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Twenty years have been exceptionally kind to Clint Eastwood's most accomplished western, a beautifully directed meditation on violence written by David Webb Peoples. Two years before, Kevin Costner's feel-good PC Indian western Dances with Wolves charmed the Academy but Eastwood's movie has worn much better in the long run. By sticking with its simple story and avoiding blanket political morals, Unforgiven remains the last classic Western made to date.
After a prostitute's face is slashed, her colleagues in a mining town pool their savings and hire a killer to do in the two cowboys responsible. First to smell easy money is Western legend English Bob (Richard Harris), but the pragmatic and authoritarian sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) 'discourages' the dandyish gunfighter by brutal means. A punk who calls himself the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvert) lures reformed outlaw William Munny (Clint Eastwood) into heading North with him to take on the job. Munny is haunted by his years as a drunken killer, yet entices his buddy Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) to come along as well, spurred on by distortions of atrocities inflicted on the prostitute victim.
Grim and dour, and with a scarcity of standard Western thrills, Unforgiven relies on its nicely observed characters to set it apart. The story has an instant hook that keeps interest high: who will take up the whores' offer of gold for blood? The fun is in watching the four or five topnotch character performances that place law 'n' order in the old West in a fairly fresh perspective.
To wit, there is no law 'n order in Unforgiven's West, just the rough authority represented by the wonderful, horrible Little Bill Daggett character. Bill is the original Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man, a hypocrite who freely admits that maintains the crooked status quo in his ugly little town to line his pockets. The script further uses Daggett to tap into the familiar 'building the West' theme in classic Westerns, as seen in the church of My Darling Clementine and the barn in Shane. Like Tom Doniphon of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Little Bill is building a house. It's a crooked house, constructed without a single right angle. That's subversion worthy of Sam Peckinpah -- the West was built by petty rednecks, on a corrupt foundation.
Little Bill is also the focus for another classic theme, the manufactured legends drummed up by the penny-dreadful novelist W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), who tags along to make a publishing profit from the brutality of wild frontier towns. This has been done before (The Left Handed Gun, etc.) but never as well as here. The opportunistic tinhorn Beauchamp encourages the mayhem he needs to write about but pees his pants when personally threatened. Like a parasite, he changes allegiances when his original mentor, English Bob, is unceremoniously run out of town on a rail. Little Bill challenges the scribe to face the ugly, un-gallant truth about famous shoot-outs, mocking English Bob by calling him The Duck of Death, instead of The Duke.
The film's action trigger is a hateful, unpunished (but profitably fined) crime by two cowboys against a helpless prostitute. As often happens in real life, one sordid crime elicits a disproportionately sordid response. Enticed by the blood money, the 'heroes' William Munny and Ned Logan are willing murderers. Back fifteen years, both William and Ned were ruthless 'bad men', killing out of a pure meanness frequently aggravated by drink. Now they're trying to do the same thing but in sober cold blood, and having to face both their memories of old atrocities. Both miscreants must deal with their third partner, a callow moron hiding total inexperience behind his bluff. When the action scenes happen, they're messy and unpleasant, and never funny.
Unforgiven takes more steps to make sure there's nothing noble to be found in hatred. Led by their bitter Madame (Frances Fisher), the prostitutes refuse to forgive the slasher's innocent partner, even though he tries to make amends as best he can.
When one of the partners is captured and tortured the show turns into a revenge tale. To redress Little Bill's treachery, Munny liquors himself up like old times and barges in to blow away everybody in sight. His anger and aim are practically indiscriminate. In his own words, he's decided that so far as getting shot goes, 'everyone deserves it'. That rather narrow view is a wholly credible one for a man as embittered as he.
The movie commendably ends on a dour note -- the fans have gotten their bloodbath, but it has a real edge to it. The Man With No Name slaughtered with a cynical sense of humor and the later Eastwood incarnations, even Josey Wales, seemed to be cobbled from leftovers of the classic western years. Unforgiven's William Munny is an original, a man with a past who is just as dangerous now as he was then. Clint Eastwood has made a nicely subversive film, if you take the classic western Hero to represent a streak of truth in the American soul. Are we guilty burnout cases, so sick of everything that we don't care who we shoot?In 1998 Savant wrote about Unforgiven's relationship to an older Gary Cooper / Anthony Mann classic called Man of the West. William Munny is a horrible murderer and drunk, reformed by a good woman. After her early death, he chooses to return to outlawry 'for the sake of his children.' Man of the West is a superlative subversive Western compromised by a similar schematic. Gary Cooper is also a reformed bad man with a wife, in his case still alive and well. Circumstances force him to hook up again with his old gang, and he feels his old killer reflexes coming back.
The point of my old essay is that star expectations hurt both films. Gary Cooper's aura of decency is so strong that we have a hard time believing he could ever have been a bad man, doing things like holding a victim so Lee J. Cobb could "shoot the tops of his head off." Conversely, Clint Eastwood has made such a career out of playing violent, amoral killers that Savant had a hard time accepting the back story that he had ever reformed. There was an undertow saying, "Oh yeah? Show me." If Munny is really reformed, why is he so ready to abandon his kids to go on the road as a hit man?
The crucial absent character in Unforgiven is William Munny's dead wife. What kind of woman could get cold killer Clint to give up booze, follow the Bible and raise kids and hogs? Now there's a story. As powerful as it is, Unforgiven skips all that in favor of a tale of violence.
One important thing to praise about Unforgiven is Eastwood's direction, which is head-and-shoulders above most of the rest of his work. Evidently inspired by the script, Eastwood shoots it with uncommon care. His choice of angles and the visual design is a great improvement on many of his pictures. It really is a fine western to enjoy. One morning scene finds snow on the ground, and we feel the chill in the open country. The action scenes are exceptionally well thought out - it's a real movie, not just another self-propelled Eastwood vehicle.
The amusing Richard Harris gives Unforgiven its only moment of imbalance. Harris's English Bob dominates the screen, only to fold into impotent posturing before Little Bob's bullying. He makes such a strong impression that we expect him to re-enter the story to confront Munny face to face. Our expectations for Jaimz Woolvett's punk gunslinger are not surprised, as it is fairly obvious that he will turn out to be a gutless crybaby. The Schofield Kid is the kind of easy character that tended to proliferate in earlier, less compelling Eastwood Westerns.
Warners' 20th Anniversary Unforgiven looked quite splendid in the older DVD special edition. I haven't seen the first Blu-ray release, but this new edition is a real beauty. The silhouetted first shot of the pig farm is a stunner, and the richly detailed images just look great in high resolution. DVD encoding often turns the brown-on-brown surface of westerns into earth tone mush, but in a good Blu-ray we can get a range of browns from tan to gold. The HD picture also gives us a better look at Little Bill's crookedy house, which will elicit big laughs from anyone into construction.
The extras are carried over from the old special edition. Many were overseen by critic and Eastwood associate Richard Schickel. Clint Eastwood is all over the place here, in old featurettes and new ones, discussing his career and this show specifically. Fans will enjoy the four documentaries' retelling of old Eastwood lore, like his first appearance pulling a mouse out of his pocket in Revenge of the Creature. Schickel's Eastwood career docu is well stocked with clips from the star's non-Warners pictures, something not often seen in extras produced for DVD.
The 54-page color souvenir book package rounds up a number of pleasing photographs, dialogue quotes and publicity blurbs. The extra that Savant really appreciates is an entire Maverick episode where a young (1959) Eastwood plays a charming but cowardly gunfighter with an itch to blast holes in James Garner. Garner makes a ninny out of him, of course, but Eastwood's potential as a lean, mean mobile ordinance platform gets a good workout - and is more fun to watch than the actor's jokey Rowdy Yates character in Rawhide. All in all, this is a terrific package for Eastwood fans.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Unforgiven Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.