Some years ago, the writer and movie blogger known as Mr. Peel examined John Wayne‘s final film, The Shootist, in another of his splendid film essays. Tucked down within the post of that underrated 1976 film (directed by Don Siegel, the influential director of The Killers and Dirty Harry), he initially linked it to a popular film out at the time. The Oscar-neglected Gran Torino:
“Looking around the net, I can tell that I’m definitely not the first person to link Clint Eastwood’s GRAN TORINO with THE SHOOTIST, the last film John Wayne ever made, but the point still seems worth making.”
If you’re familiar with either of those films, we may all be of the same mind as to the connection. I think it clearly evident, as do a number of Eastwood fans. The latter being legion in that regard. Delving further on the subject, the writer of the fascinatingly named Mr. Peel’s Sardine Liqueur site expanded on the relationship of these Western paragons by associating The Shootist with a certain, and justly deserved, Best Picture:
“How many films better than UNFORGIVEN have there been in the past twenty years? Not very many, I’d say.”
Since Unforgiven is one of my all-time favorite films, and top pick in the genre (whether it is a Western or not), that article (and its sentiment) necessitated that I, once again, look back on that 1992 motion picture. In point of fact, I introduced this film to my son just last year, when it was screened as part of the Autry Museum’s film series. He loved it. And in keeping with traditional fare, it was presented at the museum’s Wells Fargo Theater in 35mm, too. Fair warning, some spoilers are ahead in this appreciation piece. So,
“Any man don’t wanna get killed better clear on out the back.”
For many years prior, my favorite Clint Eastwood western was The Outlaw Josey Wales, which was released the same year as The Shootist. However, in 1992 all of that changed. At least, for me. It was the year Unforgiven came out, and there will have to be something pretty extraordinary to dislodge the film’s achievement from my mind. Although, it should be stated for the record, TOJW remains a close second in Eastwood’s staple of Westerns.
What made this film so great was the fact the director/star (and an icon of the genre even before this production) came together with an equally matched supporting cast, cinematographer, and screenplay. They gelled to create a film, regardless that it’s an oater, for the ages.
Schofield Kid: “Ned, we could kill them tomorrow.”
Ned: “I don’t kill nobody without him.”
Schofield Kid: “We don’t need him, the two of us could do it. Besides, he ain’t nothin’ but a broken-down pig farmer.”
Unforgiven‘s story was one that worked on a number of levels. While it begins with one insecure cowboy and a prostitute of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, the result cascades into an unforgivable act of violence. That reaction, something distinctly male but understood by all, will only reverberate and compound itself all the way to the final act. Just a single, stupid, and savage deed to get it underway. Its momentum, having an evil life of its own, will beget more on a similarly rainy, and equally blood-soaked, night down the line.
The local sheriff’s, “Little Bill” Daggett (Gene Hackman in top award form), less-than adequate consequence for the cowboys involved only fuels the fire — chiefly, for the victim’s fellow prostitutes led by the fierce Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher). Thus, it is this group of women, powerless in the eyes of the men, who are the instigators to the injustice of it all.
“Just because we let them smelly fools ride us like horses don’t mean we gotta let ’em brand us like horses. Maybe we ain’t nothing but whores but we, by god, we ain’t horses.”
They will look outside of the law, since it’s done nothing for them and their mutilated cohort, in search of retribution. The revisionist angle of the film is at the core of the tale. Its modern approach, expressed in its realistic depiction of violence and its aftereffects, both pulled it away from the mythic of Westerns past (of which Mr. Eastwood shared in) while adhering to the tenets and handiwork of the genre.
To the filmmakers credit, though, it is not an entirely grim tale. The use of humor is effective as a counterpoint throughout the yarn. Even so, I’d go as far to say that this film strays into the realm of film noir for the way it frames, literally and figuratively, its drama.
And so, it’s that word-of-mouth bounty of $1000, placed on the trails and in the ears of any ‘randy’ cowboy or passersby that come in for a “game of billiards” in Big Whiskey, that’s the impetus. “Hell, the word has probably gone all the way down to Texas by now…”, being what Little Bill surmises after learning of the women’s offered reward. This promise of a “sum paid for a killing” will find its way to those avariciously inclined.
The neophyte in the entire game is the, so-called, Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett). And it’ll be through him that the audience will eventually uncover one William Munny (Eastwood). A poor, widowed Kansas pig farmer trying to make ends meet for his two young children. The Kid’s heard, in passed down and whispered tales, that Munny was once one of the most cold-blooded bounty hunters there ever was. A “…known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition…”, he concludes the grizzled figure would be an asset to have for the quest ahead. Just like a loaded gun.
Nevertheless, Little Bill plans on making an example of whoever comes to send a counter message for those “willing”. A vicious one. The build-up to the inevitable confrontation between the good man and bad is archetypical to the canon of the Western. The lawman standing in the way of the villain and deadly payback. Yet, Unforgiven consistently flips the genre’s precepts on end. Is Munny really the bad guy since he’s only desperately seeking a payday to keep his children from starving? Would Little Bill have to do what he plans if he only punished the perpetrator and gave the victim any kind of pity or thought?
Who is the real villain, or the good guy, in the tale?
“All on account of pulling a trigger.”
The film’s strength, like those Westerns from the 50s, is that it pondered it all with a conscience. Done with great care, Unforgiven makes the case that nothing is black or white. Eastwood’s film is marvelously ambiguous. And the first to regret their involvement in the endeavor will be English Bob (the late Richard Harris). The older, colorfully haughty, gun-for-hire who comes looking to collect — along with his dime store biographer (played to smarmy perfection by Saul Rubinek) — will become Little Bill’s precedent.
Still, it will be Munny’s longtime friend and partner, Ned Logan (the always great Morgan Freeman) who’ll feel the true brunt of it all. In fact, Ned’s requiem is foreshadowed early on by the lingering, doleful expression of his Indian wife.
Unforgiven, besides bringing a marvelous cast of lead and character actors together, has an absolutely stellar screenplay written by David Webb Peoples as its match. In a feat of elegant writing, Peoples effortlessly debunks many a Western myth with his script. At the same time, contrary to that theme, it still managed to come off heroic. Though, in an entirely ominous fashion.
Clint knew that when he obtained the rights to this screenplay many years prior. It’s to his credit that he recognized it as such, and was smart enough to hold on to it until he was the right age and maturity to bring it off as an actor, and as a director.
William Munny is both very close and far distant from his earlier Man With No Name character. In Clint’s eyes, this character was the summation of him as a Western icon. Eastwood’s own career in the genre only added to the story. William Munny’s being is of a troubled man, one who was ‘turned’ from drink and violence years ago by the love of a good woman (she’s only hauntingly referred to in the prologue/epilogue). He is a man struggling with his past, looking to avoid poverty (for his kids) and damnation (for his past deeds) — only to find he can’t have both.
Like John Ford’s The Searchers, the true fight in Unforgiven is for the soul of its villain, not its hero. He’ll learn that the cost of violence, to twist a phrase by Mark Twain,
“… cannot compromise for less than 100 cents on the dollar and its debts never outlaw.”
Munny attempts at rejecting his past as he makes his way to his destiny in Wyoming do resonate, but have little weight by the time he reaches his destination. Eastwood, in my mind, has never really received his due as an actor (especially early on in his career). He looked like he doing little in his films, the term ‘laconic’ being used much by critics and his fans. That is, until you realize he’s been doing it all, right there in front of you.
“Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”
It’s my belief Eastwood’s Unforgiven, by ride’s end, will attest to the praise it has earned. And, the film will sharply come back on itself. Long ago, this was the reason I listed the film as my answer to a question in a Dennis Corralio movie quiz: “Favorite movie that is equal parts genre film and a deconstruction or consideration of that same genre.” Little Bill, by his actions as a good man gone bad, will have the audience pulling for the reformed wrongdoer. To have him take up the drink once more, and summon back the demon. And the real, unwritten, dark legend will return, with consequences for all.
Unfortunately for Bill Daggett, even with his skills as a lawman, he’ll meet more than his match. A bad man who failed at being good. The epitome of violence and revenge, and all without an ‘Undo’ command. In one of the best and simplest exchanges of the film, at the climatic moment, the essence of this becomes clear. Little Bill says, “I’ll see you in Hell, William Munny.” To which his analog simply and knowingly replies, “Yeah.”
I used to think the film’s title referred to the violent, stupid act at its beginning. But now, more than twenty years later, I believe its Munny’s realization by the final scene of his true legacy — that which cannot be forgotten, nor forgiven.
Note: Another wonderful aspect of David Webb People’s screenplay is that none of the four main male characters are what they first seem. Munny’s feebleness at farming, Daggett’s folksy humor and prudence, English Bob’s civilized manner, and Ned’s nonchalance return toward killing. One of the keys to the film is the changes each character goes through by the story’s conclusion — everyone is overturned. There are no heroes in this motion picture. Yet, none of the men presented are entirely black or white either — just awash in soul-robbing grays.
It also should be mentioned that this was the most noirish of Westerns. Cinematographer Jack N. Green accomplished an extraordinarily beautiful job in his lensing of the film. He etched a magnificent visual canvas for such a story to play across, and shot it mostly in the contrast of shadows and highlights well-known to film noir. A genre, the term means ‘black film’ in French, marked by its mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace. That’s Unforgiven to a tee, if you ask me.
Also, I think film critic Kenneth Turan said it best regarding the film:
“Simultaneously heroic and nihilistic, reeking of myth but modern as they come, it is a Western for those who know and cherish the form, a film that resonates with the spirit of films past while staking out a territory quite its own.”
This film won four deserved ’92 Academy Awards (Picture, Supporting Actor, Director, and Film Editing), and was dedicated by Eastwood to his mentors, Don Siegel and Sergio Leone. Fittingly, Clint himself wrote the backbone theme of the movie, the haunting Claudia’s Theme. This is one of the most grim and dusky Best Picture winners ever (and only the third Western in film history to do so). In my opinion, it’s also Eastwood’s Dark Masterpiece.