Directed by Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) begins at the end - the end of the indigenous Western frontier, the end of the protagonist’s life, and the end of the mystified Western film (McReynolds, 1998). Eastwood’s Unforgiven, dubbed as an anti-Western, unmasks the perceived mythical and glamorous world of the Western frontier as the violent and lawless place it truly was. Eastwood uses a number of techniques throughout his film to dispel the classic tropes of the genre, but it is most notable in the showdown between Little Bill and English Bob. In this scene, Eastwood uses the setting and the action to propel Unforgiven’s anti-Western themes, which leaves the audience unsettled and frightened because it lacks traditional genre standards. Eastwood uses his character’s actions, music, camera placement, and editing to portray the lack of standards and morals in the wild West.
Despite the fact that this confrontation takes place in the town center - the classic setting for Western showdowns - Eastwood stages this “duel,” both in the character’s actions and in his technical choices, very differently from those of traditional Westerns, illustrating his divergence from the Western methodology (Blundell and Ormand, 1997). Firstly, the “duel” between English Bob and Little Bill is completely one-sided. Instead of the heroic and gentlemanly showdown between two armed men that is a staple of the Western genre, Eastwood shows the audience that this is not a fair confrontation (Prats, 1995). Rather, it’s an ambush. To illustrate, Eastwood continuously cuts to Little Bill’s many cronies aiming their guns at English Bob and W.W. Beauchamp to show the unfair advantage Bill has over Bob, making a clear statement that shows that the pair is outnumbered. Bill is not following the gentlemanly code for duels - he is playing unfair by leaving Bob and Beauchamp without a chance or the ability to defend themselves.
Additionally, Eastwood also emphasizes Bill’s savagery by having him strip Bob of his only weapon. When Bill demands that Bob gives him his pistol, Eastwood shows a closeup of Bob’s face. Richard Harris’s expression reveals a complicated set of emotions. His expression is fraught with panic and fear - he doesn’t want to give up his weapon because he knows what Bill is capable of. To further perpetuate this fear, when Harris turns around to face Bill again, his voice cracks and any sort of confidence he once had is gone. Eastwood presents Bob in this manner to allow the audience to sympathize with him. Although the audience knows he is a bad man, they can’t help to feel sorry for him and Beauchamp because they are outnumbered and weaponless. Eastwood portrays Bob as a coward and not a strong-willed, heroic cowboy. Eastwood sets up the beginning of this scene to emphasize that this “duel” is not going to be the heroic and prideful gunfights that are traditional in the Western genre.
When Bill does take Bob’s pistol away, he begins beating Bob senselessly. The dramatic and unprecedented nature of this assault is portrayed by Eastwood in a number of ways. Firstly, the music enters just as he hits Bob. The music doesn’t reflect the Western tunes of action and adventure that often plays overtop traditional cowboy gunfights. Rather, this music creates a tense atmosphere of unease and anxiety, that cues the audience into understanding that Bill’s actions are unjust. Eastwood also uses the camera angle to display the power and dominance Bill exerts over Bob. As Bill assaults and brutal beats up Bob, the camera is looking up at Bill, giving the allusion of the audience, and Bob, looking up at their attacker. With this shot, Eastwood not only puts the audience in Bob’s point of view, but he also makes them feel like they too are being victimized by Bill’s actions. His brutal actions dominate the frame, forcing the audience to witness his barbaric and unmerited actions.
But the most important element Eastwood includes in this scene is the reaction shots of the townspeople. The expressions and reactions from the onlookers mimic the audience’s sentiment - they are looking onto this scene aghast because they see Bill, the Sheriff who is meant to maintain law and order and act with pride, beating a defenseless man to unconsciousness. Bill’s men are looking on with complete disbelief, the women are comforting each other, and Delilah has to look away from the scene out of pure horror. This is far from the heroic and justified gunfights that are iconic in classic Westerns. In those cases, both parties are armed and it resembles a noble duel between two disputing men. In this case, there is no nobility, but rather just a brutal and unjust beating.
Through these technical elements and character actions, Eastwood is able to evoke a feeling of shock and horror in the audience. He leaves his audience frightened for Bob, frightened for William (who is ridding right into the grips of this monster), and, most importantly, frightened for the sanctity of Western values (Prats, 1995). Eastwood uses scenes and moments like this in Unforgiven as a tool to demystify Western society for the audience. Through Bill’s unethical and unwarranted actions, and even when Beauchamp “unglamorously” and, especially, “un-Hollywoodly” pees himself out of fear, Eastwood rejects the mythical haze and mythology surrounding the West (Blundell and Ormand, 1997). He shows the raw and unadulterated violence and behavior of the real Western nature, leaving the audience uncomfortable and disturbed because the mythical Western values they have such a strong nostalgia for are exposed as a fraud.
In Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, the mythical and fictional ideology of the Western frontier is exposed as sadistic and uncouth, disbarring the audience’s preconceived notions of life in the West and of Western movies. Eastwood reflects these themes throughout the entire film, but the showdown between English Bob and Little Bill is a prime example of how Eastwood uses the character’s actions, music, camera positions, and editing to portray the loss of Western values and methodologies.
Blundell, Mary Whitlock, and Kirk Ormand. “Western Values, or the Peoples Homer: ‘Unforgiven’ as a Reading of the ‘Iliad.’” Poetics Today, vol. 18, no. 4, 1997, pp. 533–569. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1773186.
McReynolds, Douglas J. “Alive and Well: Western Myth in Western Movies.” Literature Film Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 1, 1998, pp. 46-53. Web.
PRATS, ARMANDO J. “BACK FROM THE SUNSET: THE WESTERN, THE EASTWOOD HERO, AND UNFORGIVEN.” Journal of Film and Video, vol. 47, no. 1/3, 1995, pp. 106–123. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20688069.
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