In an oft quoted interview-article, Norman Mailer once wrote: “What an American was Clint Eastwood… Maybe there was no one more American than he.”
In the late 1980s, Eastwood was already comfortably settled in this position and almost done with making Westerns. They were a thing of the past and he had already been immortalised in epic Westerns such as The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, and the Dirty Harry series. In fact, he was directing films by now. So what made him take interest in making another one?
He did it because it was going to be different. This was a Western that showed the other side of the story. It would not be about the cold, unflappable tough man, or about the dramatic glorified gun-fights, or the delivery of absolute justice. Eastwood was done with the simple story that had good guys and villains. He wanted to show the real west, which was a lot like the real world, a place where no one was perfect, things were not black and white, and death and violence carried a burden that was very real and very grim.
In his own words, he did “Unforgiven” because with it, he wanted to “bury the Western”.
“Unforgiven” depicts the dark side of the Western hero and is a more realistic portrayal of the American West. The movie’s treatment of plot and character in the grey areas breathes a reality into the story that is uncommon in classic Westerns – which not only makes the film interesting, but also much more current.
The film also hits home for those of us who are only too aware of American oversimplifications about “good and evil.” As a meditation on that idea, Eastwood wants to show us that things are not always that clear. This message is all the more poignant because it comes from one who has been the face of Western heroism himself. It is a sort of unveiling that brings his career to a full circle, and does so in a graceful and beautiful style.
The movie is about Edward Munny and his partner, a couple of retired outlaws who “pick up their guns one last time to collect a bounty.”
It opens with a beautiful shot: A man in silhouette buries someone under a tree. The accompanying text 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 expected, but of smallpox. That was 1878.”
The man in the shot is William Munny (Eastwood). We see him in the year 1880; he is an old man, his wife has died but not before changing him from his wild, drunken, criminal ways. He now he lives an isolated, reformed life as a pig-farmer and we are introduced to his character as he is falling and stumbling with his livestock in the pen, covered in dirt and humbled by age.
Elsewhere, in the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, we witness a crime; an angry cowboy attacks a prostitute named Delilah, cutting her face and leaving her severely scarred. The sheriff is called. He is named Little Bill Daggett (played by Gene Hackman). Little Bill orders the cowboy and his partner to be whipped (the partner was not involved in the assault except to try and stop it).
This proposed punishment outrages the other women in the brothel – especially their leader (played by Frances Fisher), who thinks that they should be hanged for destroying Delilah’s livelihood.
Little Bill then announces a fine of horses to be given to the saloon owner (Skinny) by the cowboys. The furious women are still unsatisfied but are silenced by the men in the saloon. They later meet separately and decide to hire an assassin to kill both the cowboys. They pool all their resources, and start putting the word out that they will pay a thousand-dollar reward to anyone who will kill the two attackers.
This news reaches a young, ambitious assassin who calls himself, the Scofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett). He decides to seek out Munny as a partner, and finds him at his farm.
The Kid tells Munny about the reward, and a highly exaggerated story of the attack on Delilah. His account of the offence makes the scuffle and a morally ambiguous plea for justice into one of evil oppression and gruesome cruelty that must be righteously avenged by death. Munny is surprised, but mostly unmoved by such an apocryphal account (he has obviously had some experience with these).
He refuses the offer, and explains that his late wife has reformed him, and that he doesn't lead that vicious lifestyle anymore. After the boy leaves however, Munny thinks twice about his desperate circumstances: his pigs don’t seem to be doing too well, he is getting old and unable to handle the animals, and he has his two small children to look after. Soon he is testing his old guns and aim by firing (unsuccessfully) at a can on a tree stump.
Eventually Munny leaves his kids, and heads off clumsily on his horse to meet Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) who is his old partner.
Ned needs little convincing to be by his old friend’s side at this time of need, but his quiet and stern American-Indian wife, Sally is very angry at the sight of Munny. She gives him an evil-eye- look that holds a surprising amount of hatred and displeasure. Up until now, in spite of Munny’s insistence that he has done “terrible things”, it is almost impossible for us to imagine that this old, bumbling man has ever been anything but harmless. Sally’s cold, hard look however, gives us a hint that he really must have been the bringer of terrible times in the past.
Back in Big Whiskey word has started to spread about the bounty. Sheriff Little Bill is determined to keep the peace and keep the order at any cost. He decides to do this by making an example out of the first assassin, who arrives into town (wonderfully played by Richard Harris). Following which, both the townspeople and the audience are left in no doubt about sheriff’s determination to keep the order. Though he is essentially a peacekeeper, the line between “good” and “bad” is blurred once again when we see the ruthlessness of Bill’s mental and physical attacks on anyone who dares to cross his lines.
Meanwhile the two old partners Ned and Munny go and to join the boastful Kid. They set off together to complete their mission and collect their bounty in the town of Big Whiskey, where they will have to face the cowboys, Little Bill and an ugly side of their past that they did not want to revisit.
The script for this film, written by David Webb Peoples “floated around Hollywood for nearly 20 years” until Eastwood decided to do it. It won the Best Picture Oscar, and was only the third western ever to do that.
The film is dedicated to Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, who were Eastwood’s mentors, and was meant as a film which wouldn’t glorify guns or violence, rather portray the reality and brutality of it all. Gene Hackman wouldn’t do the film until he was convinced it would not condone gun-culture. Eastwood too, has been a long supporter of gun control in the USA.
Whether or not you enjoy Westerns, this film is an excellent watch. It has some amazing shots by cinematographer Jack N. Green, and fantastic acting from the likes of Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman and Richard Harris, not to mention Eastwood himself. The story too, is unique and enduring, truly making it the Western to end all Westerns.
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