During the recent spate of 'thinking man's' westerns, especially The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, got me to thinking about the film that arguably re-kick started the sub genre way back in 1992, Eastwood's Unforgiven. So I thought I'd go back and take a look at this Oscar winning opus only to discover that, quite unbelievably, avforums movie reviews hadn't covered this film in High Definition. I was aghast! So to put this right tonight's feature is none other than that seminal classic, a film that took a tried and trusted genre and turned it on its head.
The linear plot line for Unforgiven is quite simple and could be summed up in one line; after a whore is viciously assaulted and the law refuses to protect them, they hire a killer to murder the men responsible. It takes a skilful director to eek that out into more than two hours. And who better than Clint Eastwood; an actor and director whose own work in the western genre, whose own persona and whose shear grit this very film sends up. His contribution to westerns either in front of or behind the camera is unprecedented, from his early TV appearances through the 'Man with no name' of Leone's directing, to his own classics, The Outlaw Josey Wales (a personal favourite) and Pale Rider; his character remained somewhat unchanged. A hero. Be it a violent thug, a killer if you will, his presentation was always that of the 'good'. And it is with great kudos and self awareness that he takes that knowledge of himself and shines a light on exactly who he was playing for all those years. For whilst the plot of Unforgiven maybe simple the characters that make it up are anything but.
William 'Bill' Munny (Clint Eastwood) is a retired killer, an old man, somewhat down on his luck, with a dead wife and growing kids, living day to day and trying to forget his past and the horrors he committed. However when a young and exuberant man, The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) rides to him telling the story of the 'whores gold' it takes a while, but very reluctantly Bill agrees, but more out of mercenary pursuit that any dreams of glory or revenge. Perhaps because he sees himself in the youthful eyes, perhaps because he hope to dissuade the Kid from a downward spiral, the pair head out along with Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) a long time friend, partner and confident of Bill's, a conscience almost. The interaction with these three characters and the devilish job they are going to do would have made a thrilling story on its own, but there are still many, many layers yet to come.
The whores live in the town of Big Whiskey, whose sheriff is Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), a hard as nails man who wants nothing more than to keep his town safe; but enforces that rule with a rod of iron. A classic thug with a badge you might think, but when he starts to explain his story to W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), a writer we will hear more about later, we understand a little more about this man and the job he has to do. Dealing with hard men, he has to be harder. He literally has no fear, relying on his gun, his wits and his resolve; in that order. In the right circumstances his rule would have a peaceful town, however, the times are not ready for that, he is not ready for that; his denial of the whores request is what brings the town problems and his enforcing of his law is what brings about the retribution chaos. What goes around comes around. Though it is his shear naked aggression and disregard for life that has managed to get him to this position; shown so eloquently when he disarms English Bob (Richard Harris), a known and feared killer, when he comes to town.
It is these three characters of Munny, Daggett and Bob that demonstrate the three faces of the west and how it has been portrayed in the past. Bob is the hired killer, the man with no name, if you will, with a gaggle of daring dos and a history to prove it. He lives off his name as his fame spreads and the stories become embellished. Daggett is the man of now, stripping away the past, he knows the truth, but more than that he does not fear it. For it is fear that will be a man's downfall, fear of consequence, fear of history, fear of death. Daggett has no fear. And Munny, the retired, the outcast, one who has lived through the history, the stories and come out of the other side and wants nothing more to do with it. He had no fear, now he does. And it takes a horrific turn of evens to bring that back, but when it does he shows that Daggett is only a puppy when compared.
This brings me to one of the most interesting characters, Beauchamp. He is writing a history of the west and is following Bob around drafting the stories he is told onto paper. He interviews everyone he comes into contact with, sifting through the many different tales he is spun trying to determine the truth. It takes Daggett to open his eyes to this, believing as he did everything Bob told him. When he is put straight it is so interesting that this man becomes the physical manifestation for the films message; literally rewriting the past. He is putting straight the violence, seeing it for what it was, no heroes, just desperate men in desperate situations, or worse cowardly men in cowardly situations. There is no glory in the old west and it should never been seen or told as such. Few films have broached the touchy subject, those that have are met with varying degrees of subtlety; here Eastwood gets the pathos just right. Even right at the end, when Beauchamp tries to quiz Munny about his order of shooting in a sly nod to Josey, his reply sums up just how many of these so called famed outlaws made their way through life.
Unforgiven accumulated four Oscars, another thirty awards and some fifteen further nominations upon its release and I'm not surprised. It is an amazing study of the people, the west and a whole genre with each and every person involved given the near career best performances. It hit at just the right time and continues to enthral with its message to this day. And even though a lot has already been said about this terrific film, I hope my little effort goes someway into explaining why I think this film is so well respected. I'm just sorry it took us so long to get to this one, but it was worth it.
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