Love, fear, and insincerity in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven
THE OPENING SCROLL of Clint Eastwood’s 1992 film Unforgiven tells of Claudia Feathers, “a comely woman, not without prospects,” who, to her mother’s dismay, married William Munny, a “known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.” It goes on to tell of Claudia’s death due to smallpox in 1878, and the scroll itself appears against the silhouette of Munny digging her grave. We soon learn that the former outlaw is burying not only his wife but the only real love he had ever known, and this loss resounds throughout the entire film, even to its brutal, inevitable climax.
Over the course of the film we learn that Munny’s former life had indeed been violent. He lived in a drunken stupor. He killed women and children without hesitation and murdered countless men for no reason. Even most of the outlaws he ran with were afraid of him and hated him. His name was infamous, associated with theft and savagery throughout the West. Yet when we finally see Munny again, three years after Claudia’s burial, he is separating sick hogs in a pigsty on his desolate Kansas farm, wallowing in filth, the very image of lowliness. Claudia’s grave stands nearby; it is out of reverence for her and the memory of her love that he has reached such a place. In an effort to make an honest living for himself and his two young children he has resisted all alcohol and violence for better than ten years. It is clear where such renunciations have taken him: He is a nobody, living nowhere. And poor though he is, he seems of one mind, sincere.
But he is not. Even as he crawls among the pigs, a voice comes to him: “You don’t look like no rootin’-tootin’ son-of-a-bitchin’ cold-blooded assassin.” It is the voice of the Schofield Kid, a young gunman who has heard the stories of Munny’s viciousness and has come to ask for his assistance in a killing, but it may as well have been the voice of Munny’s own self-contempt. After a day’s hesitation, Munny agrees, and the scene in which he mounts his horse to leave is a telling one: Having not been ridden for years, the horse is saddle-shy and repeatedly rears away from Munny, tossing him to the ground. As his children look on silently he says to them, “This horse is getting even with me for the sins of my youth… I used to be weak, given to mistreatment of animals,” but one gets the sense that he is ashamed, even angry that Claudia has taken from him the confidence of the outlaw and the drama of the moment. Divided against himself, he rides away after the Kid. On the way, he visits his friend and old partner, Ned Logan, and asks him to join him and the Kid. Ned tells him, “You know, you wouldn’t be doing this if Claudia was still alive.” At this comment Munny walks out, a further sign of his deep ambivalence. But like Munny himself, Ned reconsiders the offer and they follow the Kid together.
Thomas Merton, in his book No Man Is an Island, writes at length about sincerity. Sincerity, to Merton, is fidelity to the truth; that is, wholeness and single-mindedness centered on who we actually are and who God actually is. It is about accepting our poverty before God, and most importantly, accepting ourselves as being loved by God. He writes: “Most of the moral and mental and even religious complexities of our time go back to our desperate fear that we are not and can never be really loved by anyone…. The real reason why so few men believe in God is that they have ceased to believe that even a God can love them” (pp. 201-2).
In Unforgiven there is no God to not believe in; there is no church, no parson, no mention of God at all. But we must imagine that Claudia once saw Munny with clarity and deep compassion, that despite his violent past and bad habits she loved him generously, that in the light of her love he was able to forget himself, and that his fear of retribution had been cast out. Her miraculous love and her status as an unseen spirit, who, as Munny says midway through the film, is “looking over my young ones back in Kansas” and who haunts Munny’s conscience, indicate that Claudia fills the role of God.
But she is a God who is dead, and we see Munny descend from a world of love in which he is free to be nothing into a world without love in which he is damned to make himself into something. Merton states, “The whole question of sincerity [is one] of love and fear” (p. 204), and that without the perfect love of God we cannot bear ourselves, that efforts to live apart from that love end in extreme duplicity and fear of being known, for “even the biggest of fools must be dimly aware that he is not worthy of adoration” (p. 201). We then do what we must: we “proceed on the assumption that since we are not lovable as we are, we must be lovable under false pretenses, as if we were something better than we are” (pp. 201-2). Munny, who is not a fool, does exactly this. Traveling under a pseudonym, expecting punishment at every turn of the road, he draws closer to the moment when he kills again. As he does he repeats to himself and his partners a list of things he no longer does: he no longer drinks, visits prostitutes, fights. As the love that once covered his crimes fades, Munny replaces it with an ineffectual set of rules and statements about himself, making himself good by constructing mental props against the malice and anger that lie within him. But by his actions he betrays his fear that Claudia’s love was a mistake, and it is easy to smile at his strained good-boy insistences that “I’ve been cured of drinking and wickedness. My wife, she cured me of that. I ain’t like that anymore,” because we know that he is exactly like that. Munny is the very antithesis of Merton’s sincerity.
He and the Kid take care of the killings. As a result, Ned, who remained innocent of bloodshed and who represented the last remnant of affection in Munny’s world, is brutally tortured and killed by the local sheriff who did not want the three men in his county. Before dying, Ned is forced to reveal Munny’s identity. When a prostitute delivers the bounty and the news of Ned’s death to the two assassins, she says to Munny with fear in her voice, “Ned said you’re William Munny out of Missouri… killer of women and children… more cold-blooded than William Bonney.” It is precisely during this statement that Munny takes his first drink of whiskey in 11 years and asks the Kid for his pistol. Guilty of Ned’s death, fully alone with his true name revealed to a loveless world, Munny reaches for the final fig leaf — rage — to cover the weakness and fear he cannot bear alone, and becomes the one thing he knows how to be: a killer. Indeed, as Munny murders six men in a fit of furious vengeance, he is more real than ever; one of the great ironies of the film is that by the end Munny, driven mad by his own fear, seems most himself. “I’ve always been lucky when it comes to killing folks,” he explains to a stunned bystander after his rampage. And in a world abandoned by love, that is as close to sincerity as William Munny can get.
Work cited: Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island (San Diego: Harcourt-Brace, 1978)