Clint Eastwood’s four-Oscar-winning 1992 Unforgiven has one of the most watertight reputations among latter-day Westerns; some say it was the last “real” Western. So although my distaste for Eastwood’s maso-sacrificial sadism has led me to skip many of his films, I decided to spend 2:14 catching up on this classic.
I found it distasteful but at the same time, extremely instructive. Eastwood, after all, is not a man of the Left; he is surely one of the few Hollywood celebrities who voted for Trump. And I’d guess that “deplorable” Trump voters are among the biggest fans of this film. Yet precisely for that reason, I think Unforgiven tells us much more about the victimary-PC epidemic, now in full force 25 years after its release, than the usual focus-group-vetted TV and cinema fare.
For to compare this exploitation of Western clichés to the great Westerns of the past, such as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or High Noon, or even to the Leone spaghetti Westerns that made Clint’s reputation, is to witness the degrading of the saga of the West for the greater glory of PC.
For those who find this judgment shocking, one point should make it clear. The West was not the South or even the East, and interracial friendships in a Western are at least believable, but what is not is that Morgan Freeman’s highly sympathetic character is not once in the entire film described as black. No doubt this is refreshing in comparison to the obsessive focus on race that we must endure today. But the idea that in 1878 a black man could enter an all-white town, sleep with white prostitutes, then be captured and whipped (and who knows what else) to death to gain information about his cohort’s plans, and finally be displayed in a standing coffin like the statue of a martyred saint in a medieval church, without either friend or foe ever mentioning his status as the sole black person in the entire film… We all know what epithet Gene Hackman would be using as he flays poor Freeman to force him to reveal the names of his companions. Indeed, as in the widely banned “racist” Huckleberry Finn, Freeman would no doubt have used the n-word himself, as black people still do in jest. But no; the fiction is that Freeman is “just a man,” his skin color no more important than that of his eyes.
For were race to be mentioned, it would become a historical issue, in relation to which the characters, “good” and “bad,” would be forced to situate themselves, and clearly the necessarily ambiguous moral status of Eastwood’s hero would be destroyed if he came across as a forward-looking champion of racial equality in the days of post-Civil War Jim Crow.
Yet Freeman’s unmentioned blackness is there for a purpose, and not just for the sake of “diversity.” Who, after all, is the true martyr in the film? Poor English Bob, so proud and cocky, is savagely beaten and humiliated by Hackman, jailed, and run out of town, a pathetic shadow of his former self. Whereas Freeman, under the whip, his arms tied to the cell bars in a pointedly Christlike pose, never loses his dignity, and we never see the presumably more distasteful violence he suffers before his death. Can it be an accident that of all the characters, it is the single black man who is the film’s Christ figure, one who turned away from violence only to be savagely persecuted?
It is this martyrdom that provides the pretext for Eastwood’s inevitable climactic outburst of savagery, the thing his fans had been waiting two hours for. This has nothing, and yet everything, to do with his being black. Clearly we have come a long way from To Kill a Mockingbird, or for that matter from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? or those Sidney Poitier portrayals of black dignity; clichés, no doubt, but honest and well-meant, not used as pretexts for the usual Dirty Harry maliciousness that Eastwood fans relish. By going “unnoticed,” Freeman’s victimary blackness becomes the incarnation of humanity itself, which Eastwood defends against the oppression of Hackman’s “law and order.” This film, made in the year of the Rodney King LA riots, anticipates Black Lives Matter by two decades.
And then, as a few of the IMDb faithful have pointed out, the slashed and mutilated prostitute, whose revenge the whole plot is built around, when we finally see her, appears lightly scarred in a way that would probably have done nothing to diminish her earning power in the Big Whiskey brothel. The Kid’s description of her as having had her eyes gouged out and ears and breasts cut off, as one might well imagine from the wild knife-swinging in the opening scene (a man’s revenge for having his penis size mocked—Trump-detractors beware), is perhaps meant to suggest to the sophisticated viewer less the Kid’s hyperbole than the idea that that’s was wirklich geschehen ist, but we can’t show it on the screen, since if we did, you couldn’t bear to look at her (and her offer of a “free one” to Eastwood would be grotesque rather than attractive).
But precisely, if mutilation is indeed the basis of the plot, we wouldn’t have to look at her. By showing the victim as only minimally damaged, the message that comes across is the same as that conveyed by today’s crybullies complaining of micro-aggressions, asking for safe spaces, and profiting from Obama’s Title IX policy of punishing men on the basis of “a preponderance of the evidence”: hyperbole in the service of victimary ideology is no vice.
Debunking an old film is not a terribly meaningful activity, even if its lionization by a majority of viewers, and the AMPAS to boot, is of some minor sociological interest. But I think this case is worthy of more sustained reflection. It offers a window into the pervasiveness of the victimary mentality already in the Clinton era, not only among leftist radicals but among the majority population, most particularly, that of Eastwood fans and eventual Trump voters. After all, my analysis of Trump’s significance has been founded from the beginning on the idea that, with the exception of Ben Carson, who is now serving in his cabinet, Trump was the only candidate who stood up to the PC-victimary forces. How then can I claim that the Trumpians’ favorite film star, one of the few Republicans in Hollywood, pays homage to PC and gets his fans to go along with him?
The point is, of course, that no one sees this as PC. Among the relatively few negative remarks that temper the hyperbolic praise on the IMDb, I have seen criticism of the lightly scarred prostitute and mention of Freeman’s presence as an example of racial tokenism, but no one criticized the film’s very central theme as PC. Yet the victimary element is absolutely central to the plot, and the way it intersects with the Eastwood stereotype of converting Christ-like martyrdom into Satanic violence in a good cause is most instructive.
An archetypal example of this formula may be found in Every Which Way But Loose, which I saw many years ago and have forgotten except for this one scene. Clint is seated at a bar, having a drink, not bothering anyone. A guy comes into the bar, and starts picking a fight with him. At first Clint does not respond, but when the guy gets to the point of throwing his drink in his face, he finally gets mad and beats him up. This paradigm of martyrdom-as-a-pretext-for-violence, here in its minimal form, is developed in baroque fashion in Unforgiven. Here Gene Hackman, cast as the villain, in fact the film’s most impressive character (and an Oscar winner along with Eastwood), gives Clint the same treatment he had previously meted out to English Bob / Richard Harris, both of whom had come to town to earn the prostitutes’ $1000 reward for killing their colleague’s mutilators. And as in many similar revenge epics (Revenant is a recent example), the severity and humiliating nature of the injuries inflicted on the hero is a way of justifying what William Flesch calls the villain’s Comeuppance (Harvard UP, 2007). But the comeuppance of the typical bully/villain, although morally akin to that of the violator of the victimary code, has no political implications, since the “villain” by definition is one whose behavior is in violation of generally accepted norms of social behavior not subject to partisan debate. Whereas in the victimary situation, it is precisely these norms that are taken to task as immoral and deserving of punishment.
To sum up, the plot in Unforgiven is driven by offenses against America’s canonical victimary groups, women and blacks. As Eastwood says in his final words to the survivors after massacring an uncountable number of bad guys, if they want to stay out of trouble, they shouldn’t kill his friends or “cut up any whores.” The “tropic” elements in both cases—the “real”/visible scarring and the pointed non-mention of Freeman’s race—have already been noted.
In thus motivating himself as hero, Eastwood not only had to give a baroque turn to the martyrdom and lengthy recovery that precedes his revenge, but to confuse, in what can only be called a less than forthright fashion, the hero’s motivation for seeking the reward in the first place. When the Kid informs him of the ladies’ offer, Eastwood at first rejects it, since his sainted wife had apparently cured him of the bloodlust that made him a vicious killer. Then, when he changes his mind, leaving his children to fend for themselves, he still insists that he has no desire to kill, but is acting only for the reward money, this being presented as an everyday commercial transaction. And even after he kills the first victim with his rifle, before the morally significant action begins, he speaks in solemn tones of how serious it is to kill a man, indicating that he is acting reluctantly. We hear nothing yet of punishing those who “cut up whores,” although at this point he and the audience presumably believe the girl was truly mutilated. It is notable that it is at this stage that Freeman decides to drop out of the party; he cannot bring himself to fire, even though we know he is the best rifle shot. He senses a disproportion between his motives of friendship and even desire for money and the evil of killing, and decides to return home.
Similarly, at a later juncture, the Kid, who has admitted that he had never killed anyone before, after the initial thrill of seeing himself a killer (of the wrong man), realizes that killing is simply not his vocation. With this second departure, Eastwood’s neutral motivation for killing has now been morally rejected by both his partners. Had Freeman returned home safely, Clint-Munny would have faced the uncomfortable dilemma of whether or not to kill for money but without passion, given his wife’s supposed effect on his character. Freeman’s martyrdom, by changing the equation, is the indispensable trigger of the plot’s final resolution.
On one level, this is a “right-wing” film. In its choice of the “flawed but necessary” protagonist William Munny, we are given to understand by contrast that his two partners are, one, too weak and un-self-aware, the other, less too good than no longer vicious enough, to perform the kind of cold-blooded killing that “justice” nevertheless demands. As for Hackman, the official representative of justice, although one may assume that his brutal methods for keeping order are the only practical solution in a town like Big Whiskey, his villain status is signaled from the outset by his sexism, as shown by his refusal to mete out the death penalty or something close to it for the mutilation of the prostitute. (We should no doubt see this rather as “classism,” since the same crime committed on a respectable woman would no doubt have entailed a very different punishment; but this just illustrates the truth of “intersectionality.”)
In short, society needs the death penalty, and the hero has to carry it out at the expense of a reluctance to kill that is ultimately revealed as, at best, self-indulgent “niceness” rather than true Christian love of one’s fellow man. To truly love those who deserve love, one must kill those who do not. The town keepers of order were complicit in the murder of the innocent Freeman, and this sin makes even clearer in retrospect the evil nature of their complicity in the mutilation, for which they demanded only a few horses in compensation.
But the girls’ reward, and their refusal of the offered compensation, although it constitutes a revolt against the patriarchy, remains one that depends on and is therefore complicit with masculine violence. We are not yet at the stage of Kill Bill, where the woman takes over in caricatural fashion the role of the avenger.
Yet we might just as well be, since all this “macho” violence, a given of the Eastwood character, after having been put away under a woman’s influence, is summoned back to life as indispensable in a world beset by crimes against “women and minorities.” This is not the heroism of High Noon, where we encounter a brave man (and woman!) willing to face down evil when abandoned by cowards; what we need now is a sociopathic killer, a flawed hero who must respond, no longer to a circumscribed danger of alien evildoers, but to a society flawed at its very core, one that needs not merely to be shamed but decimated to demonstrate its ultimately indelible moral stain. This is already a version of the world of which the heroine of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, facing its imminent physical destruction, says “nobody will miss it.”
I’m sure he wouldn’t care for the comparison, but in the last analysis, Eastwood as William Munny is a not-so-distant precursor of Antifa. As an alternative, I’ll have a large Leone, and please go heavy on the marinara sauce.