Week 14 Review: Unforgiven
“It’s a helluva thing, killing a man.
You take away all he’s got, and all he’ll ever have.”
“Well, at least he had it comin’.”
“Kid, we all got it comin.”
It is with this quote that the heart of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven can be found. This is a film about perspective and how it is relevant in terms of morality. It is deeply thematic yet also entertaining, making it one of our greatest pictures. Here is one of the best American Westerns.
Big Whisky, Wyoming is a town ruled with an iron fist by its legendary sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman). Little Bill is not an evil man, just at times a sadistic one. He is one of the last great living sheriffs of the Old West, coming from the dangerous towns of Cheyenne, Abilene and Hays. In Big Whisky, Little Bill establishes a town with a city ordinance that is almost incredulous in the Old West- no firearms allowed. This ordinance should have limited knives, too. The film begins when Delilah (Anna Levine), a sweet, young prostitute at the local brothel, is brutally cut up by passing cowboys.
Little Bill sees no immediate danger with the cowboy, after all, Delilah is simply a whore. He convinces the cowboys to pay the tavern owner (Anthony James) a payment of seven horses in order to compensate him for “damaged property.” The women feel slighted, to say the least. They pool together their resources and come up with 1000 dollars in bounty to the men that kill the two cowboys that cut up Delilah.
Will Munny (Clint Eastwood) once lived a life of wickedness. He drank, beat animals, and killed many men, women and children. For the last decade he has been living in a small home as a widower with his 2 small children- his wife now dead for two years. It is clear that Will loved his wife deeply; she saved him from his drinking and murderous nature. A common motif in the American Western is the redemptive power of women, and Unforgiven is no exception. Will now lives his days as a hog farmer, albeit a horrible one, attempting to raise his two children in what appears to be a daily struggle for survival with their nearly destitute living conditions. Will is now in his sixties, and has not picked up a gun in over 11 years. It is in this situation that Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) comes calling.
The Schofield Kid has heard about the bounty and has also heard about the notorious Will Munny, killer of women and children; a man with a soul as cold as snow. The kid, cocky and arrogant, appeals to Will’s newly saved side by explaining that the victim in the crime is a woman, and embellishes the story to Will by explaining that the cowboys cut her face, ears, and eyes out. “They even cut her teats,” the kid says. It is only a matter of time before Will leaves his children to go join The Kid in a hunt for the cowboys, bringing along his good friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) for help. It is agreed that the bounty will be split three ways.
Little Bill finds out about the bounty. Determined not to have assassins in his town, he sends a message through English Bob (Richard Harris) a former gunfighter that happens to be traveling through the town. English Bob is accompanied by WW. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), a writer of pulp Westerns. Beauchamp is enamored with the Old West and is chronicling the tales of English Bob for a biography. It is at this point when Little Bill finds Bob and beats him in front of the entire town. He takes Beauchamp as his own biographer and sends Bob away battered and beaten.
Will, Ned and The Schofield Kid eventually make their way to Big Whisky. It is a recurrent theme throughout the picture that Will and Ned are over the hill when it comes to work like this. Will has long put past his evil past having been saved by his wife, and Ned his own. There is a running joke that Will can’t ever even seem to mount his horse on the first try, and at the beginning of the film he is seen trying to shoot a tin can with his pistol, and failing. The Kid has a secret of his own as well- he is nearly blind and can only see up to 50 feet in front of him. He also has never really killed a man, although he lies and says that he has. The dilemma of murder is the heart of Unforgiven. The three killers slowly ride towards an act that they all do not want to do, but need to do. In the end, Ned (the only person that never commits murder) is the one that is killed by Little Bill. Little Bill publicly displays his body in town and the Will of old comes into the town for vengeance, like a great angel of death.
Released in 1992, Unforgiven marked the return of the Western to the silver screen from which it had been absent for decades. It was labeled by critics as the “Anti-Western” due to its strong anti-violence messages. This makes Unforgiven one of the deepest and most satisfying films in the genre. Every kill in the film is felt on a moral as well as visceral level. There is no honor in what these men are doing- it is just the only way they know how to work through their issues.
-Gene Hackman as Little Bill
The performances are all superb. Gene Hackman won Best Supporting Actor in the 1992 Oscars for his portrayal as Little Bill. At first glance it is the most straightforward performance in the film. Hackman plays the character with his perspective always in mind. Little Bill does not see himself as the villain in the story, but the hero- which is exactly the way that Hackman plays him in each scene. Even the scenes featuring the character at his most sadistic have a sort of calmness due to the way Hackman works the performance. It is kind of brilliant.
The female roles are without a doubt the strongest in the genre. Francis Fisher is outstanding as Strawberry Alice, the Madame that decides that the dignity of a woman is worth more than some horses. She has an excellent scene early in the picture where she rallies her troops. “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.”
Morgan Freeman is pretty much always great in everything he does. He brings a certain dignity to Ned that gives the character resonance. We get the feeling that Ned and Will have been through a lot together. Nearly all of the supporting class is played in vivid detail. There is not a performance that misses a beat.
Clint Eastwood is a national treasure. He is currently one of a very few cinematic legends that have been actively working since the golden age of Hollywood. Starting out his career on TV with Rawhide in the 1950’s, he went on to be the great Man with No Name in the great Sierra Leone spaghetti westerns, only to find fame as Dirty Harry in the 1970’s. His work in the 1980’s was primarily action oriented, with the exception of his great film “Bird” based on jazz musician Charlie Parker. Unforgiven was Eastwood’s first great film performance and directorial effort. It was the first film to win him a Best Director Oscar, and it is still Eastwood’s finest accomplishment. Since his work with Unforgiven, Eastwood has created several other masterpieces in Million Dollar Baby (another Oscar winner), Mystic River, The Bridges of Madison County, the great Letters from Iwo Jima and the underrated Gran Torino. I have not had the chance to see Eastwood’s latest, the Nelson Mandela biopic Invictus, but it is certainly in good company.
Eastwood brings a certain confidence to everything he does. He knows what he wants and what he is doing. He is a straightforward man that loves the art of film- a true role model for filmmakers to come. It is amazing that at the age of 79 (nearly 80) he is still working and making these great pictures. He is iconic as an actor, director and composer. The score for Unforgiven was arranged by Lennie Neihuas, but the main theme of the film (“Claudia’s Theme”) was written by Eastwood. It is one of the movie’s great scores, and elevates the material with a sense of beauty. It is one of the few scores that I have on my iPod, it is beautiful.
When I think of Unforgiven, I always see the same several images. I see a tree, a house, and a man standing by a grave in the sunrise. I see two friends riding horses through a field of wheat with breathtaking mountains in the background. I think of Clint Eastwood, standing in the wind next to The Schofield Kid, talking about the finality of murder. I think of the terrifying Will Munny, killer of women and children, with a gun to Little Bill’s chest- agreeing that he will see Little Bill in Hell. These are images of great beauty. I would strongly recommend viewing Unforgiven in high definition, if possible. This is one of the best looking Blu-Ray discs I have in my collection. All of the colors are defined and crisp. I appreciate the vastness of the country and the images more upon every viewing. Words cannot describe some of the moments of sheer beauty here, with three men riding horses through fields and across streams, with that wonderful Eastwood score in the background.
-The sunset of the Western
An excellent framing device is used at the beginning and end of Unforgiven. The first scene in the film is of Will’s house, with Will standing underneath a tree, next to his wife’s grave. The sun is rising and the opening narration is not spoken, but written across the screen. The opening narration sets the tone of the picture and describes the setting. The film goes on until the climactic shootout in Big Whisky, only to end with the same image in reverse. Now there is only a house, a tree, and a grave. The sun is now setting and the man has long moved on.
Some years later, Mrs. Ansonia Feathers
made the arduous journey to Hodgeman County
to visit the last resting place of her only daughter.
William Munny had long since disappeared
with the children...some said to San Francisco
where it was rumored he prospered in dry goods.
And there was nothing on the marker to explain to Mrs. Feathers
why her only daughter had married a known thief and murderer,
a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.
This brings us back to the importance of perspective. It truly is the key to the film. Will kills in order to save his children from starvation, but also because of his need to avenge a woman that he sees his wife in. Little Bill kills to preserve order and protect his town. Will knows he is the villain, but is really the hero, while Little Bill is the opposite. In the end, they both have it coming. The best scene in the picture lies at the very end. Little Bill looks at Will:
“I was building a house. I don’t deserve this.”
“Deserves got nothin’ to do with it.”
“I’ll see you in hell, William Munny.”
Little Bill is destined to die. William Munny is destined to live on with the horrible guilt of what he has done. In the end, the killing is all just the actions of men attempting to be nobler than they are. It never really resolves anything. I guess that explains the title.
Review and Analysis by Shaun Henisey
Cast and Credits:
William Munny: Clint Eastwood
Little Bill: Gene Hackman
Ned: Morgan Freeman
English Bob: Richard Harris
The Schofield Kid: Jaimz Woolvett
WW. Beauchamp: Saul Rubinek
Strawberry Alice: Frances Fisher
Delilah: Anna Levine
Warner Bros. Pictures presents A Clint Eastwood Film. Screenplay by David Webb Peoples. Film Editing by Joel Cox. Music by Lennie Niehaus. Cinematography by Jack Green
Running Time: 131 Minutes. Rated R for violence, language and for a scene of sexuality