Clint Eastwood's classic final word on the western genre
By the time clint eastwood’s unforgiven was released in 1990, the western was in sharp decline. A Hollywood staple for so many decades, it had been superseded by special-effects technology and glossy hi-tech action films like Star Wars, The Terminator and the Die Hard films. The ’80s had been a particularly poor time for westerns?Michael Cimino’s 1980 mega-flop Heaven’s Gate had trashed both studio and public interest in the genre and lightweight fare such as Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado (1985) and brat pack western Young Guns (1988) did little to exhume the form. But then along came Kevin Costner’s multi-Oscar-winning Dances With Wolves in 1990?and the western was hot again. In fact, Eastwood had been sitting on the Unforgiven script for some 20 years, waiting until he had “enough miles” on him to play William Munny, the film’s ageing former killer, lured out of retirement for one last job.
Munny was once “the meanest Goddamn son of a bitch alive”, a brutal killing machine whose murderous exploits have since passed into legend. In some respects, you could argue that Eastwood?60 when he made Unforgiven?is trading on his own mythology and the characters who made him famous; hearing him described as a “son-of-a-bitchin’, cold-blooded assassin”, Munny sounds like a composite of The Man With No Name and Harry Callahan.
As the film opens, Munny is mired in hopeless poverty. An aspiring gunfighter, the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), lures him back into his old ways with the promise of half a $1000 bounty raised by a group of vengeful prostitutes in the frontier town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, who’re seeking retribution for the mutilation of one of their own. Hooking up with his old back-watcher Ned Logan (Freeman), Munny and the Schofield Kid head to Big Whiskey where they wind up in confrontation with the town’s sheriff?the sly and sadistic Little Bill Daggett, a man determined to uphold the law by any means necessary (Hackman based Little Bill on Daryl Gates, the LAPD chief during the Rodney King riots and OJ Simpson murder trial). All the while, Munny is haunted by his past (“it’s a helluva thing, killing a man”), burdened by a terrible remorse about what he once was and desperate not to walk down that path again. But events conspire against him, and by the end he finds himself embarking on a murderous, personal vendetta against Little Bill and his deputies. Once a killer, always a killer.
The script, by David Webb Peoples, is unremittingly bleak; an intense, complex meditation on the corrupting nature of violence. It was written in the mid-’70s, with the moral fall-out from the previous decade still hanging heavy in the air, and Peoples admits on the documentary accompanying this DVD release that his screenplay was partly inspired by Taxi Driver and Glendon Swarthout’s novel The Shootist (which, when filmed in 1976 by Don Siegel, provided John Wayne with his final starring role). There’s no black and white, no moral certainties here?”The world isn’t as simple as the good guys always win,” Peoples says.
Peoples’ script also acknowledges and yet refutes standard western conventions. Violence is shown at its most distressing, never more so than in the beatings Little Bill?who’s outlawed guns in Big Whiskey?metes out to bounty hunter English Bob (Harris) and Munny. Through Munny, Eastwood offers an alternative to the traditional image of the western hero?we see him fall of his horse, sit grief-stricken by his wife’s grave, get drunk as soon as he reaches Big Whiskey, admit he’s scared of dying and seem visibly burdened by the ghosts in his past.
Eastwood?as director and star?rises brilliantly to the occasion. With Jack Green’s sombre cinematography conveying the darkness and fatality inherent in Peoples’ script, Eastwood turns Unforgiven into a languid death-bed lament for the western itself, a final word on the genre in which he made his name.