The Unforgiven Clint Eastwood (1992; USA) Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman
viewed ITV film channel 26 July 2020
mirror mirror on the wall….
Clintwood’s ‘Unforgiven’ presents as a sort of reverse mirror image of the 1971 movie, ‘The Beguiled’ directed by Don Siegel and starring Eastwood and Geraldine Page. Both films revolve about certain aspects of masculine identity and female response to male provocation. It is the nature of these two films that they are both re-active, setting up women’s responses to men’s actions.
The films share a similar visual look. Both are classed as ‘gothic’ which references their dark atmosphere and use made of the settings and lighting. The movies use key lighting as an analogous representation of oil lanterns, casting into shadow and half shadow large swathes of their framing, suggesting ideas about hidden or repressed drives and feelings, those dark mythic psychic promptings. Both films of course have Eastwood at their centre: an intruder into strange and dangerous land.
But the scripts of the two films diverge at the point of narrative, and the nature of their content. ‘The Beguiled’ , set during the American Civil War picks up its narrative at the entry of the seriously wounded McBurney (Eastwood) into a Confederate girls boarding school. Even though he is pursued by the rebel army, the women agree not to betray but to tend him. As he recovers he embarks on a campaign of serial seduction of the women. His philandering is exposed and leads to an antagonistic response by the female psyche; he is assaulted by one of the angered women and suffers serious injury to his leg.
This wounding eventually leads to the women deciding to amputate one of his legs; to cut it off; to save him to save his life. The severing of McBurney’s limb of course strongly suggests ritual castration, a sacrificial dismemberment and disempowering of the male force which had broken into a sacred world. It is at this point that the film recasts the action into a mythological realm: the women no longer of a school, but of a Temple, priestesses of Isis. They are Sybil and guardians of hallowed ground and things which men are forbidden to see or know, and for which seeing or knowing, the penalty is death. And in due course McBurney is killed; not violently, but gently without shedding blood, through poisoning by mushrooms that are fed to him. The Gothic lighting, all flicker and dark rimmed, creates the closed down space of the forbidden zone into which Clintwood has entered. The setting is the portal into a shadow world through which he must eventually understand that it was his fate enter and necessarily die.
‘The Beguiled’ is Siegel’s slow mythic playing out of archetypal forces in response to an act of trespass into the forbidden. The subject of ‘The Beguiled’ hinges about not only male trespass into the forbidden, but also the potential consequences of men trying to use their sexual power to control women.
‘The Unforgiven’ although it uses much of the same play of light and shadow to conjure on film a quasi Gothic setting, by contrast does little more than set up a plot centred round the banality of revenge. The content also disempowers the female. A tale of revenge in which although it is the town’s women prostitutes who are wronged, it is the men, in particular of course Eastwood as William Munney, (pun on Money?) who in the best Western tradition of chivalry takes up arms on behalf of the women. Although the women offer the reward, they are essentially passive. Unlike the women in ‘The Beguiled’ the are not agents, agency is a male prerogative, they are bit players, distanced and with no part in determining the outcome of events which is: man’s business.
In this respect ‘The Unforgiven’ holds up a reverse mirror image of ‘The Beguiled’ in which the latter places the women as central to the design of the action, as opposed to ‘The Unforgiven’ in which women are all but excluded.
Eastwood, as Director (and star actor) of ‘The Unforgiven’ wants, like Siegel, to say something about men and their sexuality. But he doesn’t have much of interest to say
His scenario, having excluded woman from play out, tries to link into the plot dynamic a certain take on the problematic nature of masculinity. The narrative takes as its exciter the brutal disfigurement of a prostitute for laughing at the smallness of a cowboy customer’s penis. Given that a whore’s business is to manage male ego and by extension their cocks, given that whores see a lot of cock, big small, mis-shapen, damaged, those that don’t work etc, and given that in small isolated Western towns some men could be very dangerous, whores (like whores the world over) would take the money and get on with the job without expressing anything other than appropriate flattery. But this is the movies, so allow this scripted ‘absurdity’ as a legitimate filmic given.
Eastwood wants his film to say something about maleness, so cocks it is and cock it is that triggers the plot. The main plot driver is of course just a high key retread of Dirty Harry. Clint after a few ups and downs, all man all male intention, gets his man. But there is a significant theme, a continual digressive return, built into the scripting of the plot which takes the form of a dialogue about the nature of a man’s relation with his cock. Built into the dialogue throughout the film there is talk of men’s: need for sexual release, hand jobs, masturbation and offers of sex for free from a grateful prostitute. The base assumption being that to be a man, a man has to be sexually functioning, an assumption triumphantly disproved by Eastwood, who remains chaste and keeps his hands to himself.
Eastwood as director seems to be saying that men are demonised by their sexual needs and fragility. But overall the presentation of this thesis comes across as only sentimental, supported in the script by the idea that the only one good woman can save a demonised man. It’s an apple pie sort of conclusion straight out of the top drawer of the Good Housekeeping Guide to how to reform men.
The impoverished nature of the script material, including rather flaccid dialogue, is overwritten by the Gothic atmospherics, in similar vein to ‘The Beguiled’ and the malicious crazed evil energy Gene Hackman brings to the film. These two affects mask what is otherwise a leaden piece of filmmaking, that owes everything to the predictable mechanics of Dirty Harry and nothing to myth.