The movie Unforgiven is, in my estimation, one of the best movies in my memory, and while I’m not a connoisseur of the genre, it is hands-down the best western I’ve ever seen.
The characters in the movie are vibrant, alive and teeming with quirky, lovable qualities which make them stand aside from the archetypal cardboard figures typified by some of the cheap, Saturday afternoon television westerns of yesteryear. Certainly, they aren’t much like the “characters” in the spaghetti westerns of their heyday. These characters are rich with history and memory and weakness and frailty. The protagonist, William Munny, played by Clint Eastwood, is a man on a mission to change who he is, trying to run a failing pig farm and put his questionable past behind him. The opening title card for the movie reads:
She was a comely young woman and not without prospects. Therefore it was heartbreaking to her mother that she would enter into marriage with William Munny, a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition. When she died, it was not at his hands as her mother might have suspected, but of smallpox. That was 1878.
That’s a brilliant opening, and the rest of the movie doesn’t disappoint. While I’ve never been a fan of westerns, this one captured my imagination, and I even wrote a short story based on it, having been touched somewhere in the deepest little-boy part of my psyche by the idea of a good ol’ fashioned cowboy story.
When I considered what made the movie so enjoyable for me, I realized (last night) it was the characters. The story was all right. It wasn’t typical of westerns, really, but the characters were the riches of the movie. They were extraordinary in their ordinariness, and they came to life through talented and well-directed acting and vibrant, fun dialog.
My post yesterday about super-villainous antagonists with unlimited resources at their disposal, including mental capacities and wealth, drew a lot of insightful comments. Folks know a lot about why TV bad guys are such cardboard cut-outs, that’s for sure. But what about heroes in TV and movies? Are they any more dimensional, less flat and predictable, than the bad guys?
I don’t think so. All of them have their superiority. All of them have their one flaw, the Achilles heel, which, of course, the bad guys can exploit. But are the heroes any better than the bad guys?
I don’t think so, in all honesty. I think TV protagonists are pretty thin. They seem altruistic in their goals, working good purely for the working of good; they are always strong and fast and good-looking (who wants to watch an ugly hero or heroine?); they are always the smartest and best at whatever it is they do. If they aren’t, then they have the sidekick who’s the best at everything they lack. If they’re supergeniuses who can’t shoot to save themselves, then their sidekick will be the most deadly marksman law enforcement has ever seen, and the most skilled hand-to-hand combat specialist, and the most sophisticated weapons specialist. So, while the heroes aren’t always fabulously rich (though you’d never know by looking at their clothes, cars and homes), they are the top-tier of all humanity in something.
Shows like House have gone out of their way to inject quirky, off-beat behavior into the central character. Gregory House is the world’s greatest diagnostician, but he’s a drug-addict and sarcastic, cynical and distrusting. At first these things were charming offsets to the typical hero, who is not only fabulously attractive, incomparably brilliant, and so unbelievably sensitive and aware of others he’d make Mother Theresa Green with envy, but also always has the most clever lines and the last word. House was different … initially. Now he’s a caricature of himself, too far to the extreme and getting farther out with every season. (Too bad.)
Yesterday I mentioned “Red John” from The Mentalist, but the protagonist is almost as bad; he can out-police the entire California Bureau of Investigation (which appears to be four people, from what I can gather), is better at picking up evidence than all of California’s crime scene technicians, and can hypnotize, manipulate or trick any and all people who cross his path. Oh, except for Red John, of course.
But some of the most beloved characters are quirky in some way too. Columbo, with his forgetful act, his absentminded methodology. Kojak, lacking any hair, less than a physical prototype for males, and sucking on a lollipop. Monk, with his OCD and hand-washing habit. None of those characters fit the prototypical protagonist mold, yet they were popular and long-lived in TV.
William Munny was a murderous outlaw who was tamed because he loved someone. Those things still exist in him, though; they’re part of his character, and we see some of them peek out from behind the frayed edges of his time-softened personality. But they’re fused forever with his conscience now, and he’s not able to do and be what he once was, except for the vengeance of his dearest friend. But through most of the movie he’s trying to convince his fellow assassins he’s not the same man he once was, that a new leaf has been turned, and the tragedy of that desperation is the comedy of the character, even to the very end of the movie.
Characters of questionable character, not fitting the golden-haired, chiseled-featured cookie-cutter of TV and movie heroes make for more interesting and watchable people, people it’s easy to root for and to want to see succeed. But we so seldom get that on television anymore, and not often enough in the movies.
What do you think? Do we need more out-of-the-ordinary, quirky or flat weird heroes? Do you have a favorite one?
Sound off y’all.
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