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Unforgiven

The cowboys came to town for recreation. In the middle of nowhere, there was only one sort of recreation: a game of “billiards.” In the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, billiards was the euphemism for the world’s oldest profession, but there were few to squabble over morality. Cowboys worked hard, and needed to blow off some steam; women had even fewer choices, and working in the rooms upstairs was often an economic necessity. However, things occasionally went bad, and the combination of a drunken cowboy and an inexperienced whore resulted in a woman’s face being slashed.

This is the set-up to the 1992 film Unforgiven, directed by Clint Eastwood. As the film opens, the camera pans up the rain-soaked outside of the billiard parlor; inside, as Strawberry Alice services a customer, one can hear the slight giggle that sets a murderous chain of events in motion. A prostitute is cut, the local law enforcement officer makes the two cowboys pay the pimp some horses, and the rest of the whores set a bounty on the unfortunate men, attracting all manner of lawless gunmen to Big Whiskey. Unforgiven

Unforgiven was praised upon its release for its realistic depiction of the American West, along with its Oscar-winning performances. A question might then be raised as to whether Unforgiven is an accurate depiction of the frontier period in American history. The most significant statement on the frontier as a period and a process came in 1893. In that year, a mere 13 years after the events of Unforgiven, Frederick Jackson Turner declared the following:

  1. That the frontier was closed
  2. There was no more unexplored land for settlement
  3. America had completed the first stage of its history.

Turner wrote:

The peculiarity of American institutions is the fact that they have been compelled to adapt themselves to the changes of an expanding people-to the changes involved in crossing a continent, in winning a wilderness, and in developing at each area of this progress out of the primitive economic and political conditions of the frontier into the complexity of city life.

Unforgiven is therefore an accurate representation of the Turner thesis in that it shows the process by which civilization came to the frontier, both its geography and people, and that, in the end, the wilderness had disappeared.

Unforgiven, as stated, is set in 1880/1 (there is later reference to President Garfield’s assassination). The frontier line had moved into places like Wyoming and Arizona (the famous gunfight at the OK Corral took place in late 1881). The type of men who have moved along the frontier are of two types. The first is the civilizer, represented by Sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman). His deputies at one point notes that Little Bill worked the cow towns of Texas and Kansas, places like Dodge City, which had especially notorious reputations for being uncivilized. He is the sheriff in Big Whiskey because he is attempting to impose law and order on the town. He forbids weapons in the city limits and is attempting to build a house, two very visible symbols of progress and civilization.

The second archetypal frontier follower is English Bob (Richard Harris). English Bob is an unrepentant killer, who has crossed paths with Little Bill before. English Bob continually flees the conventions of civilization, despite the fake high-class accent he adopts. The lure of the thousand dollar bounty draws English Bob to Big Whiskey, immediately preceding his arrival, he was employed by the railroads to kill Chinamen. However, it is interesting that English Bob is followed by his biographer, a dime novelist intent on selling the exploits of the West to eager audiences back East. The film uses the character of the biographer to explore the dichotomy between Western myth and Western reality. English Bob has no compunction with selling the myth to enhance his reputation. Little Bill, of course, was an eyewitness to many of Bob’s supposed exploits, and is able to deflate the myths. Buffalo Bill Cody would formalize the myth into mass entertainment by the 1890s, selling the stylized frontier to audiences across the globe as the real frontier disappeared.

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