Weekend Film Recommendation: Unforgiven

Some said that Once Upon a Time in the West (1968; reviewed here) left Hollywood with the feeling that Sergio Leone had done all that was worth doing with Westerns for some time to come. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that anyone would try their hand at picking up the threads Leone had left behind. In rapid succession, Kevin Costner first released Dances with Wolves (reviewed here), and shortly thereafter Michael Mann adapted Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans. It was Leone’s protégé Clint Eastwood, however, who most closely extended themes featured in Spaghetti Westerns, in this weekend’s movie recommendation Unforgiven (1992).

Eastwood plays William Munny, a man “cured of his wickedness” from his days a drunken outlaw and gun-for-hire. Sobriety came ten years ago, only after his late wife and mother to his two children forced him into an honest life. But honesty hasn’t come easily to Munny; every day’s pig-farming, especially with aching, alcoholic joints like his, takes its toll.

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This is why Munny is initially un-interested when a sketchy young upstart styled The Schofield Kid rides to Munny’s house to propose sharing the bounty for killing some cowboys responsible for mutilating prostitutes. A few muddy trips in the pig sty later, though, and Munny is kissing his kids goodbye for the trip. All that remains is to persuade his former partner Ned Logan, played by Morgan Freeman, to forego his integrity as well, and join in the bounty hunt. Irrespective of whether he succeeds in killing the bounty and collecting his loot, Munny’s tragic fall is already nigh-on complete after less than a half hour of screen time.

The bounty comes from a group of prostitutes in the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming. They have pooled their resources to raise the funds, in express disobedience to the town’s sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (played by Gene Hackman), who is a nasty piece of work with a temper to match. Rounding out the cast of characters is English Bob, played in one of the film’s standout performances by Richard Harris. Bob is a charismatic gun-slinging circus performer who is after the bounty himself, and is chasing after the offending, mutilating cowboys at the same time as Munny, Logan, and Schofield.

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Unlike Costner’s Dances, which is about a protagonist’s positive spiritual transformation through finding a meaningful connection with nature, or Mann’s Mohicans, which is about the erasure of cultural heritage amidst a backdrop of territorial disputes, in Eastwood’s Unforgiven the Western Frontier itself is instead what drives men mean and angry and violent. The farther Munny travels from his home and children, the weaker and more bitter he becomes.

It’s a joy to watch Eastwood prod and peck at the persona he cultivated during innumerable films as the canonical nameless drifting murderer. Here, Munny can barely even saddle and mount his horse without making a fool of himself; he feels acute pangs when called upon to fire a weapon; and he’ll even—shock and horror—decline the advances of a beautiful woman. Stripped of his bottle and his violence, Munny is pretty useless. He’s even crippled by a darn cold, for heaven’s sake. Eastwood, it seems, delights in injecting a little pathos into his famously impervious persona (for more of Eastwood doing that, see my review of In the Line of Fire). Yet unlike In the Line of Fire, where Eastwood found comedy in a man reduced to frailty, here Munny is sadly ill-prepared as a pig-farmer, and moreover he’s wretchedly hollow upon returning to bounty-hunting.

10 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Unforgiven”

  1. I watched this film in the theater with a group of friends when it came out. When we went back to our house, no one could even talk for some time – the psychic weight of the movie was that overwhelming.

    You are quite right that Eastwood did an excellent job in late life of taking apart his young persona. He had studied the careers of people like Cooper and even moreso Wayne, and felt that they played the hero too long and their lack of evolution weakened their credibility. He wanted to be different and clearly he is (Happy Birthday Clint, BTW, 86 years old this week IIRC).

    1. He didn't even wait until late in his career. High Plains Drifter came out in 1973, and Tightrope in 1984.

      1. Hmmm, don't see High Plains Drifter as fitting in with that, Tightrope a bit more though – underappreciated as a movie.

        1. High Plains Drifter doesn't have the defter touch that Eastwood developed later in his directorial career, but the very disturbing things The Stranger does in Lago shows the uncontrolled violence not far under the surface of any of the gunslingers. And, while not so much about the personas of the characters Eastwood played, it does deconstruct the setting of so many westerns: the town under siege of the bad guys, and how the genre so often gives the inhabitants a pass for their actions. (Not the first, of course; High Noon is a famous example of this idea.)

          All that said, my favorite exploration of western tropes remains Rustler's Rhapsody.

  2. I've also heard the theory that Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles drove the last nail into the coffin of the classic Western, by sending up almost every trope in the genre. The timing is about right, but if the genre hadn't already been in decline, it probably wouldn't have been the hit it was.

    1. Television hurt the Western just through overkill — so many shows including of course Eastwood's Rawhide but also Gunsmoke, Fury, Lone Ranger, Wanted Dead or Alive, Paladin, The Rifleman etc. and there just wasn't much more to say.

      Interestingly, Wayne's elegiac Western, The Shootist — which was fresh in the way Unforgiven was — came out two years after Blazing Saddles.

  3. I find that The Outlaw Josey Wales has aged better than a number of his other 70s flicks. And of course Dean Wormer turns in a fantastic performance, enough to cleanse the palate of Sondra Locke.

    Unforgiven was very good, but that was an easy year to win the Oscar, akin to when Crash won it — Howard's End and The Crying Game and Scent Of A Woman were all very good films, but none of the nominees were GREAT films. And I must agree with J Michael Neal above, that I found it extremely derivative of High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider. But that's okay, Westerns only have so much plot range to work with.

    I really didn't think he deserved Best Director, however, even if it was an okay choice for Best Picture. Million Dollar Baby and Letters From Iwo Jima had much crisper directorial chops.

    1. I should emphasize that I don't really think that Unforgiven is especially derivative of High Plains Drifter. (I'm less familiar with Pale Rider.) They both explore the dark side of westerns, but not really the same elements of it. Unforgiven is vastly more introspective than High Plains Drifter, and their fundamental messages are almost diametrically opposed. The latter is accusatory, and demands that the response to betrayal and violence is more violence; the latter is that violence can't bring a resolution.

      Perhaps it can be summed up this way: The Stranger died(?) as a young man; William Munny is living as an old one.

      1. Nice comparative analysis (and I didn't think you were claiming they were derivative).

        Pale Rider is a good film to watch as a double feature with Shane.

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