Parable about the crisis

Mira Schendel, Untitled, 1964, Photographic reproduction Eduardo Ortega


Review of Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven

How to explain the wide reception of The Unforgiven (Unforgiven, 1992), by Clint Eastwood? In the US, just in the first three weeks of exhibition, as the box office leader, it grossed around US$ 50 million. [1]. The film diverges in so many points from the traditional pattern of western that it is not fair to see it as pure regression, but it should be credited with current strength.

Compare this film to The Man Who Killed the Facínora (1962), by John Ford (1894-1973), [2] um western exemplary and with a similar theme: the reaction of a group to the violence of a malefactor. Ford's criminal not only plunders diligences, but works for large ranchers in order to prevent the political union of small ranchers and other professionals. In these terms, the skirmishes between some and others are part of a collective struggle for the institution of citizenship and the enforcement of democratic rules – which do not serve “livestock interests”, as the film clarifies. In the current work, crime has an individual and pathological content; is the excess of one cowboy who unloads himself on a prostitute, mutilating her with a knife. Therefore, evil is reformed. But, as will be seen, in addition to the resizing of evil, other structural changes take place.

It is clear, at the outset, in The Unforgiven, a review of the symbology of the western, with the characterization of the protagonist not as a cowboy but like a poor swineherd. The former professional killer has become a peaceful farmer; he has a couple of blond children and lives in a maloca. The lack of habit of mounting and shooting is significant. The figure of the ex-killer pacified and established on a ranch is typical of the western, except that – as a rule – ethical ascension was rewarded with another form of ascension: the social status of owner.

The idea of ​​a ranch built and defended with one's own hands was always a major symbol, linked to the ideal of the “total man” of Protestantism. It combined the ideals of achievement through work and a just life, through the overlapping of various figures of value: owner, builder, producer, military, judge of his own actions, father and priest. Thus, in Ford's film, Tom, a former cavalry officer and rancher, is building a house with a porch, in order to get married (when he realizes that he has lost his girlfriend to his rival, he resumes the rude manner of a gunslinger and sets fire to the building). . In contrast, in The Unforgiven, one can note the ironic trait in the figure of the sheriff, a former gunman, handed over to the hobby carpentry, but whose works have leaks and crooked corners.

National genre and popular property

There is, therefore, a conscious and ambitious revision of the western. This – as a popular art genre in literature, painting and film – has always been linked to US national motifs. The root brand never prevented global and mass reception, but it acts as a fundamental genetic factor: it molds its characteristic types according to ideal models, proper to the institutions and to the history of the USA. The following main lines are presented: civil and individual rights, originating from the French Enlightenment of the XNUMXth century and transcribed in the US Charter; and the Protestant ethic linked to capitalism, which gives spiritual meaning to work. Several clichés are born from this: the ethics of production, stylized in the figure of the pioneer and the cowboy and, correlatively, the negative view of unproductive people – such as the banker, the gambler, the dandy, etc.

The figure of the “other” (the Indian, the Mexican, the black or the occasional foreigner – seen as unaffected by the Protestant and work ethic) also fits into this scheme. Hitting, therefore, the key of national affirmation (in which the other is assimilated only by exception and only when adopted by an English-speaking “trailer”, imputing minority to him), the western took care of conquest of the Mexican provinces, the colonization of the West and the Civil War. In short, the western outlined a nationalist point of view, imbued with Enlightenment and Protestant ideals. The plots allowed occasional variations, but that never changed the ethical and democratic logic, the ethos of work and the law, valued from the angle of small property.

Ford's film is an exemplary and quintessential case that exposes, with clear and distinct ideas, these values. It opposes the defense of the laws by the majority (small ranchers and others) and the greed of the minority (large ranchers and landowners). How to deal with violence against the majority and the sheriff's connivance? The answer is a popular alliance, complemented on two levels: by an armed resistance, Western style, led by horse breeder Tom (John Wayne [1907-1979] symbolically wearing a Union cavalry shirt and cowboy pants) ; and by a civil and doctrinal action – so that ranchers and townspeople have political representation –, guided by a newly graduated lawyer from the East (played by James Stewart [1908-1997]). Two more enlightened men stand out: the journalist and the doctor.

Therefore, the strength of the interests of the large landowners is confronted with the weapons of the Enlightenment: union of the majority around civic, ethical and political action, fostered by the autonomy of each one. Ford highlights the didactic and political intention of his cinema as the collective meaning of actions through several signs: the lawyer becomes a literacy teacher in the city and its political delegate in the capital – when he acts as a schoolmaster, a portrait of George Washington can be seen ( 1732-1799) and the US flag at the back of the room.

The lesson deals with national institutions and brings Mrs. Ericsson, a Swedish immigrant (whose husband is naturalized to vote), converted to the republican system (don't forget that Sweden is a monarchy by origin) and defending the power of the popular vote; then a girl, of Mexican origin, attributes the drafting of the fundamental laws of the USA to Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826); and, finally, a black worker discusses isonomy as the basis of citizenship. In this way, a sample of the plurality of human beings, coexisting in harmony – regulated by Enlightenment ideals (and small property) – intends to change a framework of arbitration by installing laws in the name of the common good. Believable or not, the message is straightforward: it is a clear and distinct image of the alleged national values ​​that date back to the founding of the USA.

O western seen from the outside – and reassembled

Are these values ​​the cause of the popularity of the western, besides the US? Or did the aesthetic reiteration of traits generally recognized as signs of power prevail: virility, patriarchy and violence, horses and territorial domination, etc.? The fact is that the western Italian – to which Eastwood owes his acting career (see the dedication of this film to Sérgio Leone [1929-1989]) –, working productively within the scope of foreign reception, he re-read the genre and highlighted other elements, not linked to his ethical-project. policy, summarized above.

In summary, if in the constitution of the genre by North American cinema the framework of Enlightenment values ​​referred to acted, for the Italians, it did not. And Eastwood uses his Italian experience to review the western. Such a maneuver, against the original symbolic substratum, does not mean that Eastwood's film only intends an acrobatic-narcissistic or compensatory and escape valve role, as, in general, the so-called spaghetti western Italians.

Os unforgivable, it should be noted, is a film with nothing gratuitous and that, when revising the genre, reiterates and claims North American links. Proof of this is the profusion of national flags on the scene of the action and even framing the protagonist's final speech. And also the profusion of allusions to other national signs: the location of the action on a 4th of July, in addition to the mockery of the Englishman (who will later be beaten) in the face of the national government system and “savage customs” – such as attacking presidents (listen to Lincoln, in the character's allusion; imagine the two Kennedys and Reagan, in the filmmaker's mind).

With such a symbolic charge at stake, the making of the work and its acceptance in the US requires explicit consent from the public; they have to reflect the changing values ​​of Americans. Its impact confirms, therefore, a new national perspective and the prompt and immediate identification with the proposed revision of the western. How to explain such a reorientation of Yankee taste and values?

The aesthetic treatment is very different from Ford's film. In the external ones, figures against the light and landscapes with saturated colors flatten the image, following graphic arts procedures. Visual clipping often uses the Close, dear to comic book designers. The moving and enveloping camera, sometimes almost at the heart of the action and bordering on television “touch”, denotes the increasing flexibility of cinematographic machinery. Such an invoice, combined with the recurrent use of national badges, places the work in line with the pop art. Thus, the incorporation of resources specific to the Italian experience (for example, the sign of raising pigs, evocative of the farmer do Mezzogiorno) has a counterpart in the eloquence of an apologetic and genuinely national visual treatment.

More than that, to the extent that comics and pop art they are refinements of cinema, the return of its procedures to the original medium provides an extra dose of conviction and authenticity (in the form of energetic supplements) to the language. They operate in this way, together with the audience, as a strong factor for legitimizing the code. Add, in the interior scenes, the naturalization of light – weak as it must have been at the time – and what you have, in the somber tones, is another striking effect of veracity.

Neonaturalism (anabolized)

And what happened in the case of Ford? The theatrical influence was evident in the fixedness of the camera, outlining a stage scene, and in the strong and artificial light of the environments, which obeyed dramatic inflections; in the same way, the landscape (in the specific case of this Ford film, unlike others, the landscape has little weight), according to the canon, was molded in the traditional painting of depth. In short, the scenic pattern of the western of Ford, in the light of the current review, appears to be derived from other languages ​​or alien to the techniques inherent to cinema.

To conclude, it is enough to align the comparative exams in several domains: of the symbology, submitted to the cited revision; the use of equipment, now portable and more sensitive; and the staging, in Ford, excessively didactic and dialogued, attached to values ​​and the old canonical, while Eastwood's brings a laconism derived from a greater intimacy with the technique and its rhythm. Anyway, in these terms, made the comparison, Eastwood's vision of the West is, on the whole, more convincing. He readily obtains, in today's eyes, balances of positivity on various planes.

Thus, The Unforgiven comes armed and with the spirit to liquidate the old mold, endowed, for today (30 years later, 1962-92), with an affected and artificial idealism. However, what is the raw truth brought in the new vision? That of seeing things as they are: “merit has nothing to do with these things,” says Eastwood's character Will Munny (note the name) as he takes out the enemy. On the other hand, in Ford's work, what position did language assume? What is your value in front of things? In the aforementioned film, a good example is the focus on the duel, which is of central importance in the plot, but which is submitted to two different versions. Thus, first, Ford masterfully sets up the suspense and the scene in which the inept lawyer surprisingly defeats the cattlemen's henchman (a fearsome gunman), and becomes the city's hero – and, moreover, a gallant hero.

In the second treatment, after the created and consummated suspense reached such significant developments for the drama, the episode of the duel is represented from a new perspective – in which it is shown that the fatal shot against the henchman, which had saved the lawyer’s life, indeed, it had come from a sniper in the dark.

The confrontation of points of view provokes reflection and criticism in the spectator, who, through such a maneuver of the realization, comes to suspend his initial vision of the duel, as well as, in fact – if he learns the lesson –, to beware of a naive posture in the face of the artifices of cinematographic narrative (by the way, the filmmaker Jean-Marie Straub, fully committed to a dialectical and materialist aesthetic, values ​​the work of John Ford as a model of Brechtian cinema).

In short, Ford displays the artificial content of meaning and the related need for interpretation as data inherent in language, and puts them at the service of certain values. It remains that the model of nation, in force in Ford's cinema – and which presides over the normative imprint of human figures, according to exemplary epic models of conduct – is today little credible in the face of the wave of journalistic information that reveals, in a different sense, the behind the scenes and furniture of US politics.

Against the ideal, normative and Enlightenment representation of the traditional standard, what does Eastwood's anti-ideal operation, a crude and positive approach to things, propose? In short, the raw vigor of a pre-reflexive language – fascinating because it admits of no alternative – where things are-as-they-are, that is, where signs coincide with things, and morals and facts are one and the same thing; hence, the hero's odyssey marks a return to the state of nature and the keynote of the narrative is: man, man's wolf.

From logos to myth (or the saga of the natural desire for money)

Demystification operations and conviction effects always aim to capture the core of reality. In this case, given the emphasis on context and national colors, the object brings a conjunction of national truth and truth of human nature, which starts from the hypostasis of the human and the national – by stating something like: USA, land of the brave (for example , by Will Munny – listen up Will [of/and] Money). Therefore, the verist and contesting mood, by also complaining about ancient molds, fits within a curious contemporary maneuver of reconstituting the myth, that is, of blurring the spheres of meaning.

Here it is important to note a watershed that makes a crucial difference: in the case of Ford, one could speak of a national model, but the operation implied a normative framework, set as a goal or parameter for the order of the nation – thus Ford operated with history, therefore, with something greater than the nation; while, for Eastwood, it is about bringing a positive reinforcement to the gross national traits, that is, of promoting the return or complicit reunion of the spectator, in a situation of immediate relationship, with the national character, with the country that already exists or that, mythically, has always existed: the country of the brave (meaning, of white people endowed with avidity "neonatural” to get rich) [3]. The orbit here is that of myth. Hence, the decisive allegorical role of the beating of the English gunslinger – a confrontation between two individuals, but which recalls the North American war of independence (and that of 1812) –, as well as other signs of chauvinism, clearly formulated (in the scenes of the jail and the final appearance of Munny…). In short, to Ford's staging of how-things-should-be, Eastwood opposes the presentation of-things-as-they-are.

Once the rhetoric is delimited, constituting an immediate relationship of identity between viewer and film – where the password is a notion of a timeless national substratum –, the relevance of the focused parable can be noticed. There is not an absolute and permanent essence throughout US history – despite the ostensible purpose of demystification or positivity, in Eastwood's discourse –, but rather the full and ripe fruit of a certain perspective. That is, the parable, rather than being timeless, has a characteristic extraction, that is, from the period in which the work was born and took shape, in the 1980s in the USA.

The myth and the crisis

The dead and invisible wife – an omnipresent absence through the signs of pain and mourning displayed in the film – is equivalent to a symbol of the reverse or the end of the American dream, where prosperity and family completeness were the corollary of work and respect for law. Grieving and somber, the protagonist wakes up in a recession and faces the dilemma: remain in a production activity (pig farming), which surrounds him with dirt and scarcity, or look for quick money in the tertiary services sector (as a vigilante). or mercenary). Here, half a nod is enough for the Yankee spectator to recognize his daily life – this is the current dilemma for many in the US, who feel that they live in a declining power in the productive sector, in the face of the growing strength of Asian industry and other agricultural producers.

In the old and current work, the justice of the sheriffs is unsatisfactory and leads victims to independent private action. Ford, a filmmaker forged in the era of successive Roosevelt administrations (1933-45), opposes to the laissez-faire a broad organization of society around the values ​​of the law. Now, in the current work, how is violence faced? The screenplay – by the same author as Blade Runner (David Webb Peoples [1940]) – is lucid and restores the current perspective; thus there is no sign, in the application of the law, of any ideal of the common good or human isonomy. The fine (seven horses) for the mutilation of the prostitute is clearly aimed at compensating for an attack on the stock of a dealer (the owner of the brothel). The sheriff has the readiness and attention of the minimal liberal State. It ignores civil and human rights and is not guided by the common good, since it represents a State that does not act as an ethical body, but operates in a purely repressive way or limited to the police function, taking care only of the right to property - its only institutional basis (in other terms, it is no longer the policy of the Carter [1977-81] government that boasted rights, but that of the Reagan [1981-89] and George Bush [1989-93] governments).

In this framework – strictly factual – there is no place for the exaltation of the law and for the dimensions of thought linked to compassion or affective or moral indignation, correlated to the (universalist) notions of justice and the ethical State. The crime only harms the offended party and the exercise of justice is the responsibility of interested private agents. Similar pragmatism, currently in the national sphere involved in the plot, led to the replacement of the national armed forces, organized around ethical values ​​accepted by the national community, by highly mobile military formations, made up of professional specialists, who practice occasional climbs ( Grenada, Panama, Iraq…) and leave quickly, after the task [4].

The same scale of conversion of general problems into particular ones entails, on the dramaturgical level, the configuration of evil as an individual pathology and of justice as quantitative and punctual compensation – as stipulated in an insurance policy. Thus, the free competition of entrepreneurs (principles for hire) is presented, ending with the victory of the most efficient among them, Will Munny (who embodies, by winning the competition, the monetarist and edifying closure of the parable). In the end, even for small savers like prostitutes, the privatization of protection and justice activities appears to be compensatory – just look at the mutilated woman's last look, as a satisfied consumer with the service.

Anyway, with The Unforgiven, the restructurings along the lines of neoliberalism and the New Order policy, practiced in the recent republican administrations of the USA, gain a precise and complete cinematographic representation. Everything on the screen and in plain sight – without forgetting the prominent role of actions and parastatal private forces.

* Luiz Renato Martins he is professor-advisor of PPG in Economic History (FFLCH-USP) and Visual Arts (ECA-USP). Author, among other books, of The Long Roots of Formalism in Brazil (Chicago, Haymarket/ HMBS, 2019).

Review and research assistance: Gustavo Motta.

Text originally published, under the title “The Unforgivable”, in the Culture Supplement/ The State of São Paulo, p. 1-2, 19.03.1993.


The Unforgiven [Unforgiven]

USA, 1992, 130 minutes.

Directed by: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris, Jaimz Woolvett, Saul Rubinek, Frances Fisher, Anna Levine.


[1] The film was released on 07.08.1992. On the box office for the first three weeks, see the column “Weekend Box Office”, by David J. Fox, the articles “Eastwood Still Tall in the Saddle” (18.08. 1992) and “'Unforgiven' at Top for Third Week” ( 25.08), in The Los Angeles Times, available in

[2] See John Ford, The Man Who Killed the Facínora [The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance], 1962, b/w, 35mm, 124', USA.

[3] Today so widespread and current, to the point of appearing as “second nature” and an omnipresent theme in the mainstream media, the taste for money has historically been institutionalized and encouraged: “Enrichissez-vous (enrich me)”, is the famous expression of Guizot (1787-1874), head of one of the governments of the July Monarchy (Orleanist), before the French chamber of deputies, responding to those who demanded in 1843 the reduction of the minimum limit (from income) to obtain the right to census vote.

[4] Or even (one may add, excuse the anachronism, but to demarcate the serial content) how the drones and the special militias sent to hunt Bin Laden (1957-2011), in 2011, by the Obama presidency (2009-17).

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