Should I Watch..? 'Unforgiven' (1992)
What's the big deal?
Unforgiven is a western film released in 1992 and was hailed by its star and director Clint Eastwood as the last western of his career. The film sees Eastwood play a reformed outlaw who finds himself coerced into pursuing a bounty by a young man attempting to live up to his reputation. The film also stars Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris and was written by David Webb Peoples. The film was released to near-universal acclaim from critics and it earned more than $159 million worldwide as well as four Academy Awards at the 1993 ceremony. In 2004, it received further recognition when it was selected for preservation at the US National Film Registry for being culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. Eastwood dedicated the film to his mentors, renowned directors Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, for the huge impact they had on Eastwood's career.
What's it about?
In the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming in 1881, two cowboys beat up a prostitute after she had insulted one of them. After Delilah Fitzgerald is disfigured with a knife, the town's sheriff "Little Bill" Daggett intervenes and orders Quick Mike and "Davey-Boy" Bunting to pay compensation in the form of horses to the brothel's owner Skinny Dubois. Fitzgerald and the rest of the women are outraged at the lack of justice and place a $1000 bounty to anyone who kills the two cowboys.
Over in Kansas, a young man calling himself the Schofield Kid rides to the farm of William Munny - a former outlaw and murderer who walked away from that lifestyle to raise pigs and his two children on his farm. The Kid proposes working with Munny in order to claim the bounty and after a few days contemplation, Munny agrees to saddle up one last time. Bringing along his former running mate Ned Logan, the three of them ride off towards Big Whiskey - unaware that Daggett and his men have little tolerance for guns or violence in their town.
William "Will" Munny
"Little Bill" Daggett
The Schofield Kid
David Webb Peoples
Release Date (UK)
18th September, 1992
Best Film, Best Supporting Actor (Hackman), Best Director, Best Film Editing
Academy Award Nominations
Best Actor (Eastwood), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Set Direction, Best Sound
What's to like?
Unforgiven is not so much about bad guys doing good but about Eastwood bidding a fond farewell to the genre. Forever associated with Westerns through classics like A Fistful Of Dollars and High Plains Drifter, Eastwood seems to be in a reflective mood here as the film considers themes of reputation, the consequences of violence and the regrets that come with aging. I love stories that work on two levels and while this film may appear to be your standard dusty shooter, it also works as a love letter to a genre that had all but died by the early Nineties.
Eastwood, as you'd expect, is perfect as the veteran bandit battling with his past demons but he is wonderfully supported by Freeman and Hackman especially as the morally arrogant Daggett. What's most interesting to me is that this is a film that is deliberately askew from a moral standpoint - there aren't any traditional bad guys besides the two cowboys. Daggett is a man just doing his job, keeping the streets of his town free from violence and crime. In another film, he could easily be the hero of the story. But Unforgiven is Clint's film and you can see clearly that his perspective is that of the vigilante, the hero who rides around those who represent the law in order to dispense justice. This moral maze, which is beautifully shot and reminiscent of so many classic examples of the genre, helps make the film so compelling and unmissable.
- The film ended Eastwood's long-held belief that he would never win an Oscar because, in his words, he's not Jewish, he makes too much money and he didn't give a f***. After the film, he won another two Oscars and was nominated another six times.
- This was only the third western in history to win Best Picture at the Oscars behind Cimarron and Dances With Wolves. It would be followed by No Country For Old Men in 2007.
- The boots that Eastwood wears in the film are the same ones he wore in the TV series Rawhide. They are part of his private collection and intentionally or not, have book-ended Eastwood's career in westerns.
What's not to like?
As accomplished a film as this is, I find myself questioning the inclusion of Harris as English Bob. The character, who only appears in a couple of scenes and mostly interacts with Hackman's sheriff, feels superfluous to the overall story and I'm struggling to think what the character represents. Of course, the role is one of many supporting characters that bring life to Big Whiskey which could easily just be a set somewhere in the desert. If anything, the character represents the importance of reputation - English Bob is a character much like Munny but is telling his story to a weasley reporter, superbly played by Saul Rubinek. But the importance of myth and reputation is already underscored by Munny and the misplaced hero-worship from Schofield.
By the time of the inevitable showdown, Eastwood has turned his character from a repentant and contrite pig farmer to legitimate legend and reminds us all how great he still is in these scenes and films. If the film serves as a metaphor for Eastwood's career then this may be seen as self-indulgent but few would argue that a man like Eastwood is deserving of some degree of hero-worship. The last living legend of westerns of yore, his steely resolve and mythical status make Unforgiven one of the best examples of a western ever seen. It's a great film, even for non-fans of westerns and works sublimely as Eastwood's eulogy for the genre.
Should I watch it?
Without question, Unforgiven is one of the finest films of Eastwood's lengthy career and serves as a powerful and evocative reminder of the work of other icons like Leone, John Ford and the Duke himself, John Wayne. Brilliantly shot and hopelessly enthralling, it's a timeless picture that surprises and endures in the memory long after the credits have finished scrolling past. If you're the sort of person who thinks westerns are hokey, this film will prove you wrong in every sense.
Great For: film lovers, fans of Eastwood, western aficionados
Not So Great For: impatient action fans
What else should I watch?
How do you select the best westerns of Eastwood's enviable career? Making his name in Rawhide, his breakthrough movie appearance came in A Fistful Of Dollars where he debuted the iconic Man With No Name role, an antihero and a stark contrast to his 'white hat' image on TV. Eastwood returned to the role for For A Few Dollars More and the conclusion to the trilogy The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. Of course, Eastwood branched out into other genres as well - his appearance as "Dirty" Harry Callaghan in Dirty Harry is as iconic a movie role as the Man With No Name with his directorial career includes the Oscar-scooping Million Dollar Baby and the hugely successful American Sniper.
The western had been in decline for a number of years up to the release of Unforgiven with many films taking a more comedic approach to the genre with films like City Slickers and Three Amigos!. In the years after the film's release, no doubt assisted by the similar success of Dances With Wolves, the 90's saw a number of films revisit the dusty desert setting of westerns in films that took the genre a bit more seriously - films like Tombstone, Ride With The Devil and the trigger-happy Desperado which brought the genre bang up to date and added a more Latino-flavour as well as making stars out of Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek.
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