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Warner Home Video
1992 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 131 min. / Two-Disc Special Edition / Street Date September 24, 2002 / $26.99
Starring Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris, Jaimz Woolvett, Saul Rubinek, Frances Fisher, Anna Levine
Cinematography Jack N. Green
Production Designer Henry Bumstead
Art Direction Adrian Gorton, Rick Roberts
Film Editor Joel Cox
Original Music Clint Eastwood, Lennie Niehaus
Written by David Webb Peoples
Produced by Clint Eastwood, David Valdes
Directed by Clint Eastwood

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The last Western wholly embraced by the public was this beautifully directed meditation on violence by David Webb Peoples and Clint Eastwood. Two years before, Kevin Costner's feel-good PC Indian Western Dances with Wolves charmed the Academy but Eastwood's movie will probably wear much better in the long run. By sticking with its simple story and avoiding blanket political morals, Unforgiven is the last classic Western to date.


After one of their own's face is slashed, prostitutes in a mining town pool their money to hire a killer to do in the two cowboys responsible. First to arrive is Western legend English Bob (Richard Harris), who is brutally 'discouraged' by the pragmatic and authoritarian sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman). But a punk who calls himself the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvert) lures two reformed outlaws into heading North with him to pick up easy money. William Munny (Clint Eastwood) is a broken man haunted by his years as a drunken killer - he entices his buddy Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) to come along as well, urged by distortions of atrocities inflicted on the prostitute victim.

Grim and dour, and with a scarcity of standard Western thrills, Unforgiven relies on a rich set of 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 with no illusions about the fact that he uses his office to line his pockets and maintain the crooked status quo in his ugly little town. The script further uses him to parody the familiar 'building the West' theme in classic Westerns - the church of My Darling Clementine, the barn in Shane. Like Tom Doniphon of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Little Bill is building a house. In his case he's the only one who can afford to, and it's a crooked house, said to be constructed without a single right angle. That's a subversion worthy of Sam Peckinpah - the West was built by petty rednecks.

But Little Bill is also the center of another classic theme, the penny-dreadful novelist who tags along to create legend out of the true brutality of the wild towns. This is one that's been done before (Left Handed Gun, etc.) but never as well as here. The opportunistic tinhorn W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) encourages the mayhem he needs to write about but pees his pants when threatened and gleefully 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 central action of the film is a hateful, unpunished (but profitably fined) crime by two cowboys against a helpless prostitute, that turns into a disproportionate offer of blood money for their murder. The 'heroes' William Munny and Ned Logan are willing murderers enticed by the bounty, and here's where it gets interesting. Back fifteen years before, both William and Ned were ruthless 'bad men', killing out of pure meanness aggravated by drink. Now they're trying to do the same thing but in sober cold blood, and having to face both their pasts and the ugliness of their actions. Munny's memories of old atrocities haunt him; both miscreants have to 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 not even funny.

Unforgiven takes more steps to make sure there's nothing noble 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.

Then, with the capture and torture of one of the partners, the show turns into a revenge tale. Munny liquors himself up like old times and barges in to redress wrongs by blowing 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', a rather narrow view but a 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 carried a cynical sense of humor about him, and the later Eastwood incarnations, even Josey Wales, seemed to be made 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. We're guilty burnout cases so sick of everything, we don't care who we shoot.

Several seasons ago, Savant wrote about Unforgiven's relationship to an older Gary Cooper / Anthony Mann film called Man of the West. William Munny is a horrible murderer and drunk, reformed by a good woman. Ten years later and 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. In this case, his family is still alive and well, but he involuntarily hooks up again with his old gang, when he witnesses their railroad holdup.

My point in the old essay was that star expectations hurt both films. Gary Cooper's aura of decency is so strong, we have a hard time believing he could ever have been a bad man, doing things like holding victims so Lee J. Cobb could "shoot the tops of their heads 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."

I believe Man of the West would have become a classic if it had framing scenes showing Cooper leaving, and returning to, his family. The really interesting absent character in Unforgiven is William Munny's dead wife. A woman who could interest cold killer Clint in giving up booze, following the Bible and raising kids and hogs - now there's a story. Unforgiven skips all that in favor of the usual tale of violence. If Munny is really reformed, why is he so ready to abandon his kids to go on the road as a hit man?

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 the director was impressed enough by the script to shoot it with uncommon care, because the choice of angles and the visual design here is a great improvement. It really is a fine Western to watch. 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 star casting of Richard Harris as English Bob gives Unforgiven one undigestible lump at the beginning, only because Harris is so much fun to watch. He dominates the screen and then folds into impotent posturing before bully-boy Little Bob. Harris made such an impression, I really expected him to show up later. Likewise, Jaimz Woolvett's punk gunslinger is tiresome because we know he's going to turn out to be a gutless crybaby, eager to blast down some unfortunate target but then go soft over it. He's less interesting because of this obviousness, and because he's the kind of easy character that tended to proliferate in earlier, less compelling Eastwood Westerns.

Warners has given Unforgiven a deluxe two-disc DVD treatment, which means that the lengthy, finely-detailed film finally gets the class-A transfer and encoding it deserves. The brown-on-brown, often dark-toned film always looks great, and the sound is as commanding as ever.

The extras have something for everyone. Previously interview-allergic Clint Eastwood is all over the place here, in old featurettes and new ones, discussing his career and this show specifically. This is probably due to his close relationship with critic Richard Shickel, who seems to have the corner on Clint exclusives. The familiarity shows in the lack of a critical eye for Eastwood's directing career (sorry, as much as everyone wants to laud him, most of the time he's not a terrific director) and the general feeling that a friend of the family is in charge. But fans unfamiliar with the details will be interested in the four documentaries' retelling of old Eastwood lore, like his first appearance pulling a mouse out of his pocket in Revenge of the Creature. Also, the Shickel career docu is well-stocked with clips from Eastwood's non-Warners pictures, an expensive rarity that only a name critic-producer like Shickel seems able to rate in this town.

The packaging and cover art are classily put together. A quote from Eastwood says that Unforgiven "summarizes everything I feel about the Western", which is apt, yet a reminder that Eastwood Westerns were rarely about much more than a macho hero gunning down other macho pretenders. 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 much more compelling than his jokey Rowdy Yates character in Rawhide. All in all, a terrific package for Eastwood fans.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Unforgiven rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Richard Shickel commentary, Eastwood film highlights, Trailer, new docu All on Accounta Pullin a Trigger, 1992 featurette, 1992 Eastwood star featurette, Schickel docu profile Eastwood on Eastwood, Maverick episode with Eastwood from 1959, Duel at Sundown.
Packaging: folding card and plastic sleeve case
Reviewed: September 24, 2002

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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