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‘Unforgiven’: when forgiving and forgetting are not options (part 2)

‘Unforgiven’: when forgiving and forgetting are not options (part 2)

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In part 1 of this somewhat elongated discussion of the characters inhabiting theunforgiven1

world of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, we delved, as best we could, into what made each of the three protagonists tick, Will Munny (Clint Eastwood), Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett). We then observed how the film then took those archetypes and played around with them in such a way as to provide the audience with a story experience some might not have expected. In essence, the manner in which Unforgiven handles the trio of heroes makes a refreshingly mature and even surprising viewing experience. However, the protagonists are not the only figures in the film who are cut from a different cloth than in most westerns. Sure enough, director Eastwood and screenwriter David Webb Peoples had special twists in store for the less exemplary characters in the movie as well. In this second and final part, let us observe the behaviour of the so-called villains.


It seems to go without saying that the chief antagonist is the sheriff of Big Whiskey, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman). But why should that be? Is it because he and Will eventually square off in a pivotal duel in the story’s climax? Is it because he is despicably brutal towards Will during their initial encounter when the former demands the bounty hunter relinquish possession of his firearm? Yes, those are rather good reasons for concluding that Little Big is the bad guy. Case closed. That being said, in actuality the film does many a curious thing with the character. For one, he is the sheriff of the town and in a countless number of westerns that figure is the bright spot of these sad little places where corruption and villainy roam. Not only is he the sheriff, typically a virtuous individual, he very much takes his job to heart, ridding the town he has sworn to serve and protect from the scum which tries to infiltrate it. For one, he attempts to compensate the owner of the inn at the start of the picture for the understandable and unavoidable monetary losses resulting from the physical attack on Delilah by making a financially sound deal with the perpetrators. Secondly, he seeks to squash out the unwanted bounty hunters on the prowl for the guilty party of the aforementioned crime because no such proper bounty had ever been established in his name, the damsels employed by the inn were the ones who initiated it without his approval, which logically is against the law.


Therefore Little Bill is in fact the one fighting the good fight. True enough, he does so in devilish fashion, ways which repulse even his fellow deputes (a great example being the scene in which he whips Ned Logan whilst interrogating him), although there is little doubt that he is abiding by the law in many respects. In the wild wild west the law could be somewhat bent as is often the case in these movies, but ultimately Little Bill is trying his darnedest the uphold a level of order and peace, which is exactly what any respectable lawman should aspire to. There are a handful of scenes in which the viewer gets to see Little Bill in much different light as well, such as the occasions when he is fixing the roof on his house. See, he’s just a good old boy doing some manly work like any fine chap would. Another revelatory moment is when he sets the record straight on English Bob’s so-called exploits to biographer W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek). The way he tells the story, the relish in his demeanour, the little shots at humour that trickle in, all this indicates that when wearing a guise other than that of the lawman stomping boots on scum, he really is not a bad chap after all. Nonetheless, his methodology is unspeakably cruel. His disdain towards those who seek to circumvent the laws he has established practically knows no bounds. It is almost a wonder that English Bob gets to ride a train from whence he came after what Little Bill does to him. When the culprit is found, Bill gets to the heart of the matter in as quick and as painful a fashion as imaginable. Was there any legitimate reason to beat Bob to a pulp in the middle of the street? Not especially, but what it did was send a message, both to the guilty bounty hunter and to the onlooking townsfolk: do not cross the sheriff, otherwise pay a steep price. In essence, Little Bill does not forgive so easily, and it is this bastardized version of law enforcement which makes him the perfectly nuanced villain. Gene Hackman plays the light and dark sides of Little Bill so well that in the scenes where is he jovial, it is hard not to love him, whereas in the scene where he demonstrates his anger and power, the viewer quivers and quakes alongside his poor victims.

unforgiven-strawberry alice

Lost in the midst of all these larger than life characters, with their idiosyncratic and often muddled outlooks on what is right on what is wrong, are the whores at the inn, with special mention going to Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher). Now, why should she fit into the category of the film’s antagonists? Is she not, after all, partly a victim of the crime committed in the film’s opening scene in which Delilah is gravely disfigured? Yes, she very much is. One assumes that after working with the girls for an extended period of time has led to the blossoming of friendships, thus explaining her ire. What Delilah suffered is but further proof of how the low opinion men still had of women was at that point in American history. Not only that, but the sheriff’s attempt to help rectify things only considers the economics of the situation, seeing that the girls are but ‘property’ of the inn’s manager. Anyone with the most remote sense of humanity will therefore understand Alice’s frustration. The problem is she arguably ends up being the most blood thirsty character in the entire film. Even Bill, despite his sickening treatment of prisoners, has proven to be open to negotiation. Alice, on the other hand, is dedicated enough to the notion of finding and obliterating the two culprits that she works around Bill in order to send out word of the bounty she has placed on their heads. Even when confronted by the deputes she actually yells back at them, proclaiming that those two creeps deserve what’s coming to them provided any of the bounty hunters find them before Little Bill’s men do. There is a fantastic moment when the younger, more bashful of the two men caught by Little Bill that fateful night brings the horses asked for in order to compensate for the damage done. He was not the one who committed the act and obviously feels somewhat ashamed about what his partner did, yet Alice will have none of this horse trading business, insulting and threatening the young man with claims that he is still in a heap of trouble. While the point of origin of her rage is easy to understand, she operates like something of a psychopath throughout the story.


Finally, there is English Bob (Richard Harris) a character who does indeed, for the most part, fit the mould of the typically brash, confident and downright egotistical personality who parades around in westerns before meeting their untimely demise. These characters are great shots and are well aware of the intimidating skill they possess. Prior to liquidating their targets, they enjoy a few minutes of deprecating humour. A little bit of insult just before the injury, so to speak. The audience is introduced to English Bob as he makes his way to Big Whiskey via train, during which time he opens his mouth a bit too often about British superiority, sparking the annoyance of the American passengers. A quick shooting contest atop an open train carriage suffices to inflict shame upon those who minutes ago dared question his ability. At this stage, it is evident that English Bob, played with terrific vim and verve by Richard Harris, is a force to be reckoned with. Perhaps he and Will shall have a showdown at some point down the road before the dust settles. Unlike with the other individuals we have previously discussed, Bob as a character is not given a twist or played from a different angle encouraging the audience to question what they originally believed. What does happen however is an unfortunate encounter with Little Bill, ultimately leading to Bob’s exist from the film much earlier than foreseen. Slick and proficient he may be, but Little Bill handles him like a ragged doll. The audience’s expectations see the rug swept under them, not because the Bob proves to be someone other than what the viewer thought was true, but because he meets a force even greater than himself and is unequivocally trounced at the drop of a hat. The balance is heavily tilted in favour of the lawman Even English Bob cannot wriggle his way around the law as long Little Bill is the boss in town.

Unforgiven was one of the last great westerns to be released. Others have come and gone in the interim (check out these related article from fellow Sound on Sight writers Bill Mesce and Tressa Eckermann), but Eastwood’s drama is the last to have resonated as strongly as it has with the general movie going public. The films from legends Howard Hawks and John Ford have had longer to gestate in the consciousness of film buffs, thus helping solidify their iconic status. That being said, it seems that with each and every passing year, Unforgiven is also held in as high esteem. Here’s hoping it becomes legendary too.

-Edgar Chaput