“It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna’ have.”
It’s impossible to consider the genre of the Western without looking at the impact of the works of legendary actor/director Clint Eastwood. His name should be at the forefront of your mind when reflecting on the 60s Spaghetti Western era (where he partnered with Sergio Leone to create the classic ‘Dollars Trilogy), or the Revisionist Western movement during the 70s and 80s, where he started to direct his own work, including the seminal The Outlaw Josey Wales as well as his almost supernaturally-themed High Plains Drifter (his directorial debut) and Pale Rider. Indeed he starred in about a dozen Westerns over a period of three decades, culminating in arguably one of his finest works – the seminal anti-Western masterpiece, Unforgiven.
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 suspected, but of smallpox. That was 1878.
And so we are introduced to the character of William Munny, an ageing widowed pig-farmer who lives out in the middle of open country with his two young children. He’s a worn-out old man who is just about the antithesis of the “meaner-than-hell, cold-blooded, damn killer” that his reputation denotes. It’s precisely this reputation, however, that attracts the attention of the self-titled “Schofield Kid”, who approaches Munny with a view to partnering up for a well-paid job to avenge a prostitute who was cut up by her clients. The trouble is, it’s been years since he even picked up a gun, let alone shot anybody, but with more and more of his livestock getting sick he simply needs the money just to survive. So, with some trepidation, Munny elects to pick up his guns one last time.
Clint Eastwood’s 1992 film Unforgiven is, without a doubt, one of the greatest Westerns ever made. Sure, there have been several more classically-themed Western masterpieces both before (The Dollars Trilogy) and since (Open Range), several revisionist Western masterpieces (The Hired Hand, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) and even arguably the first great Western-to-end-all-Westerns, by Eastwood’s own mentor Sergio Leone, Once Upon a Time in the West. Across these we experienced more character-driven narratives, with daring anti-hero personifications that went against the classic Western approach of good versus evil, and we also saw how cowboys were slowly becoming outdated and obsolete within their own world – a reflection of the changing perceptions of Film Studios, who would increasingly shy away from such projects, believing that there simply wasn’t an audience for them anymore.
Yet Unforgiven stands apart in this list, not only remaining a rousing, quality Western in its basic story, but also examining the man behind the iconic cowboy image; the motivations behind revenge – and killing – and the toll it takes on a person’s psyche. It explores the reality behind the false characterisations that have since proliferated within all forms of media, including film and literature. In short, it takes everything you ever thought about classic Westerns and turns it on its head, revealing the truth beneath the facade; deconstructing, dissecting and disproving all of the clichéd genre tropes that have defined the Western since the advent of Cinema.
This was not Clint Eastwood’s first foray into directing, nor even his first Western directorial effort, indeed he had been down this particular road several times before; this particular script (by Blade Runner’s David Webb Peoples) had caught his attention back in the 70s, but he delayed the project partly because he wanted to wait until he was the right age to play the lead character, and partly because he wanted it to be his very last Western: a Western to end all Westerns.
“All right, I’m coming out. Any man I see out there, I’m gonna shoot him. Any sonofabitch takes a shot at me, I’m not only gonna kill him, but I’m gonna kill his wife, all his friends, and burn his damn house down.”
Dedicating the movie to his director mentors Sergio “Dollars” Leone and Don “Dirty Harry” Siegel, it would seem that Eastwood himself had finally reached the same great heights as those past masters, and whilst he would go on to direct a number of masterpieces, Unforgiven would remain, in the minds of many, his greatest accomplishment. It not only revitalised Eastwood’s then-dwindling career, but it also proved to be a shot to the heart of the long-dead Western genre itself, not least because of its unprecedented (for a Western) Oscar run, winning four Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director, and a further five Nominations, including Best Original Screenplay (for Webb’s story).
Amidst the artists who worked with him to craft this masterpiece were long-term collaborators Jack Green (whose stunning cinematography earned him an Oscar nod) and Joel Cox (who won Best Editor) and credit should certainly be given to them for the significant parts they played in this project.
Eastwood himself would get an Oscar nod for Best Actor (losing out to Pacino for Scent of a Woman) and it is, indeed, a marvellous lead performance from the veteran actor, who very precisely peels away the layers of all of his iconic Western roles, to reveal a wounded, damaged and palpably haunted old man beneath it all. Everything we’ve ever known from the man – and, in turn, from his characters – is revised here, and painted in an entirely unromantic light, to great effect: from his inability to mount a horse (despite his dozen Western performances, reputedly Eastwood himself always found it difficult working with horses) to his now-terrible aim with a pistol (so bad that he, almost comically, has to go and get his shotgun instead).
As the film progresses we see him catch fever in the rain and start mumbling almost incoherently about the lives he’s lost and the lives he’s taken – and what could have easily been dismissed as just the ramblings of a frightened old man soon become an introspective look at his own past history and, again, as a result, the history of the Western himself. All those people he’s shot – there’s nothing glamorous about it, just heads blown apart haunting him in his sleep.
“You remember that drover I shot through the mouth and his teeth came out the back of his head? I think about him now and again. He didn't do anything to deserve to get shot, at least nothin’ I could remember when I sobered up.”
Even when Eastwood’s retired gunslinger is pushed above and beyond (which, rather unusually for an Eastwood character, does not come about as a result of his getting beaten up – a scene which you’ll note that his character takes on the chin and bears no grudge about, seemingly resigned to deserving that, and more, for what he’s done in his life) he still never deludes himself about who he is, or the things that he will never be forgiven for. He has no illusions about right and wrong and, at the end of the day, knows that he is likely going straight to hell along with the rest of them.
Eastwood also assembled an all-star ensemble cast (certainly the best cast that he’d directed up until that point, and arguably one of the best casts that he has ever worked with) who brought the unusually defined characters to life.
Morgan Freeman (Glory, The Sum of All Fears) would play his old gunslinging partner-turned family man, Ned, in a role which, alongside his other collaboration with Eastwood – in Million Dollar Baby – remains one of the best of his career. He’d only recently found critical acclaim as a result of Driving Miss Daisy, and enjoyed some commercial success alongside Costner for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and Unforgiven cemented his position as one of the go-to supporting actors of his generation. His character of Ned, to some extent, represents the conscience to the once-cold-blooded killer that was Eastwood’s William Munny, and he’s more along for the ride just to support his old friend, rather than out of lust for blood or money.
Richard Harris (Gladiator, Patriot Games) would bring all the requisite faux bravado to his role as supposed hotshot Brit gunslinger English Bob, another assassin tempted by the reward for killing of the two men that cut up the prostitute. Often dismissed as a minor cameo, his part is actually crucial to Eastwood’s dissection of the Western stereotypes, with ‘Bob’ representing the atypical, cocky, effortlessly cool gunfighter, who rides into town and impresses everybody he meets with his charisma. Those who don’t warm to his forthright attitude are promptly reminded of his reputation as a deadly killer, when the reality is that his reputation is largely built on exaggeration and outright fabrication (particularly highlighted by the loss of all his airs and graces when he drops his faux posh Brit accent as he leaves town).
Which brings me to the fourth big actor on-board for this piece, the great Gene Hackman (The Firm, The Conversation). He brings weight to anything he is involved in, but as the character of the Sheriff, himself once a renowned gunslinger, “Little Bill”, he gives a tour-de-force performance, much deserving of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar bestowed upon him. There’s a tangible amount of tension in every one of his scenes, whether it’s when one of the prostitutes takes umbrage with his personal thoughts on ‘justice’, or even when a visitor in the home he is building by hand unwittingly makes a comment about how awful the builders must have been to make a leaky roof. Every scene with Hackman is a standout, memorable one, but a favourite has got to be a subtly-handed mindgame he plays on English Bob whilst relaying his take on the philosophy behind quick-draw gunfighting. It at once serves the purpose of the story itself, whilst also being yet another example of a deconstructed genre trope.
“Look son, being a good shot; 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 will keep his head and not get rattled under fire, like as not, he’ll kill you.”
Indeed Hackman’s Sheriff is probably more feared than respected, but he has plenty of skill and experience to back his reputation up, and, in the grand scheme of things, he is far from the villain you would usually expect in this kind of Westerns. At best, you could regard him as something of an anti-villain, although his actions, were they to be the subject of a show like HBO’s excellent Deadwood, would likely be regarded as more anti-heroic than actually villainous at all.
The whole quartet perfectly embody these rich and well-developed characters, who are all flawed in their own way, and whose actions are all justified to some extent. There are simply no heroes and no villains here – Eastwood’s own character openly admits as much – and it is more a tale of fate and inevitability than justice and redemption.
Even beyond these four main characters we have a rich supporting cast which includes Eastwood’s own then-girlfriend as the ‘head prostitute’ at the whorehouse; but amidst those there’s one role of particular importance to the dynamic of this exceptional anti-Western, and that is the part of the writer, Beauchamp, played by Saul Rubinek (True Romance). This supposedly factual writer has been charting his ‘take’ on the gunslingers of yesteryear and soon finds that everything he knows about the Wild West – just like everything we know as an audience through the staples of the Western genre itself – is built on exaggerations and even outright lies. Indeed it’s the revealing conversations that he has with Hackman’s Little Bill which throw a spotlight on the truth behind the fiction, and hammer home the harsh reality about the Old West: it was actually an amoral, unromantic era which has none of the glory that you would normally associate with the period, and which was full of good people inexplicably cut down in their prime, desperate people doing desperate things and cowards getting lucky in the draw. Few films would dare to paint the Wild West in such a way, and it’s this kind of anti-Western approach which would not only help Unforgiven stand head-and-shoulders above the rest, but also help pave the way for excellent anti-Western projects like HBO’s Deadwood.
“I don’t deserve to die like this.”
“Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”
There’s no denying that the end result is a masterpiece. Not only do Eastwood and co. effortlessly deconstruct the genre’s long-cast stereotypes – the heroic stranger; the corrupt sheriff etc. – and reinvigorate the tired routine by re-envisioning the entire approach to the classic Western, but, at the same time, they still manage to tell a genuinely exciting classic Western revenge tale. So whilst you are watching a veteran of the genre examine it in a way that had barely been touched on before, you’re also watching a great Western in its own right. In fact this dual-function of the film is probably the biggest reason why the film is one of those rare few that transcend the restrictions of their own genre to become great movies in and of themselves.
You don’t need to love Westerns to love Unforgiven. In fact, some of those who did not warm to it on a first viewing (in my impatient teenage youth, I was guilty of precisely that) were the same viewers who were expecting more of a trademark Eastwood Western, with quick-draw gunfights and more clearly defined heroes and villains. This has elements that satisfy on that level – not least of which is the memorable closing confrontation – but it is so much deeper and more resonant than you would expect from a simple old-school Western. It’s a meditation on life and mortality, death and murder; old men coming to terms with the fact that they will never be forgiven for the things that they have done.
“That’s right. I’ve killed women and children. I’ve killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another. And I’m here to kill you.”