A “revisionist western” is a kind of western film that eschews the usual, idealised depiction of the old west in favour of a far more realistic one. Unforgiven by Clint Eastwood includes ideal illustrations of the complicated people and events that are characteristic of the usual revisionist western film.
Unforgiven, which was released in 1992 and won many Academy Awards, is widely regarded as one of Eastwood’s finest westerns. Let’s examine what made the film so outstanding, as well as the historical figures and events that inspired it.
The Emergence of Revisionist Western
The origins of classic western films may be traced all the way back to the first days of cinema. The Great Train Robbery (1903) by Edwin S. Porter is considered not only the first western cinema, but also the first narrative film in history.
Although the silent film was only 11 minutes long, it possessed many of the characteristics of great westerns for decades to come. There were the obvious “bad guys,” whose misdeeds were thwarted by the selfless cowboy who saves the day and then rides off into the sunset.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, however, it became increasingly difficult for moviegoers to take such utopian plots seriously. The United States had just emerged from two world wars, the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, and protests against the Vietnam War were raging.
As the complexity of reality increased for many individuals, so did their conceptions of the past. Revisionist westerns dispensed with the “good people vs bad guys” dichotomy in favour of a Wild West populated by characters who fit into neither group easily.
By blurring the distinctions between good and evil, the revisionist western began showing a far more accurate portrayal of the wild west and providing a framework for analysing one’s own reality, even if one did not live on a ranch.
Was William Munny an actual individual?
Was Unforgiven based on a genuine story, despite the fact that William Munny has become one of Clint Eastwood’s most memorable characters? In keeping with the concept of the film, the solution is not so straightforward.
William Munny was not technically a historical figure, but he may have been inspired by several. The writer of Unforgiven, David Webb Peoples, has cited The Shootist by Glendon Swarthout as one of the primary sources of inspiration for the screenplay.
John Wesley Hardin, a real-life bandit and gunslinger who lived from 1853 to 1895, served as the inspiration for The Shootist’s main character. Although the novel was adapted into a western film in 1976, Peoples felt that the film failed to capture the raw realism that had made the novel so brilliant. Therefore, Hardin may have served as a source of indirect inspiration for Munny.
Rumor has it that Eastwood also drew influence from the story of Cullen Baker, a real-life Civil War-era gunman who left a trail of deaths in his wake even after the war ended. Hardin and Baker share the characteristic that neither was a particularly admirable individual.
Although Munny is the protagonist of the picture, it is evident that he is not a traditional western hero. At one point, he responds, “You’re correct. I have murdered females and children. I’ve slain nearly every living thing that walks or crawls at some point. And I have come to murder you…”
Despite this, Munny manages to become the film’s protagonist when he arrives in Big Whiskey to collect a private bounty on two cowboys who brutally assaulted a local sex prostitute.
Little Bill Daggett Was Based on the Chief of the LAPD
If the protagonists in revisionist westerns tend to be more complex, it stands to reason that the supporting cast will also be less straightforward. Such was the situation with Sheriff Little Bill Daggett, portrayed by Gene Hackman in Unforgiven.
There is more to Sheriff Daggett than meets the eye. He prohibits gunplay in his community, but there is more to him than meets the eye. In fact, the plot is set in motion by his refusal to administer true justice in the case of the disfigured prostitute.
As the plot unfolds, Daggett’s stoic pacifism begins to unnervingly meld with his subtle yet severe propensity for violence.
Clint Eastwood, who both directed and appeared in the film, requested that Hackman base the character of Daggett on Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates. During his 40 years of service with the LAPD, Gates was an extremely controversial figure, especially when he defended the policemen charged in the Rodney King beating.
Some of Gates’ advancements in policing garnered him praise from prominent figures such as President George H.W. Bush, who referred to him as a “all-American hero.” To others, though, he was a rude and prejudiced man whose questionable statements and techniques will be most remembered.
The Iliad Relationship
The similarities between Unforgiven and the ancient Greek epic The Iliad may have contributed to the novel’s status as an instant classic.
According to one academic, Achilles and William Munny are self-doubting warriors who temporarily reject the culture of violence before returning to it following the death of their closest male buddy, in which they are implicated.
Similar to Homer’s Illiad, Unforgiven explores the question of whether violence is sometimes required to forge an untamed civilisation. Gunplay has been a key and expected element in virtually every western film ever filmed.
Revisionist westerns are distinguished by their ability to authentically show violence without glorification. William Munny is all too familiar with the fact that firearms frequently result in tragedy as well as success.
Both The Iliad and Unforgiven reject a universe in which violence is solely virtuous or evil. Each story focuses on the concept that, under certain circumstances, morality may have nothing to do with the issue.
Although Achilles and William Munny were not from the same age, they were both men who, depending on who you questioned, were either heroes or villains.
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