The film “Unforgiven” is a story of a repentant outlaw who, out of desperation, returns to his violent roots. On the surface, the film is a dramatic tale of violence, cruelty, and revenge in the American West. Behind the drama, the film builds on themes related to a free society including contracts, property rights, decentralized legal systems, and the concentration of power. Set in the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming in 1880, the plot begins when two transient cowboys brutally attack one of the town's prostitutes.
Bill Daggett (Little Bill) is the heavy-handed sheriff of Big Whiskey. Little Bill doesn't allow guns, criminals (with the possible exception of himself), or vigilantes in his town. Despite his reputation for being tough on criminals, however, Little Bill allowed the two attackers to leave after paying a modest fine to the owner of the brothel (presumably for damaging his "property"). This apparent injustice is only made possible by the amount of power Little Bill has in the town. In this one character resides the pen of the legislator, the authority of a judge, the discretion of a prosecutor, the weapon of an executioner, and most likely, the immunity of a monarch.
Vigilantism and the Market for Justice
The other prostitutes, outraged at the failure of their local monopoly legal system to deliver justice for their colleague, decide to take matters into their own hands. They put out a $1,000 bounty (over $25,000 in 2016 dollars) for anyone who could kill the prostitute-attacking cowboys.
Unlike many other westerns and action movies, this movie takes the welcome path of demonizing violence itself.
Will Munny, played by Clint Eastwood, is an aged outlaw who had long since abandoned his former violent life and had become a family man. Faced with financial troubles and motivated by his desire to provide a future for his two children, Munny joins with an old partner of his and a young gunslinger and sets out to kill the attackers and collect the bounty.
Will Munny and his two partners start their search in Big Whiskey, but are abruptly run out of town by Little Bill after he discovers a gun on him and suspects his motives. As is typical of those who control a monopoly on law, Little Bill isn't too keen on competition in the provision of justice.
Munny and company ultimately go on to accomplish their mission, but tragedy soon follows. Ned Logan, Munny’s partner and close friend, is captured by Little Bill, savagely tortured and killed. Upon learning of Ned's fate, Munny returns to Big Whiskey and exacts revenge on Little Bill and anyone who stands in his way.
The Psychology and Utility of Violence
The role of violence and its effect on those who use it is a constant theme throughout the film. After killing one of the two men who were the subject of the bounty, Munny's young gunslinging partner confesses that he had never actually killed anyone before and renounces his plans for a career in gunfighting. The reluctance of each member of Munny's vigilante gang to use violence stands in stark contrast to the Sheriff's constant reliance on it. Unlike many other westerns and action movies, this movie doesn’t glorify gun violence, but it doesn’t demonize guns either. It takes the highly welcome path of demonizing violence itself.
The inability of the disarmed population of Big Whiskey to use violence when necessary is deceptively key to the plot. If history has anything to teach us, it is that when things become illegal, they become profitable. Had the town been armed, the prostitutes have had much cheaper and faster alternatives to pursue the justice they felt they had been denied. It's also likely that the attack would never have occurred in the first place. The brothel owner, the citizens of Big Whiskey, and especially the prostitutes themselves all have strong incentives to prevent such attacks. Were it not for the town's ban on guns, they would have had much more effective means to do so.
When another character, English Bob is forcibly disarmed by Little Bill and his goons, he remarks that without his weapon, he would be at the mercy of his enemies. Given the amount of power that Little Bill has acquired as a result of banning firearms, one has to wonder whether that vulnerability and the consequent need for a strong protector is a feature, rather than a bug, of weapons bans.
A version of this article first appeared at SmashCulture.