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.