Clint Eastwood bought the rights to the Unforgiven script almost a decade before he finally decided to make the movie. He knew he wanted to make it and he knew it would make a popular and successful movie but he knew he wasn't ready to do the film full justice - as an actor or director. Thankfully, by waiting he was able to deliver the movie that he knew it could be. He gives us the most thoughtful, serious, and reflective western ever made. This is an art house western.
Part of what makes this film so difficult is that it doesn't really answer a single question that it raises. In the end this is a film about violence. It presents it from different perspectives and viewpoints - real and mythic. It is a choice that the characters make in this film and at the same time they are also bound by their destinies and by the course of the events that have unfolded before them. It amazes me that lots of people find it overly moralistic when the film really doesn't offer its own opinion. The violence is what it is - it is a choice that the people make the best that they can and they live with violence's consequences the best that they can.
Gene Hackman plays "Little" Bill Daggett (a role for which he was awarded an Oscar) - a ruthless small town sheriff who will do anything to keep law and order in Big Whiskey, Wyoming. Richard Harris plays a hired and famous gunfighter named English Bob and Saul Rubinek plays W.W. Beauchamp - English Bob's biographer and myth maker. The film uses these three to great affect and really talks about the American western legend with these characters.
The entire cast here is top notch and each one of them creates a complete and interesting character.
W.W. Beauchamp is simply trying to sell books. He latches onto a great western hero, expands his exploits, makes the west what everyone not living with these people would want it to be. It is W.W. Beauchamp who invented the showdown in the dust swept street with the fastest gunned hero left standing. English Bob is only to happy to oblige - he is turned into Wyatt Earp by Beauchamp and will live forever. Unfortunately for English Bob this story is shattered when the two run into Little Bill and Bill shows him just how cowardly and oportunistic Bob is. Beauchamp, thinking he has found the real hero of the American west, dumps English Bob and begins to write about and learn from Daggett.
Bob and Little Bill aren't the only characters who want to be the kind of hero that Beauchamp writes books about. The Schofield Kid (played well by Jaimz Woolvett) also wants to be that man and when he hears about the reward given to the men who kill some cowboys in Wyoming he is all too happy to try his hand at gunfighting. He enlists the help of William Munny and Ned Logan (Eastwood and Morgan Freeman) to ride out and kill them.
This is not the same man who appeared in the Dollar trilogy - or is it the same man...just wiser...?
Eastwood's character is an interesting guy to stick into the middle of a western. When we first see him he is trying to convince himself and all of those around him that his late wife has changed him and that his former life as a ruthless outlaw is over. He is a hog farmer and a poor one at that who regrets the life he led as a drunk gunslinger. At first glance it would appear that that life is indeed past him but when The Schofield Kid comes to ask him to help him kill some ranch hands he looks at his limited prospects and bleak future and decides to make one last grab for money. He takes along his friend Ned who really is past his violent past unlike Munny who is still struggling with what he has done. The trio make an interesting team - one wants to be a legendary killer another was a legendary killer who hates that he was and the other is a man who might be the most skilled of the three who is only going because Munny, his friend, is going.
Eastwood directs this film minimally every step of the way. This is a dark and bleak film with hardly any directorial flourishes at all. Some of it is so dark it is hard to see what exactly is happening. That is not an accident - it is a statement. Eastwood won an Oscar for this film...rightfully so. There isn't a Morricone score that accompanies Eastwood across the landscape - in fact there really isn't a score at all. The camera is static and it allows the script to be the star of this movie. The actors all await their fates in a rainy, dark, and sad world. The only time the film is bright is in a great scene on a mountaintop with Munny and a town prostitute. It looks like heaven compared to the rest of the movie...maybe it is supposed to.
This isnt the lone prarie and desert setting Eastwood's mentor Leone would use....
The first time we see Daggett and Munny together we certainly get what we did not expect. The showdown ends with Munny crawling out of the bar and his hands and knees. The next time they meet it ends with the showdown the entire movie had built to. After seeing Daggett beaten by a famous criminal Beauchamp cant believe that again he had been duped into believing and following the wrong man. He then wants to follow Munny but of course he is asking a man that will have none of it. It is a great scene but the movie really hits its message climax in the scene before when Munny and The Schofield Kid are talking...awaiting their payoff. The Kid has found out that killing a man and becoming the man he thought he wanted to become wasnt what he thought it would be.
"Killing a man is a hell of a thing." Eastwood says. "You take away everything he has - and everything he is ever gonna have."
"Well, I guess they had it coming." Schofield answers.
"We all have it coming, Kid." Eastwood concludes.
We each have our own conclusions at the end of a film like this. Is some violence justified? Like Munny's killing of Daggett. Do we all have it coming? Does Munny finally live in peace because he came to grips with his past or because, for once, killing has a purpose instead of the result of a drunken rage? Did the ranch hands deserve to die or were they victims of rumors spread by the prostitutes. How did the cut prostitute feel about the events that unfolded on behalf of her? Should she have stopped them or was she just as helpless to stop the events as the players who were forced to play out the final conclusion? Is Daggett a psycopath or a necesarry man in this world?
In the end all we have are big questions - no movie can do anything better than that....
Nobody can contemplate all the rights of wrong of killing. All we can do is find our own peace with what we see and do around us. Unforgiven is a movie that gets the gears inside of our heads moving. Not many of our generation's greatest films can say that.