Edward Buscombe,
London: British Film Institute, 2004.
ISBN: 1 84457 033 9
£8.99 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by British Film Institute)

Perhaps the most interesting critical question about Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) is its place in the western genre. As Edward Buscombe makes overwhelmingly clear in this richly packed, rewarding monograph, “one of the most pleasurable things about Unforgiven is the variety of different ways it finds to inflect a story that is in essence as generic as they come: a retired gunfighter is called out of retirement to do one last job” (26). Here he seems to regard the film as the latest worthy permutation in the genre, not a departure from it. But many critics have regarded the film’s withering critique of violence as lethal to the genre.

Buscombe himself seems unsure. He concludes his book by noting that while opinion is divided about whether the film either marks the end of the genre or the beginning of something new, there is “near universal agreement that it aims to overturn the certainties of the classical form of the genre” (87).
But does this alleged universal agreement make any sense? A genre has no certainties, just “family resemblances” (to borrow a useful Wittgensteinian concept) and, concomitantly, family lineage. Every genre film that makes it into the generic canon challenges one or two “certainties” of the genre while respecting most of them. That’s where a genre’s pleasure lies, as Buscombe noted, with respect to Unforgiven, early in his study. Think of Stagecoach (USA, 1939) inversely correlating social status with moral worth, of Red River‘s (USA, 1948) averted final showdown, of Shane (USA, 1953) and its hero of delicate physical stature, of High Noon (USA, 1952), whose hero implores his friends to help him and cries when they don’t, of The Searchers (USA, 1956), trapping us into identifying with a racist hero, of Naked Spur (USA, 1953), whose hero is a whining neurotic, of The Man who Shot Liberty Valance (USA, 1962), acknowledging the western myth as just that, or The Wild Bunch (USA, 1969), reducing heroism to loyalty to fellow outlaws. Even secondary entries in the canon are there because of an inflection or two: Pursued (USA, 1947), the noir western; Johnny Guitar (USA, 1954), the camp western with a female hero, a female villain, and a gunfighter with a heart of gold; Once Upon a Time in the West (Italy/USA, 1968), whose operatic drama resembles geology and whose hero may be part rock outcrop.

Buscombe’s dubious, equivocal summary statement on the film’s aims is belied by the excellent, confident analysis that constitutes the bulk of his essay. He mentions several other genre conventions Unforgiven obeys besides that of the aging gunfighter called out of retirement. There is an admiring, young wannabe gunman. Will’s dead wife and his partner Ned’s woman are both would-be peacemakers. And of course there is the classic – but not necessary; remember Red River – shootout at the end. It is true that the film seems to critique the Western’s violence – after the first killing, Ned loses heart and rides off; after the second killing, by the kid, the kid loses his nerve and ambition – but this is not entirely new with Unforgiven. Shane’s hero-worshipping Joey is unlikely to grow up to be a gunfighter, and The Searchers‘ Martin strives to avoid violence where possible and challenges Ethan’s bloodlust. The climactic violence in Unforgiven is uncontained and largely indiscriminate – but less so than the carnage depicted on at least three occasions in The Wild Bunch.

Buscombe does a thorough job of exploring the film’s inflections. When we first see Will Munny, he is a barely competent farmer who struggles to mount his horse, falls into the muck while separating pigs, and can’t hit anything with his revolver. His sidekick Ned is a black man. The wannabe killer is hopelessly nearsighted. Women – the abused whore and her friends – initiate the action. The whorehouse is presented as a Marxist case study. Much of the film is shot in relative darkness, even daytime scenes. Perhaps the most interesting inflection is one that Buscombe’s account supports but does not state explicitly. As in most Westerns, the hero has to commit violence in order for the rule of law to displace savagery, but in this film the savagery is represented not by an alien tribe, a gang of outlaws, or a single evil bad guy, but by a corruption in civilization itself. Capitalism enables the brothel owner to regard the women as property. Order is maintained in the town by brutal excess. When Will Munny rides out of Big Whiskey, one expects for the town a better future now that the brothel owner and the sheriff are dead.
Buscombe is brilliant in his analysis of the final shootout. No matter how much the film has debunked the motives and myths of the Western hero, we are, as Buscombe states without reservation, on Will Munny’s side when he massacres the sheriff, the brothel owner, and several others in the final shootout. The scene remythologizes the Western and the Western hero in a form palatable to a modern, cynical audience.

But if this is so, why the equivocal last-page statement quoted above? Buscombe buys into Will’s claim that he has been reformed by his late wife, that he is a changed man, that he is going to Big Whiskey only because he needs the money for his family. But from the beginning, it seems obvious that Munny longs for his former life. When the Schofield Kid rides off, Munny wistfully watches him recede into the distance. He seems to get involved less because he needs money, more because he yearns for that life when he didn’t need it or any other convention of civil society. His kids are virtually forgotten shortly after he leaves them. His frequent references to his late wife’s redemptive effect on him just might be a cover for years of seething repression. He exaggerates the reported crime committed against the whore, as if to disguise from himself his moral relapse. Near the end of the film, it is clear he recognizes that in killing people he is being true to himself. It depresses him, makes him drink again, and yet frees him. Even the growing darkness of the film and its Shakespearean stormy climax suggests an environmental analogue to the violence boiling within him.

This is the third Western that Buscombe has analyzed for the BFI series on classic films, and it exhibits the considerable merits of the first two. For one thing, Buscombe seems to have seen and remembered every important Western ever made. He alludes to them regularly, helpfully, but never ostentatiously. He is generous but economical with related research into details that enriches our understanding of the film. In his 1992 BFI study of Stagecoach, for instance, his translation of Chris’s traitorous Apache wife’s Spanish-language song shows that John Ford was aware even then, well before The Searchers (the subject of Buscombe’s 2000 BFI study), of the other side of the triumphal myth. In his current study, we learn, among many other relevant and interesting facts, that Wyoming, the setting for most of Unforgiven‘s action, was the first state to grant women the right to vote (in 1869). Most of all, Buscombe, unlike so many film scholars of recent decades, writes in service of understanding the film, not to subdue the film to some effete theory or to show off. These qualities make his books extremely rewarding for the interested reader.

D.B. Jones
Drexel University.

Created on: Friday, 3 December 2004 | Last Updated: 7-Dec-04

About the Author

D.B. Jones

About the Author

D.B. Jones

D.B. Jones is Head of the Media Arts Department at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He taught at La Trobe University in the early 1970s, is the author of two books on the National Film Board of Canada, and has written and/or directed numerous films, among them the Australian experimental feature Yakkety yak (1974).View all posts by D.B. Jones →