MY KINDA SCENE: Brian Staveley on Clint Eastwood's Achilles' heel

In a new feature for the Tor blog, we're asking our authors to tell us their favourite scenes from film, TV and books. Today it's the wonderful Brian Staveley, author of the David Gemmell Morningstar Award winner The Emperor's Blades and its sequel The Providence of Fire, which is out in paperback today, who explains why one little drink in Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven leads to so much trouble . . .  

I was a sophomore in high school when I first saw Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. I hated it.

I’d been raised on HS&GS - Horse Shit and Gun Smoke, my dad’s acronym for Westerns – and I’d come to expect a few things out of a movie starring Eastwood. I expected him to grimace. I expected him to slouch indifferently in his saddle as he rode into town. And, more than anything, I expected him to kick ass.

In the opening scenes of Unforgiven, however, Eastwood’s character – William Munny – can’t shoot a can off a post at twenty paces. He’s a tired, over-the-hill gunslinger, a man who’s lost his will, nerve, and savagery, an outlaw turned pig farmer who falls in the mud whenever he tries to catch a pig. There are hints and intimations that he used to be dangerous, deadly, terrifying – especially when he was drunk, which used to be all the time – but by the time the movie starts, he’s sworn off both violence and whisky. He’s desperate for money – needs to take care of his two kids – and so he reluctantly accepts One Last Job. It seems unlikely that he’ll succeed at it. In fact, he doesn’t seem likely to succeed at anything. For the first four-fifths of the movie he looks, moves, and talks like a busted up old man. As a high school sophomore, I wanted nothing more than for him to get over it, to get his act together and start shooting people. That’s what I was there for!

Then we come to THE SCENE. William Munny’s old (and only) friend, the only truly likeable character in the movie, a character Munny dragged into this job, has been brutally killed. We, the audience, learn the news at the same time as Munny himself, and we’re so amazed at this turn of events, so focused on figuring out just how things could have gone so horribly wrong, that we don’t even notice (at least, I didn’t) that Munny has quietly taken the whisky bottle and started drinking.

It’s an absolutely chilling moment. William Munny may have become old, weak, and uncertain in the years since he stopped drinking, but he’s also swapped the life of a murderer to become a father and farmer. We witness, in this scene, twenty-odd years of moral progress reversed in a few moments. William Munny the doddering father is erased – he erases himself – and all that remains is William Munny, the guy I thought I wanted to see all along. And he is terrifying.

This scene reminds me – as does the movie more generally – of Homer’s Iliad. For sixteen books, Manslaughtering Achilles has done nothing more fearsome than sulk in his tent listening to music. Only when Patroklos is killed do we see Achilles, the real Achilles, emerge. That, too, is an astounding scene. When he emerges from his tent, unarmed, unarmored (Patroklos borrowed his armor), he only needs to scream, and the Trojans begin dying, running over each other in their haste to escape.

It’s the moment that the entire poem has been aiming toward. The first time I read the Iliad, however, in that very moment I started to suspect that I didn’t realize what I’d been asking for. Whatever moderation Achilles might have had, whatever human restraint, has been scoured utterly away. He becomes the perfect killer, slaughtering unarmed men he spared only months before, carving apart helpless Trojan prisoners, utterly heedless of their pleas, indifferent, even, to his own honor. When Hektor, mortally wounded, begs for a noble burial, Achilles replies, “No more entreating of me, you dog […] I wish only that my spirit and fury would drive me to hack your meat away and heat it raw…” (Trans. Lattimore)

William Munny, too, will have his aristeia, the unstoppable killing spree that I thought I wanted from the very start. When it finally comes, however, it isn’t triumphant. It is terrible in the oldest sense of the word, which comes to us from the Greek, treëin: to tremble.

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Brian Staveley's debut novel The Emperor's Blades won the David Gemmell Morningstar Award 2015 and is out now in paperback.

Its sequel, The Providence of Fire, is out today in paperback. 

Click the images for extracts: