“Now, a president … well, I mean … why not shoot a president.”
English Bob / Richard Harris
Unforgiven (1992) / 131 minutes run time
There are so many excellent exchanges in the film Unforgiven, but one I come back to often is at the climax, when reformed outlaw William Munny (Clint Eastwood), reluctantly pulled back into the fray, addresses Little Bill (Gene Hackman) as he lies dying, clutching his bleeding gut on the floor of the saloon:
The beauty and simplicity of Munny’s “Yeah” is, itself, representative of the restraint in this film: it’s here to deconstruct what a Western can be. While the Westerns of the past are often showy and rely on grand eloquent speeches (and Unforgiven has these, too, of course), they’re just as happy to make no sense of the actions at all. It’s irrelevant who Munny and Little Bill are (outlaw and sheriff respectfully, but mostly they inhabit the meaty gray area of anti-heroes) — it’s irrelevant the actions, the outcomes, the deeds that set the whole sequence of events in motion that arrived Munny to Big Whiskey, Wyoming, in the first place.
This, inherently, is a theme I gravitate toward when I think about or discuss the West and Westerns as a genre: we’re so far removed from what actually happened back then, from who was actually there — erased completely from our collective pop culture — that we must treat the whole enterprise as folly. What Eastwood and screenwriter David Webb Peoples get right is the ludicrousness of the genre; they allow the story to meander. Munny’s a simple farmer, lured back to his old ways at the prospect of an easy payday. He recruits his old partner, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman). We meet and follow the lives of residents of Big Whiskey, including the prostitutes who’ve put out the bounty that Munny’s after. We then cut to Richard Harris’ English Bob, a gentleman gunslinger feared for his reputation with a pistol.
English Bob’s story is hilarious, painful to watch, and necessary. He represents civility, the gentleman cowboy who, while heinous in his own right, demands to be put above the rest. He’s clean when they’re scruffy; he’s mannered when they’re roguish. And yet Bob is beaten bloody, jailed, sent packing with his tail between his legs — our notion of the West, the cowboys in it like this, is just plain wrong.
It’s why this film remains a quintessential piece in the Western film canon: it doesn’t just deconstruct the Western but explodes the genre completely. We get gunfights that aren’t glorious — they’re cramped and frightening. Best friends are slain. Innocent men are scarred for good. Life in the town, after Munny’s done killing all of Little Bill’s accomplices, will forever just … go on. Munny receives no money, hasn’t necessarily learned anything, and, we discover during the closing scrawl of text, probably moved to San Francisco with his kids. Nothing, it seems in this film, in this genre, matters at all in the grand scheme.
The Western became popular — especially back east, in cities, a world away from its goings-on — for many reasons: a desire for wide open space, freedom from the government, the allure of being dependent on no one and nothing but your wits. It was pandering, plain and simple, that drummed up the tall tales and the myths that crawled into our collective consciousness. It might be dangerous, but dammit, men could be men and you could drink all the whiskey you wanted and no one, not ever, would bother you. This barnstorming, though, often racially and xenophobically motivated, had been crammed down Americans’ throats since our arrival. Americans weren’t like the rest of the world. We were special. The land was special. We arrived on its shores as orphans but found this to be paradise. All of it, coast to coast, sea to shining sea, was deservedly ours, a reward for all that our ancestors had been through.
It’s an odd sentiment, this notion of Manifest Destiny, but I liken it to this: You grow up poor, fighting for your survival, and become successful later in life, wildly rich. And yet you see others in the same position you once were, but do nothing because no one did anything for you. You clawed your way to the top, and so they could, too. This land had been peopled and populated and loved and cherished for eons. It was beautiful and hard long before it became America. And yet, Europeans landed upon its thunderous shores — and it was a gift! But it was their gift. Their prayers had been answered. And no one, especially not the countless peoples inhabiting it, would take it from them.
In fifth grade, our class went to an overnight camp on a farm near where my teacher lived. (In another life, he’d grown up on a farm, the son of farmers, but chose to teach instead.) I was scared to be away from home — homesickness that would plague me for a great deal of my life, turns out — but didn’t show it to the others, couldn’t. I remember very little now about that trip other than the next day, when we were taken to a craft studio on the edge of the farm. The farm was designed to teach children about its goings-on, the day-to-day operations. The one-room studio was at the edge of a great sea of green grass that spread out in all directions. Next to the small slat-board building was a monstrous weeping willow that overhung so low you had to part its branches as you made your way inside.
The lesson that day was simple: We were taught about owls and owl pellets. We were each given an owl pellet and necessary tools to dissect it. We were told to pick the pellets apart to find the skeletons invariably inside. I was squeamish at first, but pulling it apart, I was elated: There was a mouse skull! Its vertebrae! I piled the bones together in astonishment while our teacher handed out thick, colorful construction paper. Our job was to glue the bones on the paper in a pattern of our choosing, so we could remember this always. Mine ended up in a chevron pattern, and I drew cartoon mice around the edges, in the free space, all looking horrified while the bones snaked around them.
The assignment was, in hindsight, a bit silly. I don’t know what it taught me. I already knew about owls from class, how to draw mice, and I’d seen plenty of animal skeletons in the yard before. I suppose it was, if anything, a lesson in futility — the skeleton could never be a mouse again, and we could never, not really, understand the brutality of nature, the act that had been performed long before our arrival to the farm.
Not long after, I saw Back to the Future: Part III for the first time. I’d seen the other films in passing, on television, but they mostly went right over my head — I was too young to understand them, the adult jokes, the innuendo, that Doc Brown was working with terrorists for a time. But Back to the Future: Part III was a turning point. I’d slowly started to become fascinated with the West, featured there, the wide-open spaces, longed for the freedom it emanated: Come here, it said, wander, get lost, be at one with the world. Be someone others can look up to.
But this film especially — a time-traveling action comedy — glosses over the reality of this place, panders to dangerous ethnic stereotypes and clichés, and tells us nothing of the actual place: all we get is a Hollywood set, the single street and the sidewalks and the piles of horseshit and the saloon and the livery and that’s it. We don’t see the outskirts of town; we don’t see the farmers; we don’t see the everyday lives, the toil.
We dream of cowboys and their horses traveling the West together, man and steed a single, dazzling unit. But what we often forget — or, perhaps, don’t know — is the bands of wild horses that once lived across the continent, only there in small numbers now, in small pockets of wild places. In the West, Mustangers were employed to find and secure wild horses, to sell them to ranchers, to break them and breed them. Creasing was a way that some Mustangers caught their prey. Chasing their prize out, far, tiring them as best they could, they’d aim their rifles at a spot in the back of the stud’s neck and shoot: If hit, it would stun or incapacitate the horse long enough for it to be roped and reined. If the shot missed — which it did, often — the horse would be killed, tumble over dead right there.
Imagine then, all we gloss over, all we don’t think about. Imagine then, all those dead horses, their bodies rotting along the great grasslands, eyes bugged out, all gone to waste.
Gorham, Michael. The Real Book of Cowboys. Dobson, 1959.
Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land. Harvard University Press, 1971.