“It’s a helluva thing killing a man. You take away all he’s got… all he’s ever gonna have.”
Out of the thousands of films I’ve watched over time, this western tale of revenge, redemption and rampage ranks among the greatest stories ever filmed. I know I’m not making some avant-garde claim that this mainstream film is a masterpiece. The film won almost every best picture award of the season from academies, film critic circles, guilds and magazine polls. Clint Eastwood cleaned up in the director accolades. David Webb Peoples was singled out multiple times for his brilliant screenplay. Gene Hackman won every supporting actor award, but in my view he was simply the spokesman for accepting the awards for his supporting acting team of Richard Harris, Morgan Freeman and himself. Clint’s longtime Cinematographer, Jack N. Green photographed the most beautiful of America’s big sky west. (Personally the fact that Jack Green also D.P’d Serenity melts my heart.) Editor Joel Cox has been with Eastwood every step of the way also and the mood he and his sound designers create is un-paralleled. Eastwood even wrote the theme for the score of the film and it’s quite haunting when set against this backdrop – and haunting doesn’t not always mean scary. I highlight these people because they are the ones that got it right, along with the rest of the cast & crew.
With all that Hollywood offers us today, this film from twenty years ago should be the benchmark in film story telling. Does the film break new ground? No. It is the last benchmark. The Grand Finale of the first century of filmmaking. From Charlie Chaplin to John Ford, Hitchcock to Speilberg, Howard Hawkes to John Hughes. Film of the twentieth century was an age of discovery in the art of storytelling with moving pictures. Think of all the things that had to occur in film history before Unforgiven started filming for this movie to have had such as large an impact on audiences as it did and continues to do so:
- The western film is the symbol of American movies. John Wayne alone was in 84 westerns. No other setting is more romantic to movie audiences than that of the old west.
- America’s folk-lore legends are incomplete with the tales of Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, “Wild Bill” Hickcok, Annie Oakley, “Buffalo Bill” Cody and Butch Cassicy & The Sundance Kid et.al.. All real life heroes and villains who’s stories have been fictionalized countless times over multiple generations.
- Clint Eastwood is “The Man With No Name”. Perhaps the most recognizable western bad-ass ever. Alongside John Wayne, Clint is the most popular western movie actor
- Clint Eastwood is “Dirty” Harry Callahan. Perhaps the most recognizable police bad-ass ever.
- It’s no mistake that Clint dedicates the film to his Spaghetti Western Director Sergio Leone and Dirty Harry director Don Siegel.
- David Webb Peoples originally wrote the script with the title “The Cut Whore Killings” which Clint Eastwood optioned in the early 1980’s. He held onto the screenplay until he was old enough to play the title roll of William Munny.
- As the century progressed and the 70’s film revolution began, Westerns were not in anyway shielded from the graphic shift in movie violence that occurred. Allowing audiences to see for themselves the ruthlessness of the old west. By the time Unforgiven hit theaters, Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 The Wild Bunch, in all it’s goriness, was the goto western for young audiences who were turned off by John Wayne’s old-timey cowboy movies. (They shouldn’t be however, Rio Bravo and The Searchers are two of greatest Westerns ever.)
These are just a few of the contextual factors you must take into account when watching the story of the “killer of women and children”, a “rootin’, tootin’, son-of-a-bitchin’, cold-blooded assassin” named William Munny. The unlikely hero of the picture.
The film gives us the story of three assassins on their way to collect a bounty after they first kill two hot-headed cowboys who cut up the face of a whore after she giggled at the size of one of their, ahem… pistols. Eastwood makes us privy to two stories that are only mentioned in other westerns, the before-life and after-life of the ruthless gunfighter. One at the very beginning of the long dark road and two who have escaped the darkness. The consequences are all different, yet the outcome all the same once the story concludes. I apologize for being a bit ambiguous, I just want you to experience it for yourself.
I am also aware that I am not just enjoying this film in it’s own bubble. I am clearly taking into account the cinematic historical significance that I outlined above. I think that makes the film much more of a rich experience. It’s similar to when Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino make their first on-screen appearance together in Heat. It’s a good moment in the story but it’s an ear-to-ear thrill for movie history. That thrill is even greater here. When you watch Clint Eastwood as William Munny deal with the demons that all could have been the demons of Josey Wales; Harry Callahan and The Man With No Name, there is a greater impact made then if say Robert Duvall played the part. A great actor, but no where near the same character history as Clint.
I want to single out the editing and sound design for a moment. Two things that rarely get mentioned in film reviews. The reason being that when they are done right, you don’t notice it one bit. It’s not until repeated viewings that you start to look around. The use of the thunder storm can, has been and will always be overused in movies. However if you ever want to know how to use it correctly, I can’t stress enough how perfect it fits this film. It’s a theme that makes absolute sense. The thunder storm is the greek chorus of the story.
Unforgiven is 20 years old this year. It may as well be 120 years old. The film is timeless and as relevant as ever. It’s also a testament to the history of the American Western, storytelling in general and great film teamwork. There is nothing more disturbingly gratifying than William Munny’s final hunt through the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming.
“We all have it coming.” ~ William Munny
I recently watched this again on Blu-Ray. I’ve owned the laserdisc, DVD, and now BD. I ask myself, what’s the draw of this film, especially since the first time I saw it, I didn’t particularly “like it”. It’s simply a magnificent story with characters FULL of depth. Even the prostitutes believe that they “ain’t nothing but whores but, by god, we ain’t horses”
Is there clearly an an antagonist & protagonist in Unforgiven? Sure. But is it a story of good vs. evil? No… and that’s part of what makes it brilliant. While Little Bill is obviously a sociopath (who is fulfilling is lawful duty in Big Whiskey), how could we rightfully root for Will, Ned, and the Schofield Kid when they’re basically paid assassins? Does it make it better that they’re doing it for money which they need? No. This is character development/examination at its finest.
With today’s lack of ideas in Hollywood (we’ll always be saying that, won’t we), I shudder to think of the possibility of a prequel made for Unforgiven. Someone will most likely think it’s a great idea to “examine” the early rootin’, tootin’, son-of-a-bitchin’, cold-blooded assassin days of Bill Munny. Frankly, it would be a curious journey to take, but wouldn’t that negate the entire point of Unforgiven? The self-reflection of an aged gunslinger whose young whiskey-fueled temperament made him a living demon. Does he come to accept his past due some cathartic self-examination in his older days? No. That’s not what this character’s purpose was. In fact, if you look at the film as a whole, it’s not just the journey of William Munny, it’s the journey and realization of almost EVERY character in the film, from W.W. Beauchamp witnessing the TRUE west and not fiction, to Little Bill’s inevitable demise.