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Gene Hackman as President?

 

The town of Big Whisky is full of normal people trying to lead quiet lives. Cowboys try to make a living. Sheriff 'Little Bill' tries to build a house and keep a heavy-handed order. The town whores just try to get by. Then a couple of cowboys cut up a whore. Unsatisfied with Bill's justice, the prostitutes put a bounty on the cowboys. The bounty attracts a young gun billing himself as 'The Schofield Kid', and aging killer William Munny. Munny [had] reformed for his young wife, and has been raising crops and two children in peace. But his wife is gone. Farm life is hard. And Munny is no good at it. So he calls his old partner Ned, saddles his ornery nag, and rides off to kill one more time, blurring the lines between heroism and villainy, man and myth.

--synopsis of the 1992 movie "Unforgiven."

Clint Eastwood produced, directed and starred in this film. I don’t know what larger meanings, if any, he had in mind when he did it but, a day after seeing it on cable, I seem to see something.

Most of the characters in the movie are more complex than in the usual Western. The ruthless and contemptuous sheriff, played by Gene Hackman, has a "creative side." He builds houses with his bare hands, and is quite proud of his work. Few people are brave enough, however, to point out that his results are less than wonderful. And a lot of the sheriff’s deputies show more than a little fear in the face of the inevitable gunfights. The hero of the story, William Munny, played by Clint Eastwood himself, is the reformed gunman. He falls off horses and gets sick just before he first meets the sheriff, leaving him vulnerable to a sadistic beating that eventually steels him to revenge. He contracts with the prostitutes to kill the cowboys, but in a tender scene with one of the women, shows that he has a soft side, too.

Here is the story of an elected government official whose job it is to protect the town from bad guys. He is sure of himself to the point of arrogance and brutality in the name of virtue and justice. In his rampages, his behavior causes the townspeople to cringe and turn their heads away. He is the Law, and brooks no dissension or disagreement.

Economic justice is more meaningful to him than compassion—he decides that the proprietor of the whorehouse deserves repayment for the disfigurement of the woman, since she is therefore worth less in her trade. The women, on the other hand, want revenge more than restitution, even turning down a seemingly sincere offer of a horse by one of the offending cowboys. Contrition, like compassion, is not valued much in this tale of the "wild west."

Still, the women are troubled by the mayhem that results from their advertising for a killer to settle their score with the cowboys. The young bounty hunter who recruits Munny and his friend Ned to collect the bounty first poses as a haughty killer, but admits, after killing one of the cowboys whom he has cornered in the outhouse, that he no longer has a taste for murder, and gives away his gun. He even shows the hint of a tear in his eye as he admits his aversion to what he has done.

The hero, emerging from his reformed persona, not only does the women’s grizzly deed for them but dispatches the evil sheriff in a spectacular display of his skill with a gun. The price he pays for being both hero and villain is to lose his more-or-less innocent friend Ned, who is killed even as he tries to disengage from the killing and return to his own family.

One can blow this story up to mythic proportions, with the arrogance and corruption of power run amuck, and with the impotence of ordinary citizens to rein in the offensive official. No one has the courage to challenge the violence on either side of the conflict, the official or the "bad guys." It is the weakness of the society that impels the women to seek outlaw help to enact their idea of justice, and it is the weakness of the society that allows the ruthless lawman to set his own rules above those of his constituency. The townspeople are afraid of the sheriff, but depend upon him to protect them from unknown dark forces—"the other." Paradoxically, it is one of those others, the feared hired guns, who eventually restores peace and justice to the society.

If one focuses on the horror masquerading as justice, one can relate it to our present-day international situation. We seek heros who can bring justice and compassion to the world. Our lack of imagination keeps the terms of the situation centered on violence. It is our lack of courage to collectively face down the forces of evil, be they our own forces or someone else’s, that allows evil itself to dominate our lives. By insisting upon our right to live as we please, use resources without limit, and turn our faces away from the disagreeable, we enable the darkness to grow. The townspeople of the modern world may avoid their own responsibility for the state of things only so far, for there is no Clint Eastwood to save us from ourselves.

The citizens of Germany in 1933 and the citizens of the Western World in 2004 may have more in common than we think. Violence is not a means for conquering violence; it merely fuels the fire. Whoever thought that making war on another country, however corrupt that country might be, whoever thought that war would end violence, has not studied history. The townspeople of Big Whisky hired the toughest sheriff they could find in hopes of securing peace. What they bought, however, was simply a larger, more powerful, violence.

Clint Eastwood, having saved the town from both sheriff and bad guys, rode off into the sunset. (A postscript in the movie said that he disappeared with his children, probably going to San Francisco to become a successful entrepreneur.) In real life, there are no closing words, scrolling slowly under guitar music, that gently set us back down on solid ground. There is always another storm gathering on the horizon. Perhaps that’s why we have such fantasies—to help us let go, even for a couple of hours, of our continuing apprehensions.

Fear seeks simple answers. Violence, especially when clothed as virtue, especially when perpetrated by someone else—our surrogate heroes—allows us to escape the difficult choices that are our responsibilities as citizens.

 

Donald Skiff, October 8, 2005

 

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