REVIEW: Unforgiven (1992) – Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman

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

Unforgiven. Image property Warner Bros.

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.

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The Celluloid Saloon

Welcome to The Celluloid Saloon, the hard-drinkin’est, hard-fightin’est place on the digital frontier!

The Celluloid Saloon, as you may have guessed, is a blog about Westerns. Updating twice a week, it will offer news, reviews, previews, and the occasional interview. It will focus on Western films from 1960 to today, but won’t shy from the occasional foray backwards in time or out of the cinema, or even to pursue the soul of the Western out of its own genre if need be.

The Western has been a Hollywood staple throughout film history, dating back as far as 1903’s The Great Train Robbery, with its Golden Age taking place between the 1930s and 1950s.

The frontier mythology of individualism, nobility and violent justice has become an inextricable part of the American character, and the cultural lexicon of the entire world. The Western gave the US one of its most revered Presidents in the form of Ronald Reagan, its distinct indigenous political ideology of libertarianism, its sense of itself as the world’s policeman (or sheriff).

There’s no doubt that the basic appeal of the Western is through male fantasy fulfilment. In a society where we are more and more regulated and quiescent, where a man’s home is his castle so long as he doesn’t want to do anything crazy like build a shed near the fence line, and justice is a court appointment eight months away, the Western offers a world of utter moral simplicity, where a horse, a revolver and a good pair of boots are the only necessities of life.

The archetypal Western hero is the ultimate individualist, riding from plain to plain without personal bonds, answering to no master; where he is drawn into the affairs of others it is through his own nobility, in defending the innocent, or through his stoic sex appeal, which of course draws any women who cross his path directly to him. Yet, by the end of the movie he is always able to ride onwards, disappearing into the sunset.

In each man’s moral universe, antagonists may be passive-aggressive co-workers, overbearing bosses, or the interminable burden of debt and wage slavery; the Western offers a world where the bad guys are all the way bad and violence is always the solution. While real-life violence hurts a complex individual and has far-reaching consequences, the fantasy violence of the Western is against a leering Black Hat, a cypher whose death is an absolute good.

The Western is far more complicated than that, of course. Starting in the mid ‘50s, the background of the Old West has been used to criticise the eye-for-an-eye philosophy so fundamental to the Western, and to explore the genocidal conquest of America from its indigenous tribes. Western motifs have been used to explored the furtive and tortured nature of homosexual love in a conservative society, and the accretion of conventions and concessions that forms a society where none previously existed.

Far fewer Westerns are produced today, but if anything they have become more critically respected. 2010’s True Grit, 2007’s There Will Be Blood and 2005’s Brokeback Mountain all received Best Picture nominations at the Academy Awards, and 2007’s No Country for Old Men, 1992’s Unforgiven and 1990’s Dances With Wolves actually received the statue. Clint Eastwood, the most iconic cowboy after the Duke himself, is one of the world’s most revered filmmakers.

There’s so much more for Westerns to tell us, and so much more to be said about them. So, let’s get started on the discussion.