Unforgiven won Best Picture at the 1992 Academy Awards and is tied for first place on my personal list of favorite films. The movie opens with unsettling violence as a cowboy slashes a prostitute’s face with his pocketknife. In the aftermath, all the girls of the establishment pool their money to hire a gunman to kill the cowboy who has defaced their friend
When English Bob arrives with the intention of assassinating the cowboy, Sheriff Little Bill Daggett disarms Bob and—in a sickening display of sadism and violence—kicks him until he’s bloodied and senseless. Little Bill is a psychopath who hides his sadism under the cover of “law and order;” and at this point in the movie, none of the characters have presented us with a violence that can be morally justified.
Enter William Munny, “a known thief and murderer,” who has spent the last decade trying to live an honest life. His wife has died, his hog farm is failing, and Munny—out of desperation—decides to take the prostitutes’ offer. He and his partners, Ned and the Schofield Kid, ride to Big Whiskey, where Munny runs afoul of a town ordinance forbidding firearms within the city limits. Little Bill doesn’t arrest Will Munny. Instead, he beats him mercilessly, after which Will can barely crawl into the street and saddle up. In fact, for several days he hovers between life and death.
Most movie goers sympathize with Munny. Although he himself has psychopathic tendencies, Will also has flashes of guilt and compassion. He frequently says of his gunslinger past, “I ain’t like that anymore.” Nevertheless, Will Munny kills one cowboy himself and helps the Schofield Kid assassinate another as the victim sits in an outhouse. There is no way to morally justify these killings.
When Little Bill captures Ned and tortures him to death, Will decides to avenge his friend. Of course, revenge—whether for the disfigured prostitute or for Ned—can never be moral. Still, we’re rooting for Munny as he rides into town and enters the saloon outside of which Ned’s body is on display. Without warning, he kills the owner of the bar with his shotgun; but, as Will aims at Little Bill, the shotgun misfires. Now Bill and his deputies have a chance to shoot. But, with a lightning-fast draw of his six-shooter, William Munny cuts down five men, including Little Bill. A wounded Bill complains, “I don’t deserve this.” Will replies, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” A close-range rifle blast ends the conversation.
As I read critical reviews of Unforgiven, William Munny is frequently given the role of the hero. He’s the “good guy” in spite of being morally flawed. Well, Munny is not just morally flawed. He’s evil—as evil as Little Bill. They both have justifications for their violence, but—except in self-defense—violence is evil. To make that point, key scenes of the movie are backlit, producing a darkness in those scenes—the darkness of evil.
William Munny’s rapid-fire killing of five people reminds me of a modern AR-15’s firing capability and its use in so many mass shootings. If we in the U.S. do not ban AR-15’s and similar semi-automatic weapons, we will find ourselves among the “unforgiven.”
~ Richard Russell
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