The 1992 film, " Unforgiven " marked a pivotal moment for Clint Eastwood. Celebrated by his peers, the critics, and the box office, Eastwood became the proverbial " thirty-year overnight " success as a director. In spite of our easy familiarity with Eastwood, he has remained until recently an intimate stranger. A celebrity whose public persona, more often than not, summarily codifed him as a flag waving zealot, a mouth piece of the conservative political faction. Eastwood's position as a masculine heroic actor was widely acknowledged and clinched in the 1950's. Many were overwlemed with the unexpected complexity of " Unforgiven." His work is an effort to show the persistent effort to uncover the true meaning of masculinity in American culture, especially the potential for man's ability to relate to women. The " Man with No Name " persona created for Eastwood really was a caricature of the American male created by Hollywood genre films. That Eastwood could carry to most of his major roles, is a comment on both his genuis and the influence of the pulic. Of course not all of Eastwood's work has been about the self evaluation and genre deconstruction. Clint Eastwood may appear as the softy, oddball, proto-feminist, and champion of the outsider, as well as the standard tough guy as he tries both to define and break free of an imprisioning image that has destroyed a number of his predecessors. It is his attempt to reclaim the image that has made him both enigmatic and endearing. Each of Eastwood's films taught him more about his craft and eventually prepared him for " Unforgiven." A lean, provocative, antiwestern in which the good guys are not so swell and the bad guys are not entirely deserving of their fate. For Eastwood it was something new, garbed in familiar cowboy clothing. Only after the final gunfight does the director allow his alter-ego the actor, to indulge in a brief farewell speech. Eastwood takes the work seriously, but not himself. During the " Unforgiven " shoot, he entertained the crew with his wicked John Wayne impersonation and has always been quick to spread his success to his loyal production crew. Eastwood plans his productions like military campaigns and compares his roles to that of an officer. " Making a film takes on a life of its own" he says. " You guide that life along like a platoon leader, getting everybody kind of enthused to charge the hill." Eastwood developed his prudence as a child of the Depression. The determination of his father to find work, shaped his respect for honest labor. He attended eight grammar schools in eight years, an experience that taught him self reliance. Like most natives of the San Francisco area, Eastwood grew up rejecting Los Angeles. Unlike other actors whose careers drew them toward the studios, Eastwood kept his distance. He created two lives, one based in his office, and the other up the coast. At sixty three, he stood at another juncture. Finally, he was embraced by those who practiced his craft. He reigned as the richest and most powerful man in an industry. Clint Eastwood's " Unforgiven " offers the opportunity to see Western as a form being laid to rest. It is undeniably strange to encounter Eastwood, the mysterious " man with no name," as a reformed gunman turned widowed, pig farming family man. Even when he decides to kill one last time, Eastwood's William Munny relentlessly rehumanizes the familiar violence embraced by the genre. Eastwood, who, many agree, has kept the western alive through the years of the 1970's and 1960's, has adopted an end of the genre feel. But the genre wasnt far behind, for in the three years following " Unforgiven ", a herd of new westerns arrived on the screen, each suggesting a " further refiguring of frontier mythology." Eastwood has kept the Western alive, in part, by radically transforming it. He turned his scruffy gunfighter into " Dirty Harry " Callahan at an equally opportune cultural moment. Therefore it is suffice to say that " Unforgiven " can be veiwed as both a personal closure for Eastwood and a return to genre roots marked by a deeper fascination with moral ambiguity. Similar to the traditional Western that it is, "
" sets the scene in detail and at leisure. We sense in the first few minutes that the plot will lead to a final violent test of William Munny and his partners. In a Western like this, that means their personalities and characters will be tested. Unlike the new violent urban adventures, Westerns place greater wieght on the meaning of gunfights and deaths. The film is not simply about its plot and about who gets killed in the process but also about what it means to kill somebody, and how society is affected. Hackman's sheriff is a key element in developing this theme. Although he is funny, likeable and friendly, he has a violent streak and uses his badge as an excuse. It is approriate to talk about the comedy of the Eastwood presence, because the macho hero was conceived in irony. He never seemed to look at himself as an actor because long before he became a director he looked at his films with the eye of a director. The beginning of the unease might have began at his highschool play, where he considered doing his first disappearing act. After that play he vowed never to go on stage again. Of course many actors started out the same way. The point about Eastwood is the intensity with which he does nothing. The way his films are activated by other people's reaction to either his hostile or symapthetic personality. However, with Eastwood there is something comic about a hero who is the fastest and deadliest man put on this earth and at the same time so fake. " Unforgiven " artfully raises questions about its hero without having to pretend that he is a hero. It describes the Western town as a violent hellhole, without pretending that it is really hell. For the first time Eastwood actually feels comfortable with himself on stage to the extent that " Unforgiven " is about Willy Munny in a way that " High Plains " is not about a stranger. Perhaps also for the first time, Eastwood has allowed his on screen character some naturalistic development. His own ageing becomes a factor in the role. " Unforgiven " deosnt mock the Eastwood persona as his other Westerns have done.That persona is for the first time turned into a fully developed character because the person joins the same world as the other characters. It is not only blacks who operate in complex ways in Eastwood's films, but he has also won some praise for his tough women characters. His films also seems to emphasis strength. But like everything else it comes with ambivalence. It is " Unforgiven " that provides the most pwoerful clue to Eastwood's long analysis of the meaning of women. It is without question the most intense examination of male violence. The violence arises when a prostitute giggles at her customer. This single action sparks a reaction that widens into mutilation and death. Instead of glorifying masculine violence, " Unforgiven exposes it as a closely masculine endeavor. The film also offers a " hero " alien to American masculine mythology; a celibate, broken down man who prays over his deceased wife. John Tibbets talks about Clint Eastwood and the machinery of violence. The conclusion to " Unforgiven " comes as a shock to its' audience. When Eastwood, a bounty hunter Will Munny, blows away Gene Hackman, we dont experience the nervous thrill we have from Eastwood's Dirty Harry pictures. The relief of the conflict between good and evil is also gone by a violent action. Although Eastwod is on a vengeance, his killing is cold and ruthless. The scene violates the cardinal rule of all westerns. The good guy no matter how provoked cant just shoot a man in cold blood. Although Eastwood is best known for the graphic violence in his pictures, he seems to have recosidered. " Unforgiven " in particular, belongs to a handful of Westerns that question the cherished formulas and conditions of the genre. The films violence, though not ordinately graphic, is nonetheless obvious and brutal. With an attempted rape and the vicious knife slashing of a prostitute. The " good guys " are all hunters who kill simply for money and the " bad guy " is the sheriff trying to protect his town. As for the " showdown " it is merely a cold blooded assassination. Yet it can be argued that " Unforgiven " is a deceased western genre. It raises questions about the very nature and consequences of violence in our society. Eastwood, particularly, has been a target for continuos critical rejection. Pauline Kael's attacks have been especially devastating. As she wrote in 1981, " In a Clint Eastwod film, Eastwood can't go to dinner and ask for a glass of water without someone picking a fight with him. Action movies say that the world is always threatening your manhood every minute of the day." Three years later in a review of " Tightrope ", she acknowledges that while he is the only person making movies " about how tough it is to be a man," he is nothing more than a " trash filmmaker " whose work was " primitive " and whose screen persona was full of " stone-faced hokum." She concluded to say that the world is full of beasts and Eastwood is one of them. She disagreed with those who welcomed these movies as returns to Hollywood's classic genre formulas. Now in their sixties, Eastwood, Hackman, and Harris, are reviewing their past sins. Despite the Kael's criticism, Eastwood is defensive about his nonsensitivity to women's roles in his pictures. In a 1988 interview, in America Film, he called himself " a feminist director." Two years later, he defended Harry Callahan against charges of rightwing fascism. " Harry is a strong character, and I enjoy playing him. But at a certain point I said to myself, you can't just go blowing people away with a 44." Eastwood's direction of the film, with the cinematography, doesn't make the west seem particularly scenic. The film consisted mostly muted colors and avalaible light. Eastwood tries to forget that he is shooting in color and pretends the shoot is in black and white. Alot of the shots are from the inside looking out, so that figures seem dark and obscure. The effect is to diminsh that stature of the characters: occupants of a rude society in which death is an everday reality. He tells the designer, set decorator, and costume designer to keep everything tones down. This may be the reason for the failure of his previous pictures. Before making " Unforgiven " Eastwood thought about his reputation and felt he needed a change. He began to get tired of those famous lines eveybody was always asking him to repeat. " It was fun," he says but he was tired of it, " It's only a line in a movie..." Eastwood felt there was nothing funny about the violence in " Unforgiven." He grew up with the Jimmy Cagney films, shooting people, but it never made him go out and start blowing people's heads off. Eastwood explains, " I think it's a time in my life and a time in history that maybe violence should not be such a humorous thing. Or that it should be portrayed without its cosequences. In " Unforgiven " Eastwood wanted to show " consequences " to the violence. The film, according to Eastwood, was an opportunity to make a statement about violence and the moral issue of it. The character of Willliam Munny is not longer the clumsy man you'll see throughout the film, " he's back in full charge of his abilities." Tibbets concludes that Eastwood is content in leaving the ambiguity intact. " We all hope we change for the good," he says, " and we hope Will Munny at last has changed for the good. But sometimes you wonder if we aren't really just going in circles, chasing our tails. And Munny does at the end revert back to what he's been. Maybe he hasn't learn anything." When Tibbet asked Eastwood if this was his last western, he just smiled and replied, " Maybe or maybe not." Whether it's my last western remains to be seen; but if I was going to do a last western it would be a good one!" The only way to critize a movie, Jean-Luc Godard once wrote, is to make another movie. As Roger Ebert explains, for Clint Eastwood, one of the most intelligent and self aware of filmmakers, " Unfor- given " may have been a reaction to the rising tide of meaningless violence in films and on television. In a way, this is a movie about how, when you kill someone, they're really dead. If this is, as Eastwood has teased, his the last western, it will certainly stand as one of the most complex and satisfying. A testement to what Eastwood and the Western have come to mean to each other through three decades. Bibliography Deloria, J. Philip. America: In american Historical Review, Oct.1995, p. 1194-1198. Deutsch, C Didier. The Man With No Name: The Clint Eastwood Trilogy: In video review, 1994 p.53-54. Ebert, Roger. Chicago Sun Times, August, 9 1993. Fischoff, Stuart. clint Eastwood and the American psyche- A rare interview. In Psychology Today, Jan. 1993 p.38-41. Jardine, Gail. Clint: Cultural Critic, cowboy of cathartic change. In Art Journal, Fall 1994, p.74-75. Sharrett, Christopher. Clint Eastwood's Triumphs. In USA Today: The Magazine of the American Scene, July 1993, p.93 Tibbets, C John. Film Literature Quart. Vol. 21 No. 1 1993, p.11- 17. Turan, Kenneth. Los Angelos Times - calender section 1992 Aug. 2, p.7-8. Wittman, A Paul. Go Ahead, make my career. In Time, April, 5 1993, p.54-56