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Weekly Classics: Unforgiven

Published May 25, 2012 12:57pm


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Clint Eastwood in "Unforgiven"
Classic Western films (including the celebrated “Spaghetti Westerns”) are an essential portrayal and characterisation of the American spirit. And if you think “Western,” you probably think Clint Eastwood. If any one man represented the genre’s idealised American masculinity, it is him.

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.

View’s weekly classics archive here.

Nadir Siddiqui is a photographer and interactive producer at You can view some of his photography here.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


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Comments (16) Closed

Usman May 25, 2012 02:20pm
(Regarding the last sentence of your first paragraph) I think you might have forgotten a certain John Wayne....
Sami May 25, 2012 02:25pm
You missed a subtle point and made the prostitutes sound vindictive. The cowboy attacked the prostitute merely because he was impotent and she was in a situation where he realized that. She did not actually provoke him. And the prostitutes demanded that she be recompensed for her loss, as she had no retirement benefits nor a career waiting for her. She would have starved to death in her current situation. Yet Dagget's justice involved paying the saloon owner who 'owned' the prostitutes and nothing for the injured woman. Frustrated at being denied justice because they were 'fallen' women, the prostitutes decided the hit.
rk singh May 25, 2012 03:52pm
a masterpiece of a movie. no doubt. Morgan freeman was great too.
Hariharan.S May 25, 2012 04:09pm
I love this movie because this movie was taken by Clint Eastwood to pay homage to the character he potrayed.. One good point about the movie as there are no good or bad here....Everyone is grey .. Right from the two farmers who cut the woman to the local sheriff and the schofield Kid to the Munny... Its a pity that Al Pacino stole the best actor award from Clint Eastwood for this movie... For the Spaghetti western fans,this movie is a treat
Arjun May 25, 2012 05:44pm
And he who was called the duke, John Wayne did vehemently protest Unforgiven and blamed Eastwood for perverting the western. :)
pakistani May 25, 2012 07:12pm
one of my all time favourite film, that ending was really superb.
Nadir Siddiqui May 25, 2012 07:46pm
While I was researching the film I found out that Bob's biography named "Duke of Death" (which Little Bill keeps pronouncing "Duck of Death") is actually a reference to John Wayne.
pete May 25, 2012 09:46pm
One of the most interesting Western ever made with the great ensemble of talented actors, great direction depicting a side of American culture that helps us understand their heritage and ancestry which is so different from the northeast.
Danish May 26, 2012 04:44am
Just saw this movie yesterday while flying from Multan to Karachi..kept me engrossed for the entire flight. Beautiful direction. Everyone acted great. The last fight seemed kind of overboard, but then, the main purpose was to put it in context to what Little Bill had explained to Beauschamp, "Being a good shot or being quick with a pistol, that don't do no harm, but it don't mean much next to being cool headed! A man who'll keep his head, not get rattled under fire, black as night will kill ya!!." "But if the other guy's quicker and fires first, then he'll..." "Then he'll be hurrying and he'll miss!" Munny kept his cool and came out on top despite being outnumbered 6 to 1.
Asim May 26, 2012 09:05am
Had to comment about this post coz its one of my all time favourite movies. Eastwood, Freeman, Hackman, Harris all played their roles brilliantly.
Baloch May 26, 2012 09:46am
Thanks for the wonderful Blogs....a different take then usually hear from Pak papers. C E (as he is called among the friends) is a true legend, brought many stories to the life, including Unforgiven. Most of his dialogues are master piece (written by him), still to date, many writers try to follow the foot steps, but no match. I think after John Wayne (in his own style), Mr. Eastwood took the center stage with his tribute to Western Movies. Including some of the block busters, where subjects were far away from Barren Land, Horses, and Guns. NO MATCH TO HIM. BRAVO.....
Raza May 26, 2012 09:51am
well after the good, the bad, the ugly this film took another flight to greatness eastwood & freeman just keeps getting better .. a classic !
Agha Ata May 26, 2012 01:29pm
Nadir, you look like the youth of Clint Eastwood. :)
citoyen May 27, 2012 09:08am
Super article Nadir! A wonderful tribute to a wonderful film. Saw it as a teenager , in Kolkata at the American Library and it made a huge impression on me. I love "The Good.." to bits but this film is something special. Reminds me of Kurosawa in its treatment of theme. Thank you for this article.
Shahzad Naseem May 27, 2012 02:44pm
John Wayne died in 1979 The Unforgiven was made in 1992. Another Western myth methinks!!!
Mubeen Alum May 28, 2012 07:16am
Clint Eastwood is a great! One of my favorites! His recent movie Gran Torino! Simply O sum!