Film Score: Lennie Niehaus Cinematography: Jack N. Green
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris
Unforgiven at the theater in 1992. I was absolutely delighted at the way he seemed to defy every western cliché there was, and created the first film in the genre that seemed true to life rather than mythological. For me it was the first true anti-western. Well, decades later I actually began watching real westerns, by John Ford and Anthony Mann, with John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Gary Cooper, and Jimmy Stewart, and I came to the shocking realization that almost all of the great westerns are actually anti-westerns. The film was nominated for a whopping nine Academy Awards and won four, for best picture, Eastwood’s direction, film editing, and for Gene Hackman’s standout supporting performance. Apparently David Webb Peoples’ screenplay had kicked around Hollywood for a decade before Eastwood picked it up, and then he held on to it for another ten years until both he and the movie-going public were ready for it. Unlike so many modern films, in which killing has become meaningless through repetition and overuse, the ideas of the cost of taking a life, and how much a life is worth, are put under a microscope, and the answers are not always simple ones. Eastwood’s character is not a hero, but even the immoral acts he commits in the film seem heroic because they emerge from a place that is so genuine, so real, that it just seems to make sense. As the title implies, no one believes he can ever be redeemed for his past sins, but that is probably the most important lesson of the film: that he may actually live a better life if he can realize that fact for himself.
Eastwood begins poetically, as he loves to do, with a textual prologue about a man on the prairie who has lost his wife. The film is set in Wyoming in 1880. Cowboys in from a nearby ranch visit a brothel in Big Whiskey and, when one of the boys gets drunk, both he and his partner cut up Anna Levine’s face. Outspoken prostitute Frances Fisher is outraged when all sheriff Gene Hackman does is fine them rather than hang them--a fine that goes to the owner anyway rather than doing anything for Levine. So Fisher and the other prostitutes pool their money and put out the word that they will pay a reward for anyone who kills the cowboys. Clint Eastwood is the man who lost his wife, an inept pig farmer with two kids. In his previous life, however, he was a cold-blooded killer. Young braggart Jaimz Woolvett tells Eastwood about the “whores’ gold” and he wants to partner up and collect. At first Eastwood begs off, but before long he shows up at the farm of his former partner Morgan Freeman, and the two set out to catch up with Woolvett. Eastwood and Freeman are middle-aged men now. Eastwood can’t hit anything with his pistols, and can barely mount his horse, and though Freeman is an excellent shot he doesn’t have the stomach for killing anymore. But they both need the money badly enough that they are willing to revert to their old ways to get it. There’s also a brilliant sub-plot that begins at this point, when Richard Harris and Sal Rubinek pull into town on the train, also looking to murder for profit. Rubinek is a writer, working on a biography of the gunman Harris. But there’s bad blood between Harris and Hackman, and when everyone converges on Big Whiskey things slowly grind their way to a conclusion.
Hackman is a likable character with an incredible mean streak. He figures if he goes overboard with his punishments in enforcing the law his reputation will keep troublemakers from coming to town. And it usually works. But he makes a major misstep when he winds up getting on the wrong side of Eastwood, and that’s where the real heart of the conflict in the story lies. As always, the director strives for authenticity, and his West is a raw and dirty place. More than that, however, the emotions are real as well. Woolvett talks tough, but when he finally kills one of the cowboys it just about emotionally cripples him. At the same time, there’s an awful lot of humor in the film, especially when Hackman makes it his mission to set Rubinek straight on the real story of Harris, the “Duck of Death.” Like all great westerns, the film is a character study more than anything else, and underneath the outward behavior of all of the characters flows a genuine current of fear. Eastwood, Hackman, Freeman, the prostitutes, they’re all scared of something. Eastwood elicits a tremendous amount of pathos as the weakly former gunman who is pushed into marshaling his skills of old, but the film really belongs to Hackman, friendly and cruel by turns, and yet incredibly unsettled by the thought of what could happen if he ever loses the upper hand. Rubinek also gives a tremendous performance as the Eastern intellectual with no loyalty to anyone, trying to understand the ways of the west, while the great Rob Campbell, in his first film, has a small role as one of the cowboys. It’s a powerful film that delivers everything one could want in a western, and yet still manages to defy expectations.
The review in The A-List by Kenneth Turan is one of several in the book that suffers from being written contemporaneously with the film. Nevertheless, despite his breezy style--which I don’t really care for--he manages to hit all of the major elements of the film. First is the screenplay, with “the unexpected turns the plot takes, the power of its idiosyncratic characters, [and] the adroit way it mixes modern and traditional elements.” One of those modern elements is the event that the entire plot centers on, the money the prostitutes offer to avenge their own when no one else will, “giving the film a fascinating neo-feminist subtext.” What Turan calls the most “unexpected aspect” of the film is the one that initially drew me in, describing it as “a violent film that is determined to demythologize killing,” and asking about Eastwood and Freeman’s characters, “can they kill the same way and, more crucial, if they can take one step back down the road to perdition, will they be able to turn around and return to their quiet lives?” One argument that doesn’t ring true, at least in the context of Eastwood’s film, is the disappearance of the western frontier, and Turan’s contention that it leaves “considerable frustration in its wake.” Big Whisky seems just as isolated in 1880 as it might have in 1850, and unlike a lot of westerns the incursion of the modern into the lives of the characters is completely absent. This is a pure western drama, but the “shootouts and gunplay” of genre tradition, in this case, have been rendered more realistically as “drunken, thuggish violence.” For all its emphasis on big sky country, Unforgiven is an intimate film, and remains one of Eastwood’s finest, a brilliant final statement in the career of an iconic western film star.