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  • The Seductive and Subversive Meta-Narrative of Unforgiven
  • Joseph H. Kupfer (bio)

So You Like Westerns?

Responses to Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992) divide into those that align it with the traditional Western and those that group it with what has been variously described as the "alternative Western," "new Western," and the "revisionist Western." Revisionist Westerns are viewed as questioning or attacking the structure and norms of the genre. Traditional Westerns clearly demarcate the forces of good and evil and endorse expert gunfighting in the cause of justice. Good gunfighters were sometimes sheriffs and marshals but could be gunslingers or simply outsiders. As Richard Slotkin describes the likes of Shane (Alan Ladd) and Will Kane (Gary Cooper in High Noon), a good man with a gun is "in every sense the best of men" (396). The noble hero defeated opponents who were evil or the henchmen of the unjust.

Unforgiven was included by some reviewers in the subgenre of Western films that debunked the myths of the West as well as the films that enshrined them. David Ansen wrote that Eastwood was himself revealing "disgust for the false mythology of the Western hero" (52). Unforgiven is unlike Eastwood's other Westerns in asking us "to ponder the danger of mythifying reality to justify questionable acts" (Greenberg 54). It provokes the audience to question mythologies of the West by sabotaging the "legend of quick death in six-gun glory," the very legend to which Eastwood happily contributed for much of his career (Greenberg 54). Even critics who believe that Unforgiven ultimately does not go against the grain find that it departs from the traditional Western. Will Munny initially has no "affinity with the western's two indispensable icons: the six-gun and the horse" (Prats 116). Moreover, the film privileges Munny's wife at the outset, whereas the civilizing force of women usually occurs in the middle of the Western story (Prats 115). The interpretation of the film that I offer is intended to strengthen the view of Unforgiven as revisionist and to show why interpretations that resist the revisionist stance are inadequate.

The revisionist interpretation presented here rests on three integrated claims: the film is a meta-narrative, it is subversive of the Western genre, and it is seductive in its adherence to the genre's form. To say that the film is a meta-narrative is to say that it is a story about stories, Western stories in particular. As a story about Westerns, it is subversive in that it aims to demythologize the false picture that the tradition of Westerns has created. It exposes how the Western narrative has seduced us by glamorizing violence and glorifying gunmen as expert sharpshooters ennobled by courage and moral ideals.

The film subverts the Western by explicitly uncovering and questioning its seductive power, but it does so with a seductive narrative [End Page 103] of its own. Embedding its meta-narrative in a first-order story that follows the contours of the classic Western, Unforgiven entices us with its familiar mix of plot tension and character development. In so doing, the film cues us to question ourselves. This self-questioning invigorates the film's own interrogation of the process of myth-making by which cruel men and sordid events become the stuff of legend. By self-consciously incorporating the seductiveness of Western violence within the narrative form, Unforgiven's subversion of Western narrative occurs immediately in our experience of the film, not simply in post-viewing reflection on it (such as offered here). Because the subversiveness occurs directly in the story and our experience of it, we are implicated in the valorization of violence that audiences have grown to enjoy and expect from the Western. Our disillusionment with the traditional Western is reinforced by awareness of how we have been seduced by the film's classic features.

The traditional Western justifies violence thematically and structurally. Thematically, the heroic gunman defends society or makes it possible against lawlessness. John Cawelti explains that the protagonist must be a hero "in relation to the victory of civilization over savagery" (63). Gun violence is necessary because without it, "savage, anarchic or regressive forces will engulf the...


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pp. 103-114
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