Director: Clint Eastwood; Screenplay: David Webb Peoples; Cinematography: Jack N. Green; Studio: Warner Bros.; Producer: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Clint Eastwood (Will Munny), Gene Hackman (Little Bill Daggett), Morgan Freeman (Ned Logan), Richard Harris (English Bob), Jaimz Woolvett (The Schofield Kid), Saul Rubinek (W.W. Beauchamp), Frances Fisher (Strawberry Alice), Anna Levine (Delilah Fitzgerald), David Mucci (Quick Mike), Rob Campbell (Davey Bunting), Anthony James (Skinny Dubois)
- “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it…”
Back at 1959 in this countdown when I selected Rio Bravo as my top choice, I said that great Howard Hawks film was one of the two finest westerns that I had ever seen. I resisted the urge to give away what I thought the other one might be, but it should be no mystery at this point. Clint Eastwood played key roles in a number of classic westerns, but I don’t think that he ever starred in or directed a greater movie than Unforgiven. It is an almost formulaic analysis of this 1992 Best Picture winner to declare it to be a deconstruction of the myths surrounding the western in general and the persona of Eastwood in particular. But I think it still holds true, making it a fascinating document for that reason alone. There are not many instances that I know of where a director or artist directly addresses the persona that has been created around him and then summarily dismantled it.
It is necessary to have an understanding of the arc of Clint Eastwood’s career, which due to his iconic status is something that everyone is at least reasonably familiar with. This is a man whose reputation was built on ultimate tough guy roles – The Man With No Name in the trilogy by Sergio Leone and as the definitive hardened cop Harry Callahan in the Dirty Harry series. These are characters known for their bravado, for a shoot first ask questions later attitude, that live by the belief that there is never a problem that violence cannot solve. Both Blondie and Dirty Harry personify the image of a good guy who does not hesitate to use violence when they – and they alone – deem it necessary to accomplish something. Similar such conventions long reigned in the entire western genre. This is a world where there are clearly defined heroes and villains. The good guys operate in a world of fair fights and showdowns, never shirking from violence when it is necessary to take down the repulsive bad guys. The bad guys are obvious, with no question as to their evil motives or reprehensible actions.
Unforgiven upends such mythology by showing that never are (and never were) things as cut and dry as Hollywood has traditionally tried to make them.
Eastwood stars as William Munny, a former outlaw who fell in love with a woman who steered him toward the straight and narrow. Leaving his life as a gunslinger, Munny retires to his own land where he tries to make an honest living as a hog farmer. Tragedy strikes soon after they have two children as his wife dies from disease and Munny quickly discovers that he is not suited to be a farmer. He soldiers on, squeezing out a meager living, while trying to forget his past as the country’s most feared badman. This new persona is upset when a young man calling himself the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) rides to his farm and asks him for help on a bounty. In the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, there is a $1,000 reward for anyone that kills two men who cut up an innocent prostitute. Having had Munny’s reputation recited to him by an uncle, The Kid approaches William and proposes a fifty-fifty split of the reward for his help. Having been away from such ways for so long, Munny initially declines. But after realizing that the lives of his children are not going to improve as long as he remains a farmer, he ultimately decides to join The Kid. In the process, he enlists the help of his former partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), who also had been a retired farmer for a number of years.
What they are unaware of is what is waiting for them in Big Whiskey. The sheriff of the town, Little Bill (Gene Hackman), is the ultimate law and order officer. There is no gray area for him – the law is meant to be followed no matter what and his job is to ensure that such compliance is enforced. Little Bill quickly learns of the bounty that has been raised by a number of the town’s prostitutes and decides that he’ll have to take care of whatever cowboys and bounty hunters try to come and claim it. He has no intention of allowing such lawlessness to take place on his watch. Not realizing this to be the case, Will, Ned and the Schofield Kid casually ride into town and come into immediate conflict with Little Bill.
Traditional western conventions are not simply upended throughout the film, but are completely obliterated. As much as credit should go to Eastwood and his direction, much praise also has to be given to writer David Webb Peoples. He created a story in which precisely distinguishing the bad guys from the good can be quite complicated. Little Bill, our nominal villain, at the basest level is a sheriff who is extremely committed to see his job carried out properly. Eventually his methods certainly become questionable – and he lives up to the moniker of “villain” – but initially his intention is actually what one would want from an officer of the law. Because the viewer follows the story from the perspective of Will – meaning of course, following the iconic Eastwood – it becomes easy to side with Munny and his compatriots as those to root for. As the story progresses, though, it is gradually revealed that the history of the life of William Munny is nothing short of repugnant. He was a womanizer and alcoholic. He is routinely referred to as a “killer of women and children” and someone who never hesitated to shoot someone for the slightest offense – and do so from behind if necessary. For the majority of his life, Munny has been a horrible, horrible person.
What becomes so endearing about the William Munny character is his ability to recognize these facts. He knows that for most of his life he has been a desperado and seems to genuinely wish to put these terrible episodes behind him. This is what he was attempting to do in transforming himself into a farmer – he wanted to become a respectable human being. But it becomes impossible for him to escape his past. All the years of lawlessness, of robberies, of killings, cannot be buried no matter how far away he distances himself. The violence is inescapable.
And it is here that Eastwood completely dismantles the persona of the characters that made him famous. In those cases, the men rode into town and did what they needed to do, shot who they needed to shoot, killed who they needed to kill and then turned and rode into the sunset. Eastwood uses Will Munny to show that this is impossible. No one participates in violence like this and turns to ride away completely unscathed. Munny is the ultimate example of the fact that there is always a cost to such violence. When he is forced to revert to his old ways in order to finish his job and stand up to Little Bill, there is not the same triumphant feeling that is commonly found in the climaxes of John Ford or other classic westerns. Instead, there is an overriding sense of sadness. The sadness comes from realizing that in transforming himself back into the gunslinger of his past, Munny is giving up all the personal progress that he hoped for. The violence may serve him in this instance, but it cements the fact that his dream of being a peaceful father and farmer will never happen. His past is simply too much to overcome, the brutality and callousness that made him the most feared outlaw of his day is too much an integral part of who he is.
The interesting thing about the commentary on violence is the double-edge of such an analysis. This is because it’s impossible to deny the fact that Will’s use of violence ultimately gets what he set out for – he collects the reward and turns to ride home and also sees revenge carried out on Little Bill. So I don’t think that the message is intended to be that violence does not accomplish anything, as it clearly does. Or that violence should never, ever be utilized, because if ever there were circumstances where it would be understandable to lash out it would be after seeing your best friend tortured and killed and then hung in a storefront. What I take from it is this: that there is absolutely nothing romantic about the use of violence and if one does resort to it, be prepared to pay a heavy price in the process regardless of the result. I am always struck by how sad it is when the trio finally catches up with Davey (Rob Campbell) and gun him down, seeing the anguish of both Ned and Will.
I’ve spent little time on applauding individual performances or technical achievements and instead focused on themes and analysis, but I don’t know what I can say beyond what is routinely repeated about the performances. They are all-around exemplary. Gene Hackman deservedly took home an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Morgan Freeman is the consummate pro, proving once again that he has that Robert Duvall-like quality of being able to play any character in any type of film. Eastwood is outstanding as Will Munny, but probably deserves more recognition for his role as the director. The soundtrack from Lennie Niehaus is at times sparse, but perfectly fits the mood of the story. Typing this now I can picture the beautiful opening theme being played as Will, Ned and the Schofield Kid ride across the country. The amazing thing is that the movie manages to be greater even than these outstanding individual parts.
I also cannot end this without at least mentioning how incredible I think that the final shootout scene at the saloon is. I know of no other scene that is able to combine two such antithetical reactions. On one hand it plays on the traditional western idea of nothing being more cool – or dare I say badass – than someone walking into a gunfight horribly outnumbered and dropping everyone who opposes him. Even I fall for it every time, smirking whenever Eastwood delivers blunt lines like “Well, he should have armed himself if he’s going to decorate his saloon with my friend.” At the same time, the entire sequence breaks my heart as I realize what all of this means to Will Munny the man and am reminded of what he is losing. It’s a powerful scene however you look at it.
I love this movie… I don’t know what else I can say about it. Perhaps I’m gushing, but this is a movie that had an impact on me similar to Goodfellas. It’s one of those “signpost” films that have contributed significantly to who I am as a movie fan. This is the measuring stick I use to judge all contemporary westerns against and I’ve only seen one since Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid – meaning between 1974 and the present – that has even come close to the level of Unforgiven. That’s how highly I think of it.
Other Contenders for 1992: Another great year in the early 90s. There are a few films in 1992 that I would like to circle back to and write about after the countdown concludes. My favorite Michael Mann film is The Last of the Mohicans, another movie that has an exquisitely executed climax. While I don’t enjoy it as much as I did when I first saw it, I still think that Quentin Tarantino’s debut film Reservoir Dogs is entertaining throughout and is one of the most influential films of the decade. Glengarry Glen Ross (James Foley) contains another amazing performance from Jack Lemmon and the best of the writing of David Mamet. I have always felt that Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula is atmospheric and aside from a few casting missteps is very well done. John Woo made an outstanding if over the top action film in Hard Boiled. Robert Altman’s The Player is a funny, mysterious drama. And a personal favorite, while maybe not in the same artistic category as the other films mentioned, is My Cousin Vinny (Jonathan Lynn). It’s hilarious.