Ned, 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.
– William Munny, Unforgiven
Clint Eastwood has made a lot of grim Westerns. His entire career was built on grim. So you’ll understand I mean something when I say Unforgiven is a whole new kind of grim.
Only the third Western to ever receive the Academy Award for Best Picture, Unforgiven deconstructs many of the agreed conventions of exactly the terse gunfighting films that Eastwood made his name in.
Eastwood’s character, William Munny, plays a “known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition”, who settled down as a farmer after falling in love and getting married. Years later, his wife is dead, and theKansaspig farm he depends on to support his two children is failing.
In these dire straits, when a young braggart styling himself the ‘Schofield Kid’ (Jaimz Woolvett) comes to enlist his help collecting a $1000 bounty on two cowboys who cut and disfigured a prostitute in Big Whiskey, Wyoming. Munny refuses at first, but eventually enlists his former partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) to take the job.
In Big Whiskey, however, town sheriff and former gunfighter Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) is determined to maintain the peace, no matter who he has to brutalise or kill.
At its core, Unforgiven is an indictment of the conventional Western’s portrayal of violence. There are no clean, fair fights in this film, and the losers do not simply drop out of frame with a pained expression – nor do they generally deserve to die. Morality is always ambiguous. For example, of the two cowboys Munny set out to kill, only one actually disfigured the prostitute, while the other actually tried to stop him, and is genuinely remorseful, trying to give her a prize pony to make amends. He, of course, is the one who dies the ugliest death, with a bullet through his belly, screaming at first for water and then just from pain. The message is that vigilante justice is sloppy justice, and doesn’t deserve the glory it has been assigned.
An inspired element is the inclusion of Saul Rubinek as W.W. Beauchamp. Beauchamp is a chubby, bespectacled writer who has come from the east with fanboyish stars in his eyes for the Wild West of the dime novels. Initially following gunfighter English Bob as his biographer, he soon loses his innocence about the noble duels he had expected to see, and is too terrified to ever touch a gun himself, which could itself be taken as a rebuke to Western fans.
The film also uses Beauchamp to explore an element of human nature often ignored in the Western – the natural inhibition against killing. This is a point the film makes again and again, as often the difference between living and dying is simply the reluctance to kill another human being. At Unforgiven’s heart is the overwhelming weight of taking another human life, a weight which settles heavily on all the film’s characters.
Clint Eastwood actually saved the concept for Unforgiven for over a decade, and has said it “summarised everything I feel about the Western.” It is certainly a great achievement, with a cutting edge production and shooting style for its time that presaged The Proposition, Deadwood, and indeed all recent Westerns with any gravitas.
The question is should Unforgiven’s devastating deconstruction of the Western affect our appreciation of the rest of the genre? It’s worth remembering that Eastwood did some of his best work knowing that Unforgiven was in his future. As much as it has something important to say about mortality, about guilt and the value of human life, that’s not to say it should detract from the escapist value of the Western in general. Still, Unforgiven is a must-see for any Western fan.