The bad and the indifferent

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The Independent Online
LAST WEEK, I went to see Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. In one sense, it was all Eastwood. Once again, the wordless, narrow-eyed loner wreaks justice with his gun. Once again, the sky and the mountains look down on a community mired in cruelty and cowardice, waiting for its saviour. But Unforgiven is more than just another Clintiad.

It is about a West where the big boast hides the pitiful reality. The weather-beaten plainsman leaps at his horse, but takes three tries to get in the saddle. The burly cowboy leaps at the whore, but gets laughed off for having 'a tiny pecker'. The gunman draws a bead on a bottle and misses. And when the killers trail their man to his hideout, there is no High Noon duel. They wait till nature calls him to the wooden shithouse, and shoot him with his trousers down.

Forty years ago, I opened a box. Ever since then, I have been waiting for this movie. The box, kept in an attic in a southern English village, had belonged to a young middle-class Englishman who had gone out West in the 1890s to knock about and have some sport. The first thing in it was his gun. It was a huge .45 revolver, in a leather holster stamped 'Cheyenne', its cowbone butt carved with stars and steer-heads. It was an ancient model which required cocking between each shot. For rapid fire, the gunman had to 'fan' the hammer with his left hand.

But underneath the gun were the papers: letters home, and half-literate cowboy scrawls in mauve indelible pencil. One scrap of paper asked somebody going to town to find the writer a wife and bring her back to the ranch, 'coz i ant much good at ropin fillies on the open range'. A lot of the papers were about money. Prices for beef were falling away; mortgages were being bought up by 'English capitalists' and called in ruthlessly. Some of the letters asked hopefully about the possibility of war in Europe, which would set meat prices rising again.

There were descriptions of drunken fights, of lynchings. And among these scenes was a record of how a man had been trailed to a wooden outdoor latrine and shot to death as he sat there. The young Englishman, who saw this, found it frightfully funny. He recounted it in that jocular, superior comic style which Punch used to employ when describing the antics of foreigners. The crudeness of these Yankees] I remembered the caption of a Punch cartoon, by Raven Hill or another of those maestros of cross-hatching: 'Our Transatlantic Cousin, to the Waiter when confronted with an Oyster Patty in a London Restaurant: 'Say, Bo, Something Died Inside my Bun]' '

Then I came to another letter. The Indians in the territory, it said, had begun to dance. This was bad news, presaging rebellion and war. Alarm had gone around the isolated ranches of the white men who had taken the Indians' land. But the ranchers, helped by Mexicans from across the border, had taken preventive action. A party of squaws and children had been intercepted, making for the border of the reservation where they would be safe from whatever might be about to happen. By luck, they had been overtaken just before they reached the reservation line. All were slaughtered.

The young Englishman had not been present. But he was excited and pleased. He wrote about the massacre in his usual racy, high-spirited way. The capital thing about it, he explained, was that the Indian breeding stock had been destroyed; to have killed male braves would not have been nearly as effective. Now, with luck, there would be peace in the territory for a good time to come. The letter turned to other things: his health, the ranch, enquiries about the family back in England.

I put the letters and the gun back into the box, and closed it. The right thing to do would have been to copy some of the letters, especially the last one, but the young Englishman's son was standing beside me. He was a decent, quiet, middle-aged man with a small grey moustache: the conventional sort. From his father, he had learnt pistol-shooting and inherited enough money to live in a pretty village without working very much. He was proud of the .45 revolver. Possibly, he had never read the letters. I do not know what happened to the box afterwards. There was some plan to send them back to a museum in the city which had grown up near the young Englishman's ranch, under a mountain which had been given his name. In the territory, one gathered, he was revered as a pioneer.

As history, there is nothing so new about all this. Most modern Americans know that genocide helped to create the United States, and almost all the other states of the Americas too. On the Amazon frontier in Brazil, it is still happening. The story of the cowboy has been re-told often enough in its alternative version: the story of a marginal, casualised, savagely exploited group which at one time even put its faith in radical socialism. The International Workers of the World, the anarcho-syndicalist trade union movement nicknamed the 'Wobblies', won many members among cowboys, ranch hands and railroad workers. Those who listened to Woodie Guthrie's songs knew that long ago.

But Western history went on co-existing with Western myth. Since I opened that box, I have been waiting for a film to bridge the gap between them. Unforgiven does this. It ushers nobility off the movie set, perhaps for good. It dismisses the stainless hero, the beguiling villain and the whole tired screenplay of right and wrong. It says that male violence, sadism and the cult of vengeance are no more than a set of postures, a display by inadequate human beings whose lives are sodden with fear.

Underlying all that happened in that old West was a fight for land. And the fight for land is the primal struggle in which all moral codes are thrown aside. In that struggle, the posturings of cruelty wear the uniforms of patriotism, courage, leadership. We see that now in Brazil, and we see it in Bosnia.

I was going to say that in the Unforgiven West there are no gentlemen. But that is wrong, for I found one in the box. English gentlemen were present wherever empires were being carved out. Mostly they stood a little way off, watching while lesser breeds did the filthy work and then writing jolly interesting letters home about it. The gentleman's pose was cool, detached. Nobody would catch him with his trousers down, and in due course he would go home to green fields, an old nanny, a commission in a good regiment, a safe seat in Parliament. But of all the crimes committed in that real Western, his was the worst: indifference.