Spoilers For A Twenty Year Old Movie Will Follow!
Unforgiven, is Clint Eastwood’s ode to the western genre that propelled him to fame so many years ago. I can’t remember the first time I saw Unforgiven, but I can remember the first time I saw a Clint Eastwood movie. I was six years old and was playing with some toys in the living room, and my Dad was watching a western that I wasn’t paying any attention too. But then I heard, a distinctive bang and whistle, and saw the “Hat Scene” from For a Few Dollars More for the first time in all its glory. Dumbstruck, I watched the rest of the movie without context or understanding. Eastwood would go on to star in several more classic westerns before making Unforgiven, where he not only stars but directs an all-star cast including Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman. The film is a well written character based drama, a brilliant deconstruction of the western genre, and a fitting closure for Eastwood’s memorable western career.
The story begins as a cowboy, Quick Mike (David Mucci) cuts up a whore, Delilah (Anna Levine), as he and his partner Davey Bunting (Rob Cambell) are being “entertained” in the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming in 1880. The Sheriff, “Little” Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) is called in to rectify the situation. Little Bill and the cowboys agree on reparation (turning over seven horses for the crime) not because he hurt Delilah, but because he damaged Skinny’s (Anthony James) property. Skinny, being the owner of her ‘whoring contract’, is thus entitled to compensation and not Delilah. Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher), the leader of the whores, is furious at this outcome. Strawberry Alice and the rest of the whores, come together and decide to get “real justice” for Delilah. They put an unofficial bounty of one thousand dollars on the two cowboys. The allure of this bounty is what draws the protagonists to the town of Big Whiskey.
The Supporting Cast:
In this fantastic character driven drama, Unforgiven’s characters deserve close examination, and they are all clearly and expertly defined. One of the major themes in Unforgiven is that of denial. Most, if not all, of the principal male characters want and attempt to be something they are not. Little Bill a carpenter and lawman, English Bob, a high class English aristocrat, The Kid, a cold blooded killer, and William Munny (Clint Eastwood), a lowly pig farmer. Even Ned (Morgan Freeman), the realist of the bunch, wants to relive his “glory days” with Will, only to find out he can’t hack it anymore. We never hear of any of Ned’s misdeeds and killings, only that he’s an extremely good shot who can “Hit a bird in the eye flying” with his rifle. He recounts Will’s many misdeeds, and remarks that when they happened they were “Young and full of beans”. He’s shown being content with his settled life, home, and his wife, all of which he complains loudly and bitterly that he misses along the journey. Even the characters who set in motion the entire chain of events, the Whores, do so by refusing to be considered property.
The Whores, led by Strawberry Alice, know and bitterly accept their lowly station in life. Despite this they retain their dignity. “Just because we let them smelly fools ride us like horses, don’t mean we got to let them brand us like horses. Maybe we ain’t nothing but whores. But we-by God, we ain’t horses,” Strawberry Alice says in fiery defiance to Little Bill’s brand of justice. They know that they are seen as property, but refuse to be treated as chattel. On the day of retribution, Davey, the younger cowboy who did not cut Delilah, brings a pony for her to make up for his partner’s heinous actions. Strawberry Alice refuses this act of penance, while the other women seem to show expressions of doubt and concern about their actions. Even though the pony for Delilah is “the best of the lot” and “Way better than the ones I gave him [Skinny]”, Alice turns it down because its acceptance would literally equate them with that of horses. This bitter rejection of the patriarchal system they are trapped in end up not only toppling Little Bill, but perhaps also frees them from their life of servitude with the death of Skinny.
The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) serves as a foil for Will and claims to have killed five men. The Kid idolizes Will for his previous horrible crimes and asks Will to help collect the bounty. But upon seeing Will as pig farmer The Kid insults Will’s honest lifestyle. The Kid can’t see more than fifty yards away, but constantly talks tough, “I haven't killed as many as you on account of my youth and all.” In reality, he’s a naive young kid who hasn’t killed anyone, and constantly talks tough because he thinks that’s how to be a man. The Kid, inspired by tall tales of other outlaws and romanticized versions of crimes, wants to imitate them without understanding the gravity of their actions. The Kid is unfortunately literally blind to the way the world truly is. When he finally does kill one of the cowboys, he has an existential crisis and completely disavows the “gunslinger lifestyle”. He laments on how easy it is to kill and is filled with deep remorse, drowning his sorrow in whiskey. He finally accepts that he isn’t a cold blooded killer like Will.
English Bob, portrayed magnificently by Richard Harris, is the first claimant to the bounty. He is a ruthless gunslinger, who works for the railroads shooting unruly “Chinamen”. He attempts to be a posh English gentleman, mentioning how “uncivilized” American society is for shooting “people of substance”. English Bob is savagely beaten and put in his place by Little Bill upon his arrival to the town of Big Whiskey. When released from jail by Little Bill and sent packing, Bob’s true accent, a rugged unrefined English accent, bubbles to the surface revealing his true background. English Bob is a well-known gunslinger in his own right, and before his merciless beating had a biographer, W.W. Beauchamp, chronicling his past and current adventures, misdeeds, and killings. This brings us to our second major theme in the film: mythologizing and aggrandizing the tales of The West.
W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) functions as a cultural surrogate in the film who has a morbid fascination with the gunslinger and the lifestyle of the West. Little Bill rudely demonstrates that his “true stories” about English Bob are nothing but romanticized tall tales. Little Bill explains to Beauchamp how one event really happened, in the process shattering Beauchamp’s image of English Bob and that of the gallant gunslinger hero. Unlike Beauchamp’s retelling, the truth of the matter was far murkier than the black and white good vs evil that he had written. Likewise, when word is spread from the Whores to others about the bounty, the reason for the bounty gets more exaggerated. It's said by the Kid that they “Cut up her face, cut her eyes out, cut her ears off, hell they even cut off her teats,” then later Will tells an even crazier version to Ned. Thus it's easy to see how these tall tales could have led to even larger than life legends.
The Sheriff of Big Whiskey:
Little Bill (Gene Hackman) serves not as the antithesis to William Munny but rather as a reflection of him. The only difference between the two is their current choice of profession, and a badge. Both attempt to suppress their true cold blooded nature. We don’t hear much of Little Bill’s former life, but we hear and see enough to know he’s as tough as a coffin nail. He never shows fear in the film, even when facing a loaded shotgun at point blank range. Little Bill is a great antagonist. He isn’t acting out of malevolence, but as Sheriff of Big Whiskey he is dutifully protecting his citizens. First he establishes an ordinance that says that firearms are prohibited in Big Whiskey and enforces it rigorously, and second, he brutally beats English Bob as a warning to all those who would seek the “Whore’s gold”. In a different light he could have been the hero.
Little Bill fails at being a Sheriff, as much as he’s a failure at being a carpenter. Once again, the themes of denial and acceptance come in to play. Throughout the film, Little Bill is building a house, and it's shown to be built poorly, with slanted angles and a badly leaking roof. One of his deputies even says “He don’t have a straight angle on that goddamn porch or the whole house for that matter….christ maybe he’s tough but he sure ain’t no carpenter.” Due to his position of authority and prominence in the town he hates people of “low character” like whores and assassins, and repeatedly tells this to W.W. Beauchamp. Little Bill uses his badge to elevate his own stature and suppress his true nature as a cold blooded killer--like Bob, or Will. He even says to Beauchamp, “That’s why there are so few dangerous men around like old Bob, like me.” Furthermore, although he seems like an effective Sheriff, his policies directly lead to his own downfall. Had he treated the whores with respect, there would have been no bounty, had he not killed Ned, the vengeful wrath of Will Munny would not have befallen him. No matter how you slice it, Little Bill fails to recognize that he is a cold blooded gunslinger, not a carpenter or honorable Sheriff.
The Angel of Death:
Our main protagonist is William Munny (Clint Eastwood) once “a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition”, but now a pig farmer. He was settled down by his wife Claudia, who is already passed by the time the film begins. “My wife, she cured me of that, cured me of drink and wickedness.” Her specter looms large over the film, and she is often invoked as to why Will isn’t the same violent killer he was in the past. As mentioned, he is a failure as a pig farmer inasmuch as he is a failure as a father, leaving his kids for upwards of two weeks ostensibly because he “needs the money to get a new start for them youngsters”, and as a husband, breaking a decade old vow to his beloved Claudia. In actuality that’s who he is, a merciless murderer. He tries to suppress his true nature and talk circles around the fact that he’s going to be killing men once more, “I ain’t like that no more, I ain’t the same Ned...just cause we’re going on this killing doesn’t mean I’m going back to the way I was.”
Will is regretful of his previous life--notoriously one of the most ruthless killers, and talks often with Ned about their previous misdeeds. He remains haunted by them and can’t seem to escape their dark pull over him. As Ebert posits, it the title, “Unforgiven” could be in reference to the weight of his callous and terrible crimes or the broken promises made to his wife (Ebert). In the days before the killings Will has fever induced dreams and a crisis of self, he sees his wife Claudia but she’s covered with worms, and sees the Angel of Death, who has “Snake Eyes”, but he’s really looking at his true nature. Munny is a manifestation of the Angel of Death, the worst killer of the old west. His true and terrifying nature is revealed in the epic climax. There is no romanticization, no crazy Hollywood gags, only a mean, drunken vicious bastard showing how violence and vengeance are really perpetuated. Munny finally accepts his true nature, “I’ve killed women and children. I've killed everything that walks or crawls at one time or another. And I'm here to kill you, Little Bill, for what you done to Ned.” Garth Ennis summed it up best in his introduction to Preacher’s fourth volume:
“[Unforgiven is] The story of a man who tried and tried and tried to deny his true nature, finally succumbing to the darkness inside him, damning himself completely. The last twenty-odd minutes, culminating in William Munny’s ground-out, hate filled warnings to the township, the Stars and Stripes flapping behind him in the driving rain, were nothing short of apocalyptic. He was tragic, invincible, terrifying: Clint Eastwood as the Angel of Death.”
The film functions as an effective deconstruction of the unrealistic western: from classic good vs evil old-Hollywood westerns, to even the grittier spaghetti westerns like “The Dollars Trilogy”. Unforgiven takes the spirit and morally grey protagonists from the spaghetti westerns, and grounds them in a distinctive and determined realism. Gone are the fast dueling, almost superhero gunslingers. Gone is the handsome unshakable hero, fighting for the damsel in distress or against undeniable evil. These heroes are replaced with flawed, guilt ridden, and remorseful killers fueled by the folly of youth or whiskey. The movie posits that the life of a gunslinger is not one of fun, adventure, and excitement, but one of whiskey, dread, and remorse. A life these men desperately want to escape from.
Eastwood’s Unforgiven is set not only at a time where the western lifestyle was dying, but also the film itself was made at a time when the western genre was too. (Ebert). The film serves as a rumination on his career, the genre, and his two mentors who helped make him famous, Sergio Leone and Don Siegel (Ebert). Unforgiven serves as “A fitting eulogy to the western genre” and Eastwood’s portrayal in them. The film won four Academy Awards including Best Picture, and is only the third Western to have ever done so. In 2004, Unforgiven was selected for preservation by The Library of Congress for being culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. The film balances great acting, writing, direction and cinematography with ease. The film’s depth, self-awareness, and commentary on the genre are unparalleled. When the only blemish on the film is its deliberate pacing you know you’re watching something special. And Unforgiven is special, it may not be the most exciting western, but it is perhaps the most fulfilling.
TLDR: Unforgiven is a dark and magnificent deconstruction of the western genre. It’s a deftly acted, directed, written, and edited film which serves as a heartfelt eulogy to the genre. 5/5 Stars
Ebert, Roger. "Unforgiven Movie Review & Film Summary (1992) | Roger Ebert." Rogerebert.com. Ebert Digital LLC, 21 July 2002. Web. Mar. 2016.
Ennis, Garth. "Foreword By Garth Ennis." Foreword. Preacher: Ancient History. Vol. 4. New York, NY: DC Comics, 1998. 4. Print. Preacher.