put it aside as I watched that bereft figure waiting in the rain for Francesca. I saw the sadness in Dirty Harry Callaghan for the first time. I noticed the masculine loneliness that permeates Eastwood’s work. I also saw the subtlety of his directorial lighting style. I connected it to the use of lighting in Unforgiven and realised its importance to a reading of the film’s ambivalence. I began to appreciate the significance of affect to understanding, and commenced, both literally and metaphorically, to turn my attention towards “the light”. Thus my affective investment became the foundation of my interpretation, that is, this interpretation.


[1] My thanks to Bill Routt for his generous assistance in the preparation of this article.
[2] Christopher Frayling, “Unforgiven,” Sight and Sound vol. 25, no. 4 (1992) : 58
[3] William Beard, “Unforgiven and the uncertainties of the heroic,” Canadian Journal of Film Studies, vol. 3, no. 2 (1994) : 50. Further references appear in the text.
[4] See Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, trans. Leon S. Roudiez, (New York, Columbia University Press, 1989) pp. 173-217. Further references appear in the text.
[5] Paul Smith, Clint Eastwood: A Cultural Production, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 158. Further references appear in the text.
[6] Dennis Bingham, Acting Male: Masculinities in the Films of James Stewart, Jack Nicholson and Clint Eastwood, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press), 240. Further references appear in the text.
[7] Douglas McReynolds, “Alive and well: western myth in movies,” Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 1 (1998) : 50. Further references appear in the text.
[8] Richard Combs, “Shadowing the hero,” Sight and Sound, vol. 2, no. 6 (1992) : 15. Further references appear in the text.
[9] Carl Plantinga, “Spectacles of death: Clint Eastwood and violence in Unforgiven,” Cinema Journal, vol. 37, no. 2 (1998) : 71. Further references appear in the text.
[10] Len Engel, “Rewriting western myths in Clint Eastwood’s new ‘old western’,” Western American Literature, vol. 29 (1994) : 264.
[11] Armando J. Prats, “Back from the sunset: The western, the Eastwood hero, and Unforgiven,” Journal of Film and Video, vol. 47, nos. 1-3 (1995) : 122.
[12] Henry Sheehan, “Scraps of hope: Clint Eastwood and the western,” Film Comment, vol. 28, no. 5 (1992) : 27. Further references appear in the text.
[13] It should be noted that Smith does not discuss Unforgiven or its reception in great detail because the film was released as he was completing his book.
[14] Geoff Andrew, “A history of western philosophy,” Time Out 19-25 August (1992) : 28. Further references appear in the text.
[15] Harvey Greenberg, “Unforgiven,” Film Quarterly, vol. 46, no. 3 (1993) : 52, 56. Further references appear in the text.
[16] Richard Jameson, “‘Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it,” Film Comment, vol. 28, no.5 : 12.
[17] Richard Corliss, “The last roundup,” Time Australia, 17 August (1992) : 62.
[18] John Tibbetts, “Clint Eastwood and the machinery of violence,” Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 1 (1993) : 13. Further references appear in the text.
[19] In interviews Eastwood himself rejected this position. For example: “‘There’s nothing funny about the violence in Unforgiven. Now, I’m certainly not doing penance for any of the mayhem I’ve presented on screen over the years. . . .But at the same token, I think it’s a time in my life and a time in history that maybe violence should not be such a humorous thing. Or that that it should be portrayed without its consequences. . . .In Unforgiven I wanted to show consequences to the violence. Maybe there’s consequences to both the perpetrator as well as the victim'” (qtd in Tibbetts 16).
[20] Lem Dobbs, “Homage to Peckinpah,” Sight and Sound, vol. 2, no. 6 (1992) : 16.
[21] Peter E.S. Babiak, “Rewriting revisionism: Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven,” Cineaction, no. 46 (1998) : 57.
[22] Pat Dowell, “Unforgiven,” Cineaste, vol. 19, no. 1-2 (1992) : 73.
[23] Philip Deloria, “Film reviews: America,” American Historical Review, no. 100 (1995) : 1198. Further references appear in the text.
[24] Corliss, p. 62
[25] Sheehan, p. 17.
[26] Hal Hinson, “Unforgiven: A Fistful of Eastwood,” Washington Post, 7 August (1992) : C 2.
[27] Mary Whitlock Blundell and Kirk Ormand, “Western values, or the people’s Homer: Unforgiven as a reading of the Iliad,” Poetics Today, vol. 18 (1997) : 562. Further references appear in the text.
[28] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay in Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 2.

About the Author

Tim Groves

About the Author

Tim Groves

Dr Tim Groves is Senior Lecturer in Film at Victoria University of Wellington. His research interests include horror and serial killer films, and post-classical film aesthetics.View all posts by Tim Groves →