I took another look at 'Unforgiven' the other day - one of those films whose original impact was muted by the fact that I saw it amidst hype, and, precisely half a lifetime ago, when I didn't know that I had no idea what I was talking about. The difference today, I suppose is twofold; I still have no idea what I'm talking about, but at least I think I know this; and I've seen a few more films and thought a lot about violence and masculine archetypes.
'Unforgiven' has the reputation of being the revisionist Western to end all revisionist Westerns; but this misses the point, and isn't quite accurate - 'Dances with Wolves', whatever you think of its aesthetic and philosophical merits, wasn't exactly a cowboys-beat-Indians actioner, the genuine masterpiece 'Heaven's Gate' shatters the myth of the glorious frontier, Clint had done revenge-as-a-living-hell before in 1973's 'High Plains Drifter', even the otherwise ridiculous and xenophobic 'Cattle Queen of Montana' had Barbara Stanwyck going off into the sunset with the unlikeliest pardners this side of the cast of 'Twins': Native American hero on one arm, Ronald Reagan on the other. (See below for an analogy of how grating, if appealing, that particular contrast appears.)
So to see 'Unforgiven's strengths as merely relating to how 'different' it may be from other Westerns about men-who-might-as-well-have-no-name is to reduce its value to nothing more than an innovation. It's far more important than that: it reveals the gaping wound in the typical Western vision of the male psyche, exposes the roots of violence, and seeks to provide a serious answer to the question of why people kill, and why portrayals of killing constitute so much of our entertainment complex. This answer, if taken seriously enough, could change everything.
The short version: people kill, and we like to watch portrayals of killing because we're afraid of death.
There are some fascinating thoughts about this at the International Psycoanalysis blog here. If the author (Herbert Stein, M.D., in his “Double Features: Discovering our Unconscious Fantasies in Film” (EREADS, 2003)) has a point, and it seems pretty compelling to me, then the causes of violence can be traced to an attempt at asserting power over death; which opens a fairly large can of worms when it comes to considerations of what happens when fear is, itself, the dominant lens through which some of us have been wounded into viewing life. This may all sound a bit flowery for the Film Talk or for a Friday, but I just wonder...if we accept the premise that politicised fear can lead to real death, can't cinematic fear give some grounding to that same fear, and that same death? In that regard, would 'Unforgiven' be better seen as part of the pantheon of, or a kind of retrospective prequel to, films like 'A Matter of Life and Death', 'Wings of Desire', and 'Magnolia' where the notion of something transcendent gathering up the mystery of being human into a space that may not make sense as we understand it now, but constitutes an interruption of grace that cuts the poisonous flow that oxygenates the myth that violence fixes things? Just a thought.