The characters’ fates are determined more by chance than by anything else, so pursuing justice in Unforgiven is about as futile as fighting an organized battle in Good Bad Ugly.
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Is Unforgiven (1992) a sequel of sorts to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)? It’s easy to imagine Blondie (Clint Eastwood) dissipating his ill-won fortune on whiskey and women, shady investments and failed business ventures, until he turns into Will Munny (Eastwood again), a widower and “broken-down pig farmer” desperate to flee his violent past right up to the moment that he embraces it. Like Will himself, the society around him is groping its way toward a new moral order to replace the violent chaos perpetuated by the Civil War. It proves a daunting task, however, and the characters have little to show for their efforts, though Unforgiven hints at a more peaceful future.
In Good Bad Ugly, that future is hard to imagine. The movie presents a world that is morally adrift and three protagonists, each appearing alone and out of nowhere, who are adrift in nearly every way. Only Tuco (Eli Wallach) has anything like a genuine connection to another human being (his brother, Father Pablo Ramírez [Luigi Pistilli]) or a past that we know anything about. Blondie and Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) are almost complete ciphers, not only to the audience but to each other and to Tuco. We learn virtually nothing about them, not even their real names.
They inhabit a frontier world defined not just by a civil war but also by a Hobbesian war of all against all in which individualism and self-interest reign supreme. The film’s title is something of a joke, because from a moral standpoint, there’s little to differentiate the “good” from the “bad” from the “ugly”: gun partners are almost as interchangeable as the gun parts that Tuco fiddles with before holding up the store’s owner. Among the three would be-thieves, there is no honor, no love lost, and no scruples. They deceive and use one another however they can – and not for a minute more than necessary – in the pursuit of wealth. Blondie saves Tuco from bounty hunters so he can collect the bounty himself. He works with Tuco as long as it suits him, abandoning him in the desert with barely an explanation (at which point he’s identified on screen as “the good”). Later, they apparently reconcile, but once they’re near the cemetery, Tuco abandons Blondie at the first opportunity to try to get all the money for himself, though without realizing that Blondie has taken measures to make sure that Tuco won’t know, until Blondie is ready to tell him, exactly where the gold is buried. Blondie is perhaps a little less violent and greedy than the others – in the end, he takes just half the treasure, though only after making sure that Tuco can’t easily follow him – but he’s still out for himself. And though Blondie, in one of the film’s best and most touching scenes, comforts a dying soldier – as opposed to Tuco, who looted the dying Bill Carson (Antonio Casale) – it’s a relatively feeble act of kindness, since the soldier had only a few minutes to live anyway. Angel Eyes, for his part, tortures and casts off Tuco, then takes on Blondie as a partner only because Blondie has a crucial piece of information. Though identified on screen as “the bad,” Angel Eyes still has a modicum of integrity: “When I’m paid, I always follow my job through.” The muddling of moral categories in Good Bad Ugly recalls a scene from Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve (1941) in which Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) coaches Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) on the difference between “good” and “bad” girls: “The best ones aren’t as good as you probably think they are, and the bad ones aren’t as bad. Not nearly as bad.” In Good Bad Ugly, the good gunslinger isn’t all that good, the bad one not wholly bad and the ugly one . . . just plain ugly.
For all three, though, might makes right, so violence in the service of self-interest is always justified. The violence is dealt out casually and seemingly without a second thought, the characters apparently so unbothered by it, so inured to it, that they accept it as a normal feature of their world. The most basic rituals of domesticity, for example – eating, drinking, sleeping, bathing – are associated with or interrupted by violence (as in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West , where the McBains are massacred while preparing a wedding feast). Both of the meals that Angel Eyes shares with others are preludes to violence that he inflicts or orders: the slaughter of a farmer and his family, and the torture of Tuco. Between those episodes, Angel Eyes wakes a man who hired him, only to shoot him through a pillow a few minutes later. Tuco, for his part, bursts out of a window after a gunfight with a turkey leg in hand and later shoots a one-armed foe while in a bathtub, foreshadowing the scene in Once Upon a Time in which Harmonica (Charles Bronson) helps Frank (Fonda) pick off the latter’s would-be assassins from the room where Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) is bathing – again, violence intruding on domesticity.
As much as Good Bad Ugly condones or celebrates individual acts of violence, however, it mocks the idea of violence restrained by rules. Thus, the battle for the bridge is portrayed as a lot of pointless shooting and needless loss of life, with nothing important at stake for either side (a view of the Civil War that it’s hard to imagine any American director taking). In Leone’s film, war is not immoral so much as stupid, the participants suckers, or, as Tuco calls them, idiots, a view that Blondie shares: “I’ve never seen so many men wasted so badly,” he says as he watches the fighting. Why wasted? Because they could have been out for themselves instead of taking part in a conflict that, according to the film, is meaningless. Both war and violence by individuals entail risk, but in the latter case, the potential reward is far greater, so why bother enlisting?
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Unforgiven, like Good Bad Ugly, centers on a trio in pursuit of wealth, but they are more firmly rooted in their society. All have a connection to at least one other person: Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) is married, Will was married and has children, and even the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), despite appearing alone and out of nowhere, like the main characters of Good Bad Ugly, has an uncle who’s a friend or acquaintance of Will. Unlike Leone’s protagonists, these three feel burdened by the past. Will has nightmares about his victims and constantly reminds himself and anyone within earshot, apparently in a determined effort to dispel his own doubts, that he’s no longer the cold-blooded killer that he was as a youth (that is, no longer Blondie). Ned likewise makes it clear that he’s now a farmer, not a gunslinger. The Kid, on the other hand, has a different problem: he’s so desperate to conceal his man-killing virginity, and to lose it as soon as possible, that he resorts to blatant, unconvincing lies about his death-dealing exploits. The Kid longs, in effect, to become Blondie and live in the world of Good Bad Ugly (in an appropriate echo of that film, we never learn the Kid’s name, only his nickname), though with no understanding of what such a life really entailed. But in spite of such complications and some early friction, the three end up bonding in a way that would be inconceivable in the world of Leone’s film. Will refuses, for example, to join forces with the Kid unless Ned can as well. After Will’s bruising encounter with Sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) at Greely’s, Ned – not for the first time – nurses Will back to health. When Ned is killed, Will insists on avenging him, though not before telling the Kid, “You’re the only friend I got.”
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Though less prevalent than in Good Bad Ugly, violence is nonetheless central to Unforgiven, starting almost right away and steadily escalating over the course of the film – from cutting to fistfights to whipping to people killed one at a time and finally en masse. Unforgiven also offers a nod, in the form of writer W. W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), to the casual attitude toward violence espoused by Good Bad Ugly. For Beauchamp, violence is a matter of narrative, entertainment, spectacle, celebrity, and profit. He’s had to be satisfied with others’ accounts of saloon shootouts, so seeing one for himself – involving no less a celebrity than the legendary killer Will Munny – is clearly the greatest moment of his life. But he is only a witness and scribe, never a perpetrator, and generally speaking, the violence in Unforgiven is anything but casual or normal. It is, rather, corrosive, contagious and sordid, often inflicted by ambush or on those least able to defend themselves: a whore who “didn’t know no better” is scarred for life; a cowboy is shot and dies slowly and in agony; another cowboy is killed in an outhouse begging for his life.
The world of Unforgiven also continues to be plagued by moral chaos, with the line between “good” and “bad” only slightly clearer than it is in the earlier film. Will and Little Bill, for example – protagonist and antagonist – are more like each other than either would probably care to admit. For one thing, they have the same name, even if they use different forms of it, and Will echoes a line of Little Bill’s dialogue – “Letters and such?” – in asking Beauchamp about his profession.
The most important similarity between them, though, is that each attempts to deal out justice using violence that each considers legitimate. And in Unforgiven, justice is an ambiguous and highly problematic concept. The crime committed by Quick Mike (David Mucci) and Dave Bunting (Rob Campbell) is atrocious and horrifying, but what punishment do they deserve? We may agree with Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher) that Little Bill lets them off much too lightly – a fine, to be paid in the form of ponies. Yet his sentence at least acknowledges that the cowboys are not equally guilty – that one did the cutting, while the other was an accomplice – and assesses penalties accordingly. The whores, in offering one bounty for both men, do no such thing. We may be on the whores’ side emotionally while still wondering whether someone who killed no one deserves to die and, if so, whether his accomplice deserves the same fate. And if the cowboys deserve death, what of Will and the Kid? Both are unquestionably killers – Will much more so – yet both live. English Bob (Richard Harris) has apparently killed people yet exits the movie alive, if bloodied and furious. Ned, who, along with Will, was a hell-raiser in the old days and apparently took his share of lives – he’s irritated by the Kid’s impertinent question, “How many men you kill?” – ends up dead himself. Skinny (Anthony James) is a lowlife but, as far as we can tell, no killer, yet he’s the first to be cut down by Will in the final confrontation. Little Bill perhaps deserves to die for torturing and killing Ned, but do his deputies deserve the same fate? And who’s to blame for it all? Will, Ned, and the Kid, whose pursuit of the bounty led to the killings? The whores, perhaps? Their offer, after all, brought Will, Ned, and the Kid to Wyoming. Or does the ultimate responsibility rest with the cowboy who disfigured Delilah Fitzgerald (Anna Thomson)? Without that act of violence, there would have been no bounty.
The film does offer a kind of answer to all those questions, but not a very satisfying one. “I guess they had it coming,” the Kid, in his last scene with Will, says of the cowboys. Will’s response: “We all have it coming.” Soon after that, Little Bill, lying on the floor at Greely’s after being shot, protests that “I don’t deserve this – to die like this.” Will’s response: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” Those lines – “We all have it coming” and “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it” – are the film’s verdict on the issue of justice. Everyone dies; some who die violently merit it and some don’t. Maybe the cowboys, the deputies, and Skinny deserved to live; maybe Will and the Kid deserved to die – but deserve’s got nothing to do with it. The characters’ fates are determined more by chance than by anything else, so pursuing justice in Unforgiven is about as futile as fighting an organized battle in Good Bad Ugly.
Yet the film at least holds out the possibility of a less violent (if not more just) future. In its halting, flawed attempts to curb violence and moral chaos, the society in Unforgiven is attempting a moral reconstruction, analogous in a way to the broader postwar reconstruction that ended in 1877. The characters are creating a rough-and-ready set of rules, or at least practices, to differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate violence. That’s what Little Bill tries to do in Big Whiskey with his ban on firearms – at once an attempt to maintain a monopoly on violence yet also, seemingly, a genuine effort to cut down on it. Little Bill himself is both a charming psychopath and a modernizer, trying to replace the Old West of bounty hunters and vendettas with a New West of law and order, as long as he makes the laws and keeps the order. He does the latter gleefully, thrashing English Bob to within an inch of his life to punish an infraction and discourage other bounty hunters.
A better way to contain violence, however, may be for ordinary people to develop a revulsion toward it. Both Will and Ned are at first reluctant to pursue the bounty, and Ned is at last profoundly disturbed about what he’s taken part in and refuses to continue. After the Kid kills one of the cowboys, his anachronistic ambition to be an Old West gunfighter dissolves, replaced by a horrified realization of what the “old days” were like. He renounces violence, gives up his gun (and thus his identity), and even declines, at first, his share of the reward. “I ain’t like you,” he tells Will. And Will, too, is keenly aware of the tragic consequences of killing: “You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.” Those hopeful signs are immediately followed and called into question, however, by the film’s bloodiest scene. An understanding of the costs of violence does not necessarily, by itself, prevent violence. In any case, conscience-stricken characters such as Ned and the Kid are almost as scarce in Unforgiven as they are in Good Bad Ugly.
Its playfulness and brightly lit spaces notwithstanding, Good Bad Ugly offers up a nightmare – a free-for-all, unleashed by the chaos of war, where the rule of law barely exists, security is almost unknown, and violent death a constant, lurking threat. Unforgiven presents possibilities for how order might be restored, but those possibilities are tentative and qualified. We are never as far from descending into anarchy as we like to think, and any society that does so, for whatever reason, may find recovery excruciatingly hard.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the DVDs of the films.