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Unforgiven: The Movie That Challanges Western Myths

Western movies are full of Western myths: "Stick em up!" Unforgiven, produced by Clint Eastwood, who also stars in the movie, debunks these myths.

Why do most people go to the movies?  To eat popcorn, drink soda, and relax?  There’s a deeper reason why, and it depends upon on the genre.  People go to see action movies to see violence and drama, and to have their eardrums shot.  People go to see horror movies to be scared, and they expect to see ghosts, monsters, and hear scary music.  When people go to see a western, they expect to see shootouts, violence, a “bad guy,” and a famous cowboy with a handsome face and stunning body.  In other words, they expect to see the myths of a typical western film.  However, what if a movie were to challenge these myths?  The movie entitled Unforgiven undermines most of the myths about the old west found in westerns and, as a result, challenges our expectations of this genre.

            In very subtle, creative ways, the movie Unforgiven exposes old western myths.  Unforgiven “aims to demythologize the false picture that the tradition of Westerns has created” (Kupfer).  It does so through a dislike for the mindlessness of old western myths: “Clint Eastwood was himself revealing ‘disgust for the false mythology of the Western hero’” (Kupfer).  In undermining traditional western myths, Unforgiven challenges our expectations of westerns.  What myths, specifically, does Unforgiven debunk?  There are many, two of which are most important.

            Within traditional westerns, there is often the myth that there is a good sheriff, and a heroic cowboy, a good person who “saves the day” by killing the bad guy.  In the beginning of the movie, Little Bill, the sheriff, spoke intelligently and used common sense.  He protected men from being whipped, despite the fact that Alice wanted the men to be punished.  However, Little Bill didn’t remain a good person.  He beat up English Bob and Will Munny (Unforgiven), debunking the good sheriff myth.  In addition, the heroic cowboy was Will Munny, who had a dark past.  As he said, “I’ve killed everything that’s walked or crawled on this earth” (Unforgiven).  Also, Will didn’t kill the bad guys to “save the day,” but rather to receive the bounty for their death.  In this way, Unforgiven illustrated that there isn’t a “save the day” concept.  Instead, “saving the day” is merely a myth as well, just as the good sheriff and heroic cowboy idea is.

            In addition to good sheriffs and heroic cowboys, there is a second myth that Unforgiven undermines.  In typical westerns, violence was illustrated in the shootout scenes between the good cowboys and the bad guys.  Ultimately, one of them dies violently.  In typical westerns, the shootouts are presented as good, even a fact of life and therefore justified.  Violence, as seen in Unforgiven, is not good, even if the good cowboy engages in it: “It’s a helluva thing, killin’ a man.  You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have” (Kupfer), Will Munny said of killing.  You take everything from a man if you kill him, a fact which the Schofield kid discovered after killing one of the bad guys.  In fact, he cried as a result of the experience, although he kept trying to remind himself, “he had it comin’” (Unforgiven).  Therefore, violence is not healthy in any way, as demonstrated in the movie.  As a result, this myth is falsified.

            .  Before Unforgiven, most people would expect to see the myths of the old west portrayed in a typical western.  However, after seeing the movie, most people would not expect to see these myths, after seeing them falsified.  Unforgiven has had a remarkable impact on people’s expectations regarding western films, so much so that no other movie can even begin to say the same.  As an after effect of seeing Unforgiven, we have learned to challenge our personal expectations of western movies.  However, we have also done more.  Sydney Pollack said, “Morality, the definitions of virtue, justice, and injustice, the sanctity of the individual, have been fairly fluid for American audiences in terms of what they choose to embrace or not embrace” (Pollack 553).  After seeing that violence cannot be justified, even by a good cowboy, and after seeing that “saving the day” isn’t necessarily virtuous, we have accepted and embraced Unforgiven’s message not to expect old myths in modern western movies.  We don’t just challenge new western movies; we embrace the idea that old western myths are mindless fantasies.

            The next time people who have seen Unforgiven go to see a western film, they may not expect to see the old myths of the west.  If there are old western myths, however, most likely they will be rejected.  Unforgiven has opened America’s eyes.  However, Unforgiven is not the first film that America has accepted and embraced.  For example, America accepted the message of The Lion King (American kids do mostly) regarding the “Circle of Life” and the laws of nature.  And there may be many more movies that America accepts and embraces.  In fact, America can learn a great deal from embracing movies’ messages.  There are endless possibilities for a movie with good morals.  For the moment, we know that Unforgiven challenges people to expect something out of the ordinary and to expect the unexpected, not mindless myths.

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