In one of John Ford's most mythopoeic Westerns, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), a newspaper reporter interviews a senator (Jimmy Stewart) whose fame rests on the shooting of a notorious outlaw many years before. The senator tells the reporter the truth about the shooting, that Liberty Valance was really done in by a forgotten rancher named Tom Doniphon (played by John Wayne). At the end of the movie, instead of revealing the real name of the "man who shot Liberty Valance," the reporter destroys his notes and says, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
With The Lone Ranger set to become one of the biggest box office flops of all time (1), it seems as good a time as any to pronounce the Western dead as a doornail. The last Western - that made money - was the unsightly Cowboys & Aliens (2011), a bit of silliness comparable to 1966's Billy the Kid vs. Dracula. Clint Eastwood's last Western, Unforgiven (1992), which he waited almost twenty years to make so he would look the part of William Munny, was widely hailed as his greatest, and one of the best of the genre. But I have always been puzzled by what Eastwood was trying to impart in the movie.
The plot is fairly complicated, for a Western: In Big Whiskey, Wyoming, a group of prostitutes employed by Skinny Dubois (Anthony James) in a saloon called Greeley's, put together a $1,000 reward for the killing of two cowboys who attacked Delilah (Anna Levine) with a knife and scarred her for life. The town's sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), refused to arrest the two men, and knows that gunmen from Kansas and Cheyenne will be coming to Little Whiskey to collect the reward. Little Bill enforces a curious and draconian law in his small town that obliges everyone within the town limits to surrender their firearms. If anyone declines to give up their guns, Little Bill's policy is to take them by force and beat the living daylights out of the transgressor.
When Little Bill enforces this policy on an old gunman named English Bob (Richard Harris), he locks him in jail overnight and adopts a writer named W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) who has been writing colorful tales about Bob and other outlaws for the delectation of readers back East. Little Bill proceeds to debunk every story that Beauchamp has heard from English Bob and others, and tells him the ugly truth about the Wild West. At first, Beauchamp doesn't want to believe Little Bill, but he realizes he's telling the truth when English Bob says nothing to contradict him.
(Throughout the movie, we see Little Bill struggle to construct a house. It's a kind of symbol of the feeble impact Bill is having on his little corner of the West.
Then William Munny, played at first by Eastwood with almost exaggerated clumsiness, slipping in a muddy pigsty and falling off his horse, arrives in Little Whiskey, along with an old compatriot named Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and a wet-behind-the-ears upstart named The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), on account of the Schofield revolver he carries. The long ride in the rain has left Will feverish, and when Ned and the Kid adjourn upstairs in Greeley's with the girls, Little Bill shows up to relieve Will of his firearm. The usual savage beating ensues, leaving Will nearly as scarred as Delilah. The three men escape to a shack outside Little Whiskey to nurse Will's wounds. (2)
The rest of the movie plods along predictably, until the final scene, which stands everything that came before it on its head. Will Munny is, at best, the anti-hero of this story. It emerges that he was one of the cruelest murderers of the West in his bad old drunken days, killing "everything that walks or crawls at one time or another" (his own words). But when Ned is captured by Little Bill's posse and whipped by Little Bill until he gives up the identities of his cohorts, Ned suddenly dies. One of the prostitutes, Little Sue (Tara Frederick), who gives Will and the Kid the $1,000 reward, informs them of Ned's "accidental" death and of his body being put "in a box in front of Greeley's" with a sign on him reading "This is what happens to assassins." Will starts drinking his liquid courage (whiskey) and is instantly transformed into the William Munny of old.
It's at this point that critics should've unanimously cried foul: Eastwood spends four-fifths of his movie debunking Western mythology, revealing the exaggeration and lies behind all the stories of gunfights and outlaws, only to turn 180 degrees in the last scene and create a brand new myth. I remember when I watched Unforgiven the first time with a group of fellow sailors in 1992, and how they cheered when Eastwood enters Greeley's saloon with a shotgun and asks, "Who's the owner of this shithole?" Like the storyteller W.W. Beauchamp, they want the exaggeration, the distortions, the lies, as long as they're as violent as possible.
What nobody noticed about Unforgiven is that Little Bill Daggett is the real hero of Eastwood's movie. Virtually alone among the region's law-enforcers, he knows the destructiveness of guns and seeks, within the confines of his small town, to curb their destructiveness. Not by banning guns, but by having them removed for the time being. Just before Munny shoots him the last time, Little Bill mutters pathetically, "I don't deserve this. I was building a house." All he wanted was a quiet place where he could smoke his pipe and watch the sun set. Not in Little Whiskey, alas.
There is a curious shot near the end of the movie. As Munny is riding out of Little Whiskey, he stops in front of Greeley's and shouts to whomever is listening, "You'd better bury Ned right, and don't be cutting up any more whores, or I'll come back and kill every one of you sons-of-bitches!" As he shouts those last words, there is an American flag over Will's left shoulder. Even if you consider there is more meaning behind the movie's title, that Will Munny, who tried living a civilized life of his own, cannot escape his bloody past, Unforgiven is just another example of John Ford's "print the legend."
(1) According to reports, its losses could reach $200M.
(2) At the time of the movie's release, none of the critics dared to say a word about the fact that Ned's race is never noticed by anyone in the movie, not even when he goes upstairs with white prostitutes. This is strange behavior in 19th century America, even as revisionist history.