What Is William Munny’s Real Story?

A “revisionist western” is a subgenre of western film that substitutes a far more realistic depiction of the old west for the standard, idealised one. Perfect illustrations of the complicated people and circumstances that are typically characteristic elements of the typical revisionist western film can be found in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.

Unforgiven, a 1992 western film that won several Academy Awards, is widely regarded as one of Clint Eastwood’s finest. Let’s examine the film’s strengths and the historical figures and occasions that served as its inspiration.

Western Revisionism’s Ascendance

The first days of cinema itself are when great western movies first appeared. The Great Train Robbery (1903), directed by Edwin S. Porter, is regarded as the first narrative film in history as well as the first western.

Even though the silent movie was only 11 minutes long, it contained many of the same elements that would later become defining characteristics of the genre. There were the unmistakable “bad guys,” whose mischief was predictably put to rest by the brave cowboy who selflessly saves the day and then rides off into the distance.

However, idealistic storylines like these were becoming more and more difficult for audiences to take seriously around the late 1950s and the 1960s. The Civil Rights movement was in full swing, the Vietnam War was the subject of intense protests, and the country had just experienced two world wars.

For many people, reality became considerably more complex, and their perceptions of the past also changed. Revisionist westerns abandoned the idea of “good men vs. bad guys” in favour of an old west populated by individuals who did not cleanly fall into either category.

The revisionist western started to show a far more true picture of what life was like in the Wild West by obfuscating the lines between good and evil. It also provided a framework for individuals to assess their own reality, even if they didn’t live on ranches.

William Munny: Was He Real?

Was Unforgiven based on a factual story, even if Clint Eastwood’s William Munny has grown to be one of his most recognisable characters? The answer, in keeping with the spirit of the movie, isn’t exactly cut and dry.

William Munny was technically not a real historical person, but he may have been modelled on several. One of the primary sources of inspiration for the writing for Unforgiven, according to David Webb Peoples, was a book by Glendon Swarthout titled The Shootist.

The main character of The Shootist was undoubtedly based on John Wesley Hardin, an actual bandit and gunslinger who lived from 1853 to 1895. Peoples felt that the 1976 western movie adaptation of the book lacked the grim realism that had made the book so remarkable. Therefore, Hardin might have functioned as Munny’s secondary inspiration in some ways.

The real-life story of Cullen Baker, a gunman during the American Civil War who continued to leave a trail of dead people in his wake after the war was done, is also thought to have served as inspiration for Eastwood. Hardin and Baker only had one thing in common: neither was a really good guy.

Although Munny is the movie’s main character, it’s clear that he’s also not a stereotypical cowboy saint. That’s right, he says at one point. I have murdered women and kids. At some point or another, I’ve murdered pretty about anything that can crawl or walk. I’m come to murder you, too.

When Munny visits the town of Big Whiskey to claim a private bounty on a couple of cowboys who brutally attacked a local sex prostitute, he somehow succeeds in becoming the movie’s protagonist.

A LAPD police chief served as the inspiration for Little Bill Daggett.

Revisionist westerns frequently feature more complex heroes, thus it seems to reason that the individuals who surround them would also become less straightforward. This was the situation with Gene Hackman’s portrayal of Little Bill Daggett, the sheriff in Unforgiven.

While Sheriff Daggett may initially appear to be a diligent law enforcer who forbids gunplay in his community, there is more to him than meets the eye. After all, the entire plot begins when he fails to deliver true justice in the instance of the disfigured prostitute.

As the plot develops, Daggett’s calm pacifism starts to eerily meld with his subtle but severe propensity for violence.

Clint Eastwood, who also served as the film’s director and star, requested that Hackman base Daggett’s personality on Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates. Gates established himself as a highly contentious figure over his 40 years of service with the LAPD, particularly after he defended the officers accused of assaulting Rodney King.

It’s true that some of Gates’ innovations in law enforcement won him praise from prominent figures like President George H.W. Bush, who referred to him as a “all-American hero.” Others, though, saw him as an arrogant and prejudiced individual who will be remembered more for his dubious tactics and remarks.

The Iliad Relationship

Unforgiven’s resemblance to the ancient Greek epic The Iliad may be one of the factors that helped it become an instant classic.

Achilles and William Munny are self-questioning warriors who briefly reject the culture of violence before returning to it after the death of their closest male buddy, in which they are implicated, according to one researcher.

Unforgiven deals extensively with the question of whether violence is occasionally required when it comes to creating an untamed civilization, much like Homer’s Illiad. Obviously, gunplay has always been a major and expected component of pretty much every western film produced.

But revisionist westerns stand out for their ability to portray violence realistically without glorifying it. William Munny is a man who is all too aware of the fact that firearms may result in tragedy just as frequently as they can in success.

Both The Iliad and Unforgiven reject the idea that violence can either be used for good or evil. Each story’s main theme is more on the possibility that morality may not even be relevant in some circumstances.

Despite not hailing from the same era, William Munny and Achilles both fit the bill for either heroes or villains, depending on who you questioned.

Misha Khatri
Misha Khatri is an emeritus professor in the University of Notre Dame's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. He graduated from Northern Illinois University with a BSc in Chemistry and Mathematics and a PhD in Physical Analytical Chemistry from the University of Utah.


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