By Mark Greenbaum | Press Play April 12, 2012 at 1:00PM
Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s final western, offers a stirring rebuke to the genre he has done more to popularize than perhaps any actor or director, laying bare the senseless, ugly violence of the Wild West and its depictions. This argument is made most clearly by Eastwood’s main character, William Munny, a retired assassin whose attempt at a final score descends into a murderous odyssey in which almost everyone but Munny is ultimately beaten to death, maimed, or gunned down. It is a grim verdict, but one that remains immensely popular, due in part to a ubiquity on cable that has won it many new fans over the years.
Certainly, the film’s most charismatic, if not memorable, character remains Munny’s antagonist, Sheriff Little Bill Daggett. While appreciated by audiences – and certainly critically, with Gene Hackman deservedly winning his second Oscar for the role – Daggett is generally misunderstood, unfairly branded as the film’s sadistic villain whose final punishment is well deserved. While Daggett is not softly sympathetic – in a film with no sympathetic characters, only brutes, victims, and cowards – he does attempt to create law and order in a region that has previously only seen unrequited violence. Munny’s presence, and the specters of other assassins arriving to claim the bounty of whores, are antithetical to Daggett’s vision for the town and the new house he is building, and thus justify his rough countermeasures.
We first meet Little Bill moments into the movie, after the hooker Delilah Fitzgerald is attacked by a cowboy. Coming into Greeley’s out of the dead of night, Daggett decides to horsewhip the offender and his friend until they agree to repay Skinny, the brothel owner, with several of their horses. When Strawberry Alice (played by Eastwood’s then-wife Frances Fisher) furiously protests the leniency, Daggett angrily asks her, “Ain’t you seen enough blood for one night?” Alice and her prostitutorial brethren thereafter decide to offer a bounty through their johns to entice an assassin to Big Whiskey to kill the cowboys in retribution for Fitzgerald’s disfigurement.
The opening portrays Little Bill as a cold-hearted sheriff disdainful of women and inexplicably unwilling to mete out frontier justice to the two men who slashed a woman’s face without provocation. The whores’ thirst for blood may seem morally justifiable to viewers who grew up on Eastwood films, like his revenge bonanza The Outlaw Josie Wales, but it runs counter to Daggett’s wish for law and order and his aversion to violence solely for its own purpose. While Daggett will resort to violence in ensuing scenes, this precept forms the core of the sheriff’s own code.
Soon after the attack, Skinny alerts Daggett to the hookers’ plan, visiting Little Bill where he is building a house. Even as Skinny smirks at the shoddy construction, Little Bill brags at his work, pridefully looking forward to sitting on his porch with a pipe and coffee. The symbolism of the house as Little Bill's new place in the community is obvious and provides a glimpse of Little Bill's background, suggesting he hasn’t been in Big Whiskey long but intends to plant some roots in the community and help grow it out. Daggett grimaces at Skinny's news, presuming aloud that a swarm of vicious men from as far as Texas will make their way to Big Whiskey to collect on the contract.
When the first such assassin, English Bob, arrives in town, we learn a bit more about Little Bill, getting valuable context for his approach. As Daggett’s inexperienced deputies arm up to arrest English Bob (played with nice understated pluck by Richard Harris, in one of his final roles), two deputies question aloud whether Little Bill might be scared of Bob, a frightening type of killer whose caliber none have ever encountered before in Big Whiskey. The one-armed deputy Clyde scoffs, “Little Bill? Him scared? Little Bill come out of Kansas and Texas boys. He worked them tough towns.”
This is the extent of what we learn about Little Bill’s background, but it says much about his perspective. Coming from the 1870s West, Daggett clearly experienced pervasive wanton violence in such places as Shackleford County, Texas, where bands of roving criminals often ran frontier towns. Cormac McCarthy’s description of a saloon in 1878 Ft. Griffin, Texas in the great Blood Meridian evokes this sort of society: “A dimly seething rabble had coagulated within… he was among every kind of man, herder and bullwhacker and drover and freighter and miner and hunter and soldier and pedlar and gambler and drifter and drunkard and thief and he was among the dregs of the earth in beggary…” Ft. Griffin was located in what was then one of the most lawless parts of America, and the type of town Little Bill had come from, if not that place exactly, and help explain his leadership style.
Little Bill’s first encounters with English Bob and William Munny starkly display this leadership. In two confrontations similar in their origins and outcomes, Little Bill badly beats first the suave English Bob and then Munny for entering town and not surrendering their firearms pursuant to the advertised county ordinance. The scenes further cement Little Bill’s status as the film’s heavy, but they also demonstrate his sympathetic motivations.
Little Bill and the audience already know of English Bob’s deadly nature, revealed from the fear of his fellow train passengers who comment on his penchant of gunning down Chinese immigrants; Munny’s reputation as a murderer is established early by the Schofield Kid’s awe, and while Daggett does not know it initially, he correctly surmises that Munny too has arrived in town for blood. As Daggett separately pummels the two assassins, he revealingly bellows that their ilk may be tolerated down in Wichita and Cheyenne, but not in Big Whiskey. He later delineates his philosophy to the simpering W.W. Beauchamp (played in a terrific send-up of Hollywood itself by Saul Rubinek): “I do not like assassins or men of low character, like your friend English Bob,” who Daggett explains once gunned down a disarmed man over a woman (ironically only to fabricate the tale through Beauchamp). Little Bill believes that the only way to deal with assassins who embody the carnage of the west is through opposing brute force, and he uses that force to run a black-and-blue Bob out of town.
Little Bill’s past in post-Civil War Texas and Kansas informs his rule in Big Whiskey, which up to this point in 1881 has not yet been torn down by the violence so common back east. His ruthlessness and dictatorial laws, while stark, are his way of keeping the peace to create a place to put down his new house.
Of course, it is Little Bill’s violent enforcement that costs him his life in the final shootout. Facing the end of Munny’s shotgun, Daggett calls the avenging dark angel Eastwood “a cowardly son of a bitch” for killing an unarmed man (much as English Bob had once done) and for “kill[ing] women and children” before Munny guns him down, along with Skinny and most of the overmatched deputies. With Munny standing over him, Little Bill croaks, “I don’t deserve this – to die like this! I was building a house.”
When the kill shot rings out and past Eastwood’s shadowed face, the audience – myself sometimes included – cheers at the baddie getting his comeuppance, but the moral picture is far hazier. Little Bill’s last words encapsulate his sense of frontier nobility as he sought to build a community and protect it from the bloody rigors of the age. In an interview on his film, Eastwood has acknowledged this perspective: “He was a sheriff, who had noble ideas. He had a small town, and he ran it with a lot of strength… He had dreams...”
Little Bill’s tough enforcement is likely the only way to meet the challenge of the time and place, but its effectiveness inspires the same dangerous people he fights to pursue him and seek brutal revenge. Indeed, it is Daggett’s ruthless killing of Munny’s partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) to get information on Munny that leads Munny to kill Little Bill and ravage his town to a point from which the Wyoming backwater will probably never recover. Daggett was building a house, of shoddy construction maybe, but it was well-intentioned and just.
In the end, though, Little Bill is ultimately incapable of taming the world of Big Whiskey.
Mark Greenbaum's work has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, The LA Times, The New Republic, and other publications. This is his first piece for Press Play.