Scott: Clint Eastwood ends Unforgiven with a nod to “Sergio and Don,” Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, the directors who made him a Western and action icon. The film that precedes that acknowledgment reveals their influence in many ways, from the terrible mythos that surrounds Eastwood’s character to the way he stages scenes to enhance his stature and power. David Peoples’ original screenplay sat around for years before Eastwood felt the time was right to make Unforgiven, and one of the striking things about the film is how perfect Eastwood’s instincts were in that respect. He was too old to play Dirty Harry or The Man With No Name again, but not too old to command fear—a lion in winter, perhaps, but still with a dormant roar. His William Munny is presented with all the fearsome grandeur of Eastwood’s characters in Leone and Siegel’s movies, but we now see him through a different lens, and can take stock of the damage his gunslinger has done—and what kind of man it takes to do that damage.
Unforgiven could be labelled a revisionist Western, but it slips the definition a little. This isn’t genre commentary of the sort we’d seen in The Wild Bunch or McCabe & Mrs. Miller, but a more reflective Western made in a classical style. Eastwood is famous for a grip-it-and-rip-it shooting style that’s antithetical to hundred-take types like Stanley Kubrick, and though Jack Green’s photography is breathtakingly composed at times, the film has a modest, unfussy craft that’s some distance from a director like Leone. Given a wonderful script, Eastwood doesn’t feel the need to be too stylistically emphatic, save for the film’s most important moments, like the scene where he and the Schofield Kid wait for their bounty in the barren hills outside town, or the final bloody showdown at Greeley’s, which plays with the noir lighting scheme Eastwood evoked to more extensive effect later in Million Dollar Baby. It’s an impeccable piece of direction, often invisibly so.
Noel: A lot of the credit for Unforgiven’s style goes to production designer Henry Bumstead, who built the town of Big Whiskey and the surrounding farms, resisting the urge to clutter up the landscape. When I think about Unforgiven, what I remember is the emptiness. Will Munny and his kids look so isolated out there on the Wyoming plains, with their pigs and their muddy shack. Even in Big Whiskey, the population is low and the people are detached from civilization, which is how Little Bill is able to rule with such an iron fist. I think one of the reasons so many scenes and lines in Unforgiven are so memorable is because of the minimal locations and small cast. Eastwood never loses the thread of the story or the theme; he keeps it at the center of everything, with few distractions.
Keith: To loop back to some of Scott’s comments, I don’t think this film would have been possible without the revisionist Westerns of the late 1960s and 1970s, but I don’t think it should be lumped in with them, either. In many ways, it’s closer to something like 1943’s The Ox-Bow Incident, where there’s a central moral and ethical question, but with a lot more moral ambiguity, and no real answer at the end of it all. It looks like a film from 1992 in the sense that Green doesn’t try to make it look like the product of an earlier era, and the production design is very much of the cluttered, dingy manner in which the West has usually been portrayed since Sam Peckinpah. But it’s shot, as you say, with a classical craftsmanship. It feels like a movie out of time and of every time, which suits it.
Nathan: The artistry in Unforgiven is understated to the point of invisibility. Though gorgeous, the individual elements of the film’s style never call attention to themselves the way Ennio Morricone’s score might in a Leone film. Everything serves the emotions of the stories and the characters. Even Gene Hackman’s Academy Award-winning supporting performance as a terrifying figure of corrupt authority is fundamentally understated. He doesn’t need to yell or gesticulate to make an explosive impact. Nor does the film.
Noel: Clint Eastwood is heavily associated with Westerns because he spent so much of his early career appearing in them, on television and in the star-making spaghetti Westerns he did with Leone. Yet as a director, Eastwood hasn’t often returned to the genre. He helmed 1973’s High Plains Drifter, 1976’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (taking over for the original director, Philip Kaufman), 1985’s Pale Rider, and then Unforgiven, which he was calling his last Western even as he was making it. An argument could be made that some of Eastwood’s crime pictures are really Westerns, or that Bronco Billy is a semi-Western, but in terms of the classically defined Western, it’s really just these four: all of them pretty special, and all in some ways a comment on the eras in which they were made, and on the Western as a genre. Unforgiven is the best of the bunch, in my opinion, because it’s sort of an extended epilogue to all those earlier “mysterious lone gunman” movies.
Unforgiven is also interesting for its chronological place in Eastwood’s career and filmography. In the 1980s, Eastwood was tagged as dangerously right-wing, both because of the vigilante violence of his Dirty Harry films, and because he was a registered Republican who was elected mayor of Carmel-By-The-Sea, his California home. But the 1980s also saw Eastwood’s reputation as an auteur grow—at least abroad, where critical support for his films led him to take some risky commercial chances. That split in the public perception of Eastwood (between daring artist and crowd-pleasing fascist) is evident in the three Eastwood-directed films that immediately precede Unforgiven: the Charlie Parker biopic Bird, the quirky John Huston homage White Hunter Black Heart, and the dopey action movie The Rookie. But then Unforgiven became a huge critical and box-office hit, and an Oscar-winner, all while revealing Eastwood’s views on violence and politics as more nuanced than many had assumed. (Although anyone who was paying attention would’ve already realized this.) Eastwood has largely continued on this course ever since, making thematically complex prestige pictures that critics on both sides of the Atlantic have taken seriously. There’s no longer much debate on whether Eastwood is a major cinematic figure.
Keith: As I recall, I could almost feel the opinion shifting the moment this movie came out. I think Unforgiven helped bring what Eastwood had done before into focus, and allowed him a bit more artistic freedom in the years to come. Previously, Eastwood hadn’t gotten enough credit as an actor, or much notice at all, unless he stepped outside his range. (E.g. White Hunter Black Heart, which I like, though I’m not sure he really works as the John Huston surrogate.) But looking back, he was taking chances all along, as in 1971’s Siegel-directed Southern gothic The Beguiled. He was taking chances as a director right from the start, too, by throwing an outré montage sequence in the middle of his debut, Play Misty For Me. After Unforgiven, he got to take on more prestige projects like Bird, and saw them get a fair shake critically (unlike Bird, which is quite good). I can’t imagine a quiet film like The Bridges Of Madison County happening before Unforgiven, but it’s one of Eastwood’s best (if you shave off the framing sequences), and home to one of his best performances. Unforgiven has become a reference point, too. I like Gran Torino more than most, rough edges and all, in part because the final scene feels like such a brilliant companion piece to the climax of Unforgiven, and further evidence that Eastwood has been thinking about, and concerned with, depictions of violence for a long time.
Nathan: Noel, I think it helps that Unforgiven was at least a decade removed from the enormously successfully yet critically unrewarded motion pictures Eastwood made with temporary sidekick Clyde The Orangutan. Unforgiven benefits tremendously from the iconic baggage that Eastwood brings to the role as the living embodiment of the Western, the personification of its long-ago glory. Eastwood brings to the role a moral authority rooted in being associated with the best the genre had to offer for decades. I can’t think of anyone else who could have pulled off the role with such weathered dignity. Unforgiven feels to me like a deliberate magnum opus, a great artist’s conclusive statement on his genre of choice.
Scott: I consider Eastwood’s views on violence to be one of Unforgiven most ambiguous elements—or maybe a better word is “perplexing.” On one hand, the film seems almost like an apologia for the thoughtless violence Eastwood’s characters had committed on screen over the years, or at least an acknowledgement that killing people Dirty Harry-style carries moral consequences that Western and action films rarely explore. On the other hand, Eastwood makes it clear that no firearms are allowed in Big Whiskey, suggesting a more right-wing notion that disarming citizens gives rise to tyrants like Little Bill and his cronies. Can the two thoughts be reconciled? Need they be? I’m still not sure, but it’s an indicator of Eastwood’s caginess as a filmmaker and a politician. The only label he isn’t resistant to is “iconoclast.”
MYTHOLOGY OF THE WEST
Nathan: Like a previous Movie Of The Week, City Of God, Unforgiven is partially about how the makeshift process of myth-making transforms ordinary criminals first into outlaws, then into legends. This is reflected most directly in the pompous character of W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek). A writer of wildly fictionalized Western pulp, Beauchamp arrives in town as the pet biographer/mascot of English Bob, whose legend he’s played a huge role in burnishing. But he quickly, pragmatically switches allegiance to Little Bill after ascertaining that Bill has more power and a better story. Beauchamp ostensibly traffics in non-fiction, but he clearly has only a fuzzy conception of where truth ends and legend begins, and not much interest in delineating between the two. But the theme of myth-making is also reflected in the way the story of the prostitute the heroes are avenging gets exaggerated in each retelling, until the vicious cutting of a woman has morphed into a near-fatal mangling. Information has a way of mutating into misinformation and then outright lies in Unforgiven, and the film suggests that that’s how many of the legends of the West were formed: with a tiny kernel of truth augmented by a lot of fantasy and wild exaggeration.
Noel: Little Bill and William Munny do their best to deflate Beauchamp’s kind of puffery, whether it’s Little Bill calling English Bob “The Duck Of Death” instead of “The Duke,” or Munny admitting that when he guns down a room full of people, he just got “lucky in the order.” (”I’ve always been lucky when it comes to killin’ folks,” he adds.) There’s a coldness and practicality to the way these characters deal with their deadly business. One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Little Bill gives Beauchamp his pistol and tells him to pull the trigger, wanting him to see that shooting someone isn’t a matter of courage; it’s just a combination of will and technology.
Nathan: This speaks to a crucial difference in the way Munny and English Bob see the world and their place in it. The narcissistic Bob is all about embellishing his legend, whereas Munny is intent on downplaying his myth. Munny has far too much experience with killing and everything that comes with it to see any honor or glory in it; in that respect, he’s the antithesis of of the Schofield Kid, who thinks killing people is the coolest thing a man can do, because he’s never done it. That brutal kill late in the movie disabuses him of his romantic conception of what it means to take another human life, whether righteously or in vengeance.
Keith: Beyond that, Munny and Bob’s attitudes toward their legend speak to their characters. English Bob, good shot that he is, has a reputation that ultimately rests on killing immigrant Chinese laborers at the behest of the railroad company. (His “playful” gunning down of a couple of Chinese residents of Big Whiskey is one of the film’s most chilling images.) He doesn’t deny it, either. Munny, however, flinches when confronted with the painful details of his past. These are the men who were there, who know what happened—or at least what they can remember through the hazes of time and alcohol—but have strikingly different attitudes toward the truth of their own pasts. Others may have chosen to print the legend, to borrow from another movie about Western myths, but they know better.
CIVILIZATION VS. CHAOS
Keith: “I was building a house,” Little Bill tells Munny when preparing to breathe his last. It’s not really a plea for his life so much as an attempt to go out explaining why Munny is in the wrong for killing him. As with Big Whiskey as a whole, Bill’s house is an attempt to impose a bit of civilization on the chaos of the West. It’s a poorly built house, and Bill’s ambition and confidence in his skills as an architect and builder far outstrip his ability, which makes the house an obvious symbol, but a powerful one. I’d argue—and I’d hardly be the first to do so—that the underlying theme of the Western genre is civilization vs. chaos. In the simplest Westerns, it’s a matter of law-abiding Americans taming the frontier and creating towns that follow traditional American values. Enter the white hats, exit the black hats. That notion has gotten challenged and complicated almost from the start of the Western, and in Unforgiven, we see different notions of civilization and order competing with each other, whether it’s the prostitutes’ demand for blood or Little Bill’s good ol’ boy near-dictatorship, one he’s able to keep going in part because of his strict enforcement of gun control. He’s ultimately the villain of the film—and slowly revealed as a sadist, even as he acts to reduce bloodshed—but Unforgiven sometimes makes him look like the best of bad options. If the alternative is a town full of bounty hunters, maybe he’s on to something? Yet any option that ugly can’t be morally justified, right?
Noel: The first time I saw Unforgiven, the line that most gave me chills was the last one in the movie, written on the screen, regarding William Munny’s late wife, and how there was nothing that could explain to anyone why she had married “a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.” It shook me, because the experience of watching Unforgiven is, in a perverse way, one of delayed gratification. The audience spends almost two hours watching Clint Eastwood act weak, sickly, and averse to confrontation, and then he erupts, and as much as I hate to say it, as a viewer, it feels good. It’s hard not to find these violent men attractive. That’s one of the reasons Westerns are so compelling. Civilization has a taming effect that’s good in the real world, but chaos makes good cinema.
Nathan: To get back to your point, Keith, part of the tricky social contract that constitutes the big charade we call “civilization” entails accepting awful compromises for the sake of preserving order, and Little Bill is obsessed with maintaining order at any cost. I’m thinking specifically of the revelatory moment when the prostitutes come to Little Bill for justice for one of their own, and he coldly treats a violent crime solely as a commercial transaction. The cowboy who slashed the prostitute’s face caused a hardship to her business, and is punished for harming her ability to attract customers, not for doing something immoral and unconscionable. Unforgiven never stops asking about the costs we pay for maintaining the appearance of civilization, and whether they’re ultimately worth it.
Scott: Until this Movie Of The Week re-watch, I hadn’t seen Unforgiven since it opened in 1992, and I remembered Little Bill entirely as the unambiguous villain of the piece. And while he does act in sadistic, abhorrent ways, he’s a law-and-order guy, trying to keep the peace and apply justice in the Old West, which in this case includes keeping bounty hunters from undermining the rule of law. His problem, beyond his own vanity and venality, is that his sense of justice is askew. If he’d resolved the original dispute more fairly, instead of accepting some literal horse-trading, there would be no movie. Such are the perils of making up the laws of civilization as you go along.
Noel: Little Bill is also at the center of one of the best lessons in the movie, during that “all you gotta do is pull the trigger, mister” scene I mentioned earlier. When Bill hands Beauchamp the gun, Beauchamp wanders what’ll happen if he passes the weapon along to English Bob. This too is part of civilization, transferring the dirty work of killing to the people willing to do it. But it raises an interesting question: If Bob shot Little Bill with the gun Beauchamp gave him (which Little Bill gave Beauchamp), then who’s responsible for the death?
Noel: How about a round of applause for David Webb Peoples’ dialogue? I know screenwriters live for the chance to make with the old-timey dialect, but Peoples is really good at it. Even aside from the most memorable quotes in Unforgiven—”Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it,” “All on accounta pullin’ a trigger,” “It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man,” etc.—the dialogue has a strong flavor. I’m as like to say, “My guess is yer callin’ yerself Mr. William Munny,” or “You sure killed the hell out of that fella today” as I am any of the more famous lines.
Keith: And all of it delivered without a hint of self-consciousness, too. These don’t seem like actors playing at being citizens of the Old West. That’s tough to pull off. Speaking of which, Jaimz Woolvett, who plays the self-described Schofield Kid, holds his own against all the vets here. It’s kind of odd he never became better known. He worked steadily for years after—though there’s nothing on his IMDB page since 2008—but nothing as high-profile as his part here. It’s odd. Maybe it was just bad luck, and deserve’s got nothing to do with it.
Nathan: I don’t think people give Unforgiven enough credit for being such a thoroughly strange, idiosyncratic piece of work. Weirdly enough, one of the scenes that has stayed with me most through the decades is also one that has the least to do with the plot: It’s the scene of Morgan Freeman’s Ned asking Munny about his sexual proclivities following the death of his wife. When Munny avers that he never buys prostitutes, Ned, not one to take a hint, asks him if he’s been going it by hand in lieu of any proper female attention, and Munny shoots Ned a look that puts an end to the questioning. It’s such a fascinatingly vulnerable, human moment, enriched greatly by the incongruity of two of the most dignified, revered actors in American film talking about jerking off. But it also speaks, indelicately but powerfully, to the kind of considerations you typically would never see in a movie like this. No one ever asked John Wayne if he’d been masturbating to cope with his sexual frustrations following the death of his wife, but Unforgiven is willing, even eager, to get uncomfortably close to its protagonists.
Scott: I’m an auteur-crazy sort of fella, but Peoples is one of those rare screenwriters, like Robert Towne or Charlie Kaufman, who make me sit up and take notice. Blade Runner, Unforgiven, and Twelve Monkeys are all bold, conceptually ambitious screenplays that reveal a deep understanding of their respective genres. (Peoples’ famed script for Soldier, a science-fictoin/actioner that Paul W.S. Anderson botched, supplied its hero with only 104 words of dialogue.) The language in Unforgiven is delectable, but what impresses me more is how smartly Peoples reckons with the genre’s past without engaging in out-and-out 1970s-style revisionism. It’s a classic Western for modern times.
Don't miss yesterday's Keynote essay on Unforgiven’s intelligent, deliberate ambiguities. And tomorrow, Noel Murray concludes with a look at the age that produced Unforgiven, as Westerns stopped coming in distinct periods.