What Is the True Story of William Munny?

Photo Courtesy: UNFORGIVEN, Clint Eastwood, 1992. ph: © Warner Bros. /Everett Collection

A “revisionist western”  is a sub-genre of western film that trades in the traditional, romanticized version of the old west for a far more realistic picture. Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven contains perfect examples of the complex characters and situations that tend to be trademark elements of the average revisionist western movie. 

Released in 1992, Unforgiven won multiple Academy Awards and is largely considered one of Eastwood’s best westerns. Let’s take a closer look at what made the film so great and the historical people and events that inspired it. 

The Rise of the Revisionist Western

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The birth of classic western films can be traced back to the earliest days of cinema itself. Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903) is considered not only the first western movie but the first narrative film in history. 

While the silent film ran just 11 minutes in length, it featured many of the same hallmarks of classic westerns for years to come. There were the clear-cut “bad guys,” whose antics were predictably foiled by the heroic cowboy who selflessly saves the day and then rides off into the sunset. 

Around the late 1950- 1960s, however, idealistic plotlines like these were getting harder for moviegoers to take seriously. Americans had just endured two world wars, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, and protests raged over the war in Vietnam. 

As reality became much more complex for many people, so did their notions of the past. Revisionist westerns traded in the “good guys vs. bad guys” notion for an old west filled with characters that fit far less neatly into either category. 

By blurring the lines between good and evil, the revisionist western began depicting a far more accurate version of what the wild west was probably like, and offering a framework through which people could analyze their own realities, even if they didn’t live on ranches. 

Was William Munny a Real Person?

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While William Munny has become one of Clint Eastwood’s most unforgettable characters, was Unforgiven based on a true story? In keeping with the film’s theme, the answer isn’t so clear-cut. 

Technically speaking, William Munny wasn’t an actual historical figure, but he may have been based on several. Unforgiven‘s writer, David Webb Peoples once pointed to a book called The Shootist, by Glendon Swarthout, as one of the main inspirations for the script. 

The lead character in The Shootist was indeed based on a real-life outlaw and gunslinger named John Wesley Hardin, who lived from 1853 to 1895. While the book was turned into a western movie in 1976, Peoples felt that it didn’t reflect the gritty reality that had made the book so great. So in some respects, Hardin may have served as second-hand inspiration for Munny. 

It’s also rumored that Eastwood may have also drawn inspiration from the life of Cullen Baker, a real-life Civil War-era gunman who left a trail of bodies in his wake even after the war was over. The one thing that both Hardin and Baker have in common is that neither was a particularly great guy. 

Though Munny is the film’s protagonist, it’s easy to see that he’s no classic-western saint either. At one point, he says: “That’s right. I’ve killed women and children. I’ve killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another. And I’m here to kill you…”

Nonetheless, Munny still manages to become the film’s protagonist when he comes to the town of Big Whiskey to collect a private bounty on a pair of cowboys who violently attacked a local sex worker. 

Little Bill Daggett Was Based On an LAPD Police Chief

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If the heroes of revisionist westerns tend to be more complicated, then it only makes sense that the characters around them become less clear-cut as well. Such was the case of Unforgiven‘s Sheriff, Little Bill Daggett, who Gene Hackman played. 

While Sheriff Daggett may first come across as a hard-working sheriff that’s forbidden gunplay in his town, there’s more to him than meets the eye. After all, it’s his failure to enact real justice in the case of the disfigured prostitute that sets the entire plot in motion.

As the story unwinds,  Daggett’s cool-headed pacifism begins to chillingly blend with his understated yet extreme tendency for violence. 

In terms of character, Clint Eastwood, who both directed and starred in the movie, asked Hackman to model Daggett on Los Angeles Police Cheif Daryl Gates. During his 40 years of service in the LAPD, Gates proved to be an incredibly controversial figure, especially in his defense of the officers charged in the beating of Rodney King. 

Some of Gates’ advances in policing admittedly earned him the accolades of public figures like President George H.W. Bush, who called him an “all-American hero.” But to others, he was a brash and racist man who will be better remembered for his questionable comments and methods. 

The Iliad Connection

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One of the reasons that Unforgiven may have been considered such an instant classic is that it bears certain similarities to the ancient Greek epic The Iliad

As one scholar put it, “Achilles and William Munny are self-questioning warriors who temporarily reject the culture of violence only to return to it after the death of their closest male friend, in which they are implicated.”

Much like Homer’s Illiad, Unforgiven deals heavily with whether violence is sometimes necessary when it comes to forging an untamed civilization. Granted, gunplay has been a central and expected element in pretty much every western ever made. 

But what sets revisionist westerns apart is their ability to realistically depict violence without glorifying it. William Munny is a man all too familiar with the fact that guns lead to tragedy just as often as they do to triumph. 

Both The Iliad and Unforgiven reject a world whether violence is exclusively good or bad. The theme of each is more about the fact that, in some situations, it may have nothing to do with morality one way or another. 

Achilles and William Munny may not have been from the same era, but they were both guys that could be called either heroes or villains, depending on who you asked.

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