Director: Clint Eastwood
Production: Warner Bros.; Technicolour, Panavision; running time: 131 minutes. Filmed on location in Alberta, Canada.
Producer: Clint Eastwood; executive producer: David Valdes; screenplay: David Webb Peoples; photography: Jack N. Green; editor: Joel Cox; assistant directors: Scott Maitland, Bill Bannerman, Grant Lucibello, and Tom Rooker; production design: Henry Bumstead; art director: Rick Roberts and Adrian Gorton; music: Lennie Niehaus; sound editors: Neil Burrow, Gordon Davidson, Marshall Winn, Butch Wolf, Cindy Marty, James Isaacs, and Karen G. Wilson; sound recording: Rob Young, Michael Evje, and Bobby Fernandez; costumes: Valerie O'Brien.
Cast: Clint Eastwood (William Munny); Gene Hackman (Little Bill); Morgan Freeman (Ned Logan); Richard Harris (English Bob); Jaimz Woolvett (Schofield Kid); Saul Rubinek (W. W. Beauchamp); Frances Fisher (Strawberry Alice); Anna Thompson (Delilah Fitzgerald); David Mucci (Quick Mike).
Awards: Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Hackman), Best Cinematography, and Best Editing, 1992.
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* * *
Like its predecessor Tightrope, Unforgiven—a film critic Pat Dowell calls "droll, dry and deadpan"—marks a turning point in the career of Clint Eastwood. Just as the almost cartoonish, ultra-violent Dirty Harry image changes in Tightrope to a single father nearly overcome by his human frailty and seeking redemption through family values, so Unforgiven challenges earlier film stereotypes, not just of Eastwood's own spaghetti-western type but also of what has become of the Western genre itself. The classic American morality story has fallen on sad days, exhausted by overexposure and made decadent by the gimmickry of special effects exaggerating form over substance. Producer and director Eastwood returns the form to its moral roots, especially in the precise calculation of the effects of violence, its running commentary on honourable behaviour, and its consciousness of the power of falsity of reputation.
At a time of increasing violence in society, a return to a classic genre permits a distanced examination of issues of revenge, guns, and respect. The story stems from an incident wherein a drunken cowboy slices up the face of a prostitute in Big Whiskey, Wyoming, in 1880. Gene Hackman, as Little Bill Doggett, in a wonderfully written and performed part that reveals unexpected depths in the hackneyed role of small town sheriff, decrees financial reimbursement as punishment for the cowboy, choosing economic stability for the whoremaster over a harsher justice, and thereby enraging Strawberry Alice, who leads the other prostitutes to put up a $1,000 reward for the lives of the two cowboys involved. This incentive draws a collection of misfit bounty hunters, including English Bob (Richard Harris), a British dandy, accompanied by his own dime-novel journalist/flack; the "Schofield Kid," a self-promoting would-be Billy-the-Kid, whose extreme myopia makes him potentially lethal to his comrades; and Eastwood himself, as Bill Munny, a long-retired gunfighter turned marginal pig farmer, who is a widower with two children and friendless, except for an old colleague—Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman).
The film is replete with unexpected reversals and new takes on old clichés, beginning with the feminist/activist roles of the prostitutes in revenging the injury to one of their own: they are not simple pawns or victims. By standing against the powerful and devious Little Bill, they create their own justice. Harris's English Bob is introduced as a fearsome shooter and a dominating personality, only to be humiliated and pummelled fatally in front of his newspaperman-cum-promoter (Saul Rubinek), by Little Bill, who has banned guns in his town. The deflation of English Bob is completed when we learn that his victims have been unarmed Chinese, and that his hagiography as a gunfighter, enhanced by pulp fiction, conceals cowardly and incompetent behaviour.
The distance between myth and reality is best exemplified by Eastwood's Bill Munny. The director portrays himself unshaven and dissolute, wrestling with pigs in a muddy sty and losing—no dialogue is needed to comment on this iconography of western hero passed his prime and tragically domesticated. The scene is all the more affecting given the opening long shot of Eastwood burying his wife on the loneliest prairie imaginable. The decision to pursue the bounty is wonderfully fuzzy and vague, that of a man who has battled with the bottle and is trying hard to be a responsible father. To all appearances Jaimz Woolvett's Schofield Kid is the "true" gunfighter, a brittle, barely controlled youngster bristling with hostile machismo, dangerous, unpredictable, and insecure. However, his physical myopia extends to his inability to recognize Eastwood as what he might become if he survives. Only after ignominiously killing an unarmed man in an outhouse does he give up his desire to be a gunfighter.
As the film, with an admirably ambling pace, proceeds to show the inevitable working out of the algebra of revenge and violence, we learn from varying sources and demonstrations that most bullets miss their mark and that, contrary to what tenderfoot Eastern journalists and shoot-em-up movies suggest, killing men is not easy, especially when they are shooting back. Even the battered face of the slimy English Bob evokes sympathy. The evidence mounts that a chain of violence has terrible consequences, from the scarred face of the prostitute to the illness that affects Eastwood at the prospect of resuming his killing career to the beating of Eastwood by Little Bill. There will be no dramatic shootout on Main Street at high noon; rather, violence is messy, bloody, and usually indulged under cover of night with unfair odds. When Eastwood finally returns to wreak his own revenge for Ned's murder, the action is brutal and the characters unforgiving: wounded, helpless men are killed where they lie on the floor, and being a successful gunfighter is shown as a terrible and inhuman instinct for effective violence, not as a romantic and heroic figure.
A box office success, winner of five Academy Awards and the Cahiers du Cinema best film of the year, Unforgiven returns the Western to its moral and thematic roots, but with a late 20th-century sensibility of cynicism, irony, and worldweariness. The cliché that violence begets violence is confirmed, as is its appeal: violence actually does resolve problems, though at an enormous cost even to its survivors. Not an easy tool, violence can turn unpredictably against its long-term practitioners. Revenge and honour prove complex questions, and apparently simple situations have a logic of their own that complicates and entraps. Reputation, a commodity often created and abused, leads to unwelcome pressures to conform to the expectations of others. This sometimes sad, sometimes comic, melancholic look back at the past speaks eloquently to our present and future. In doing so, Eastwood has given this old genre potential new life for the next century.
—Andrew and Gina Macdonald