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Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Wages for Sin: Immoral Heroism in A Western Film Epic Review of: Unforgiven. Directed by Clint Eastwood.

Wages for Sin: Immoral Heroism in A Western Film Epic
Review of: Unforgiven. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Malpaso Producutions & Presented by Warner Bros. 1992.
Reviewed by Tim Krenz

In the continuing reviews of heroes and heroism in the American Western film genre, Unforgiven, directed by its star, Clint Eastwood, is an example of “immoral heroism.” Unforgiven, written as a screenplay by David Webb Peoples, borderlines an existential paradox with an evil, that is injustice, losing in a struggle with a greater evil, wrath.

Released in 1992, Unforgiven won Eastwood Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Film, and also won for Gene Hackman Best Actor in a Supporting Role (and for Joel Cox, Best Film Editing, an award for a skill far, far underestimated by casual movie fans). In all of these technical and artistic achievements, and numerous others as well, Unforgiven really has the look, feel, and even a disturbing enjoyment of an outstanding film, perhaps even to be remembered as a classic on par with Schindler's List (Spielberg), Lawrence of Arabia (Lean), Rear Window (Hitchcock), and The Godfather (Coppola). At present, Unforgiven ranks a measly 68th on the American Film Institute's Top 100 films of all time (one ahead of Tootsie). That rank is injustice, but one can expect that it should make its way closer to the Top 20 over time, as its existential message reveals so much to ponder on humanity's great questions.

As a drama on screen, Unforgiven turns the idea of epic upside down. No valor, nor courage, invades this realm of story telling. It shows in the script, the acting, the settings, the plot, the art direction, and in the unifying theme of both the overall direction and the cinematography (the combination of camera, lighting, and placements on the set in view of the audience) a sad, sorry lesson for humanity to remember. That lesson, perhaps: On the level of existence, and existential philosophy, without the choice of good or some unseen or providential hand believed to be guiding our actions, in a contest between evils, the lesser evil never wins.

Transpose this to something where people have a choice in real life, such as casting a vote. Even if a person firmly believes they choose the lesser evil, the greater evil wins and, therefore, always grows stronger. Why? May be it corrupts the purity of the whole, the unity of “The One” in Emerson's Transcendental thought? Could the lesser evil be deceptive, enticing, or promise fame or riches that appeal to more to the vanity and the greed of people, rewards that humility and hard work deny except for their own sake? Do humans fear the consequences of actions so much, that involving themselves in conflict poses a danger of being wrong, especially when a right and reasonable, defiant, stand can stop the bad (or evil) from happening?

In a Western movie, a man on a horse from nowhere, like in Eastwood's Pale Rider, or Alan Ladd's title character in Shane, is required to dispense the justice so that in exacting or enforcing a higher moral principle, the virtue of good will not become corrupted. If so, Eastwood's avenging angel in Pale Rider, or Shane redeeming his past wrongs by following his usual path of immorality, both done for the benefit of good and on behalf of good people, are akin in literature to a Greek god in a tragedy saving the world (“deus ex machina”) or the tragic hero sacrificing himself and his happiness for others.

Unforgiven has no such good people, no good intentions by anyone, no good to be redeemed from a past of corruption, and no “god-like engineered solution” to save anything of a moral or a virtue. If this story has no good guys, no “win-win” solutions, where does Eastwood's character of “William Munny” fit as an example of “immoral heroism?” As a killer-now pig-farmer who comes out of retirement, Munny seeks to collect a bounty on two cowboys who abused a prostitute in a frontier town's saloon. Munny goes in pursuit of his goal: To kill for the easy money, which he knows well how to do. He even brings along a friend, played by Morgan Freeman. Yet, the lawman “Little Bill,” (Hackman) has his own agenda. From the time Hackman lets the two cowboys go free with a fine, paid to the saloon keeper, the moral ambiguity not only clarifies: It clears toward the movie finale into an endless pool of fire and brimstone for the offer and acceptance of wages to sin, to murder.

The idea of an immoral hero means, simply, not heroic at all, but rather a false image of one; a person worshiped and revered but one that ultimately fails the test of any standard of virtue; a person who owns nothing but vice. He or she is, as historian John Keegan describes in his book, Mask of Command, IS the “false hero.” In Unforgiven, the existential conflict reduces an audience to only two options: Hope the protagonist Munny prevails to be the fitting end of a great, and important film; or, hope that somehow real people, real life, and real situations cannot or would not be like those in the movie: They are unforgivable. We could be, if we did not have hope and humanity at all.


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