Unforgiven is the title of a very great Western. Directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, it is easily one of the 10 best Westerns of all time and one of the top 100 movies of all time. It has the feel of one of the great Greek tragedies, both in the depth of its themes and in the complex unfolding of character and story. Now one may rightly wonder what is a Western doing in a blog focused on the spiritual journey, especially the monastic path. Actually the Western, as a work of art whether it be in the form of poetry, song, painting, literature or movie, is like any genuine art an opening into the deeper realities of life. There is a lot more “religion,” in Unforgiven than in most movies which try real hard to tackle religious subjects. Furthermore, understanding the Western is a key to understanding the United States. This is our mythic language, what Homer and Hesiod were for the Greeks, and in coming to grip with our myths we gain in understanding both our deep problems and our real strengths. It is also important to remember that the myths can come in simple, childlike stories which one leaves behind in childhood and which are actually superficial—like the “Grade B” western movies of years ago, or the cheap “dime novels” which still grace the racks of pop booksellers but now cost a lot more than a dime. But this was true even centuries ago, and someone like Homer or Sophocles or Shakespeare turned these “pop” stories into material to reveal much deeper human realities. Unforgiven is like that—Eastwood has taken this genre with its “bad guys vs. good guys” view of the world and turned it into a deep reflection on the ambiguity of our seeking of justice.
So what is the theme of Unforgiven? Justice, the nature of justice, our seeking, our thirst for justice, the ambiguity of justice, a hint that there is “something here greater than justice,” what constitutes “badness” and “goodness,” and who are the “bad guys” and who are the “good guys” and can we continue to look at the world that way and not cause great harm? Etc, etc.
The story begins with an initiating incident, a “tipping of the scale,” a tear in the fabric of a seemingly just world, etc. This is also the way things begin in the great Greek tragedies which are mostly on the theme of justice and the human social order vs. an individual’s response to that breaking. In this case in the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming there is a brothel, and one rainy night a drunk cowboy badly scars one of the girls in the brothel in a fit of rage and anger over something she said about him. He cuts her face in several places. This is bad enough in itself, but of course she is in danger of not being able to make a livelihood as a whore because now she is not as attractive. The women of the brothel band together into a unity and demand justice. This is perfectly understandable and perfectly ok. The seeking of justice, the need for justice, is built into us–it is part of God’s life in us. Even a little child will reveal that in his/her own situations: “That ain’t fair.”
Now enters the sheriff, Little Bill. He is a former gunslinger himself, now reformed, and now a representative of “law and order,” a symbol of the state, society, civilization, etc. He is determined that his town be a civilized, orderly place and things need to be “set right” when some disturbance occurs. Here develops the first crisis in the story. It is not apparent what the ladies of the brothel would consider justice, what they expect from Little Bill, but it is very obvious that what he gives them is woefully inadequate, and this really begins a remarkable tragedy. Little Bill’s notion of justice seems to be circumscribed by economics, dollars and cents, and he makes the cowboy bring a couple of horses in payment for what he has done. However, and this is very revealing, the horses will go to the owner of the brothel, not to the wronged girl. Little Bill sees the monetary value of the loss for the owner in that this girl will no longer “produce” what she used to. There is nothing personal or deeply human about his seeking of justice, and certainly nothing transcendent in that notion of justice–it is purely economic. The ladies of the brothel spit on this, and then secretly they put their money together and seek to hire a gunfighter to kill the cowboy. Now we see their seeking of justice has evolved into anger of enormous proportions. They themselves see themselves as still seeking only justice, but this has evolved into something quite different even though the language may be similar. It might be called “revenge,” but for some people this is simply another form of justice. Justice as revenge, or revenge as a form of justice is actually a very popular notion, but this story illustrates its radical destructiveness to all concerned. Then, there is the first important observation to make–there is such a remarkable interconnectedness between these kind of bad moments: one act of injustice leads to another bad thing and then there is a third and now we are helplessly caught up in a kind of “stimulus/response” mode that simply escalates into a greater evil than the original wrong. This is the stuff of Greek tragedy.
Now enters the main character of the story: William Munny, also a former gunslinger like Little Bill but a lot worse. Years ago Munny was a murderous outlaw, known as a cold-blooded killer even of women and children, a man who showed no regard or mercy to anyone. But when we see him now he is a pig farmer in Kansas, having been one for something like 10 years. Apparently somewhere he met a woman who loved him deeply, who saw something good in him (and this is so understated that we can easily miss the pathos of that), and this transformed him in a remarkable way. Sadly she died from a disease, but he had several children with her, and he remained extraordinarily loyal to her—later on in the story when one of the whores offers him a “freebie” he declines because he “is a married man”—she is astonished that any man would be so loyal. The movie truly helps us get at least a glimpse of the goodness that this woman saw in this murderous outlaw. Anyway, he is not doing so well as a pig farmer but trying hard. A young would-be gunslinger shows up at Munny’s farm and invites him to take up the invite from the ladies of Big Whiskey—they are offering a $1000 reward for the killing of that cowboy. Munny’s pigs are dying from a disease, and he is desperate to survive and if he goes with the young gunslinger it is only in “pursuit of justice” for this wronged woman. He persuades one of his old cohorts to join him and the party of 3 set out for Big Whiskey.
Meanwhile in Big Whiskey Little Bill has become aware that these women have put out this “invite” all over the Western States and that a lot of gunslingers will be tempted to come and get that reward by killing the cowboy. He is determined to not let that happen. It is not clear what his motivations are, but he is simply one of those “law and order” people who doesn’t tolerate any disruption in his sense of “law and order.” In this case, Little Bill engages in radical gun control—no guns would be tolerated in town. Any gunslinger that comes into town has to turn his guns in immediately. Seems like a very reasonable and even wise posture, but Little Bill shows another side, a darker side underlying his seeming attempt to be an agent of civilization and society. When English Bob, the first gunslinger, shows up, Little Bill brutally beats him senseless in order to send a message to any others that might be coming to avenge the woman. At this point another observation is needed—the question is who are the “bad guys” and who are the “good guys” and what constitutes “goodness” and “badness” if we simply go by what is lawful or unlawful. Some uneasy questions.
We will skip a number of important scenes and subthemes in the story and move toward the conclusion. Munny’s party ends up killing the cowboy and collecting the reward, but his cohort, Ned, ends up being caught by Little Bill’s men, tortured and then killed. When Munny finds out about this, he reverts to his old murderous persona. All through the story he says several times, “I ain’t like that no more.” But now even his dead wife’s love and hold on him breaks and he reverts. He returns to the town of Big Whiskey on another rainy night, just like when the story started. He finds Little Bill and his posse in the tavern below the brothel, planning their chase for Munny. He guns them all down in a murderous gunfight. At a certain point when Munny has Little Bill at the end of a gun barrel and is about to kill him, Little Bill says, “I don’t deserve this.” Possible meaning: “This ain’t justice.” But Munny with great clarity says, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with this.” Indeed. Munny has the appearance of a man pursuing justice, but actually it is only revenge, and the unstated question remains: is revenge really justice? Just think, Munny starts out on a mission to seemingly seek justice for the maiming of a woman. Granted he is doing it for money, and granted that what is called for seems very much out of proportion for the initial act of injustice. But at the very end the story depicts only a bloody murderous act of revenge. Is this an unmasking of what we call “justice” and society has a bloodlust for revenge, or has a legitimate need for justice been perverted into revenge?
Among other things, Unforgiven illustrates what a dangerous and problematic mix it is when justice in the social order mixes with the dark things of the heart. For a society, a state, a social order, a civilization, to have a notion of justice is necessary and good. At this level, justice functions like an umpire in a game, etc. To minimize disturbances in the social order so that people can pursue human happiness and the human good as they conceive it, some notion of justice has to be part of the social fabric so that personal distortions of any kind do not escalate into more destructive modes and can lead to a total deterioration of social well-being. But this is exactly what happens in Unforgiven. And this leaves us wondering about the nature of what we call “justice”… There are very dark things in the heart that sometimes become manifest as we seemingly go in pursuit of justice. Furthermore, Unforgiven illustrates the interconnectedness of events—one act of injustice, leads to another, leads to another, and before we know it we are far from the authentic reality of justice. Is there a way of breaking this chain? Yes, but the answer lies elsewhere than in the realm of justice or law or order.
And here we find a hint of this in Unforgiven in the person of a character that never shows up visibly on the screen but she is mentioned several key times in the story, including the very end. She is a mysterious, calming presence even in her absence throughout the story. She is the dead wife of William Munny. But she is very much alive as a redemptive, fragile presence in the midst of this mad frantic seeking of justice. Even in her death, she is very much alive to Munny. He talks to her, refers to her regularly. She was able to see something in Munny that no one else saw, and so was able to love him, and this love transformed him in a remarkable way. Even when he falls and reverts again to his murderous ways, he is able to come out of that fog and at the very end of the movie it simply says that he moved to San Francisco with his children and did well as a merchant—in other words he is able to pick himself up and move on because of her love for him. She is a hidden Christ-figure in this story because she sees him in a way that the eyes of justice cannot see him—with that you see only a murderous cold-blooded killer. Or perhaps she is the symbolic presence of Sophia, that feminine presence of God’s Wisdom of whom Merton wrote so eloquently. Actually she is both. She sees him the way God sees him, and this gaze and this knowledge that God has of us transcends justice.
We are at the end of this reflection. Now you may be wondering what happened to Bin Laden. Didn’t the title above mention him? What are you going to say about him? In one sense, nothing. In another sense I have been talking about him all along. But let us add just one postscript. Michael Moore is right: Bin Laden is dead but he has also won. In the first place we, the U.S., helped create him in the 1980s as a killer of Russians. Then he turned on us and committed monstrous acts of violence against us. He lured us into 2 needless wars, costing trillions of dollars, distorting our economy and more importantly costing the lives of thousands of young Americans and hundreds of thousands in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have been at war for something like 10 years—it took us only 5 years to defeat BOTH Germany and Japan. Bin Laden is dead, but the people who actually got us into these wars are flourishing in our country. If human justice were the only reality, we might despair. But there is “something greater here,” something much greater in our hearts than human justice.