Clint Eastwood and the Machinery of Violence

By Tibbetts, John C | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 1993 | Go to article overview
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Clint Eastwood and the Machinery of Violence

Tibbetts, John C, Literature/Film Quarterly

Thunder prowls outside the grimy barroom of Big Whiskey, Wyoming. Through the swinging doors enters a haggard stranger in tattered clothes. He levels a shotgun at the town sheriff.

"You be William Munny out of Missouri," says Sheriff "Little Bill" Daggett, addressing the gunman.

"That's right," the lanky intruder answers. "I've killed women and children. Killed about just everything that walks or crawls at one time or another. And I'm here to kill you. Little Bill."

After a few moments, Munny sights along the barrel, his opponent standing motionless at pointblank range. He pauses a long moment-then fires. Turning about, almost as an afterthought, he guns down at close range an innocent bystander before disappearing out the door.

The conclusion to Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, his tenth western, comes as a shock. When Eastwood, as bounty hunter Will Munny, blows away Gene Hackman, as Sheriff Daggett, we don't experience the nervous thrill we have felt over the years at the gun-toting exploits of Eastwood's spaghetti westerns or his Dirty Harry pictures. Gone, too, is the relief, the catharsis of a conflict between good and evil resolved by a violent action. Although Eastwood is on a mission of vengeance, his killing is cold, calculating, and ruthless. The scene violates the cardinal rule of all westerns-the good guy (no matter how provoked) can't just shoot a man in cold blood. A queasy disquiet, an unease gathers in a lump in our stomach.

"You know," says East wood, commenting on the scene in an interview with this writer. "Violence has been glamorized since literature began. People have always tried to make the West heroic. But it wasn't very heroic at all. Little Bill was a sheriff, but he was really just a killer who happened to have the law on his side. Will Munny was also a killer, and in the showdown he wasn't going to do any of this 'you draw first' stuff. He'd reverted to his violent ways. He'd thrown a switch or something and now a kind of machinery was back in action, a 'machinery of violence,' I guess you could say. No, it wasn't glamorous at all."

Although Clint Bastwood is best known-in many cases critically reviled-for the graphic violence of his pictures, he seems lately to be reconsidering the excesses of his youth. U nfor given, in particular, belongs to a handful of westerns that question the cherished formulas and conditions of the genre. In his classic 1954 essay on the western genre, "Movie Chronicle: The Westerner," Robert Warshow had defined the form of the western-as it had evolved from the dime novelists of the 19th century, the paintings of Frederic Remington, and the genteel novels of Owen Wister-as "the free movement of men on horses," a kind of story-telling formula that depicts the western hero as "the last gentleman" who, paradoxically, must resort to the violence of the gun to resolve moral ambiguities; the last art form, moreover, "in which the concept of honor retains its strength." However, Warshow had also predicted that westerns were beginning to show signs of degeneration; that "the celebration of acts of violence" were "left more and more to the irresponsible."

Arguably, Raoul Walsh's Pursued (1947), Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar (1953), Arthur Penn's The Lefl-Handed Gun (1958), Robert Benton's Bad Company (1971), Robert Altaian's McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976), and Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969) and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)-to name just a few that have preceeded Unforgiven-prove the point. Consider the following examples:

1) Violence. The acts of violence that were necessary to settle disputes and impose frontier justice in Gary Cooper's The Virginian (1929) and William Wellman's The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) have either become gratuitous and/or sadistic in Bad Company or poeticized into the choreographed slow motion aesthetic of The Wild Bunch.

2) The gun duel. That most hallowed convention of the classic western, the showdown and the fast draw, as exemplified in Fred Zinnemann's High Noon (1952)where the hero draws his gun only after being threatened by the villain-is replaced by heroes who shoot first and ask questions later (if they ask them at all).

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