By John H. Foote
4. UNFORGIVEN (1992)
By the late eighties, actor Clint Eastwood had established himself as a fine director, even causing Orson Welles to comment that “Eastwood is the finest director in the cinema” on the popular “Mike Douglas Show”. Having proven himself behind the camera right off the bat with his first feature Play Misty for Me (1971), Eastwood had continued making films that he wanted to make, no assignments, he chose what he was directing. His deal with Warner Brothers exists to this day, “one for them that will make a lot of money and one for me, that I want to make.” Sometime through the years, the two merged as Eastwood’s films. by virtue of his name and his attachment. were bound to be box office hits. Certainly there were exceptions, what director does not fumble along the way? For the most part however, Eastwood enjoyed either critical favor (often) or box office glory, or both.
It should never be forgotten that he found most of his fame, at least in the beginning, in Italian westerns, spaghetti westerns shot in Spain and released in America to staggering box office. This gradually made him a major movie star, bringing Warner Brothers to cast him in Dirty Harry (1971) which made him a bona fide superstar.
Now to be clear, had anyone in the seventies said to me one day Clint Eastwood will be among the most important filmmakers in cinema history, I would have laughed in their face. Yet today, at the age of 90, he is just that. Twice honored by the Directors Guild of America as the year’s Best Director for Unforgiven (1992) and Million Dollar Baby (2004), he is a four-time Academy Award winner for those same two films, having directed and produced each. He won the prestigious New York Film Critics Award for Million Dollar Baby, and had all the New York Critics been on time to vote in 1992, would have won another from them. In addition to his four Oscars, he has been further nominated for several more for his films Mystic River (2003), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) and American Sniper (2014). I think it safe to say he deserved attention for his films The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), his extraordinary biography of jazz great Charlie Parker which starred Forest Whitaker, Bird (1988), his beautifully told love story The Bridge of Madison County (1995) with Meryl Streep, and his powerful Gran Torino (2008) in which he gave what might be his finest performance. As he grew artistically as a director, so he did as an actor, gaining depth and weight with his characters, earning excellent reviews for his performances as well as his films, which was not always the case.
It seems fitting his masterpiece remains Unforgiven, his dark, haunting western, a startling film in which he carves out a unique place for the western in film history.
As Will Munney, a former gunfighter turned pig farmer, father and widower to the woman who made him right, the first time we see him is in the mud trying to corral his sick hogs. Over the course of the film we learn through others he was once the most feared gunmen in the west, fearless, merciless, and at one time had killed men, women and children, even a couple of dogs along the way. Can this pig farmer really be the feared Will Munney?
When a cocky young kid comes along boasting of his accomplishments, the self-named Schofield Kid (Jamz Woolvett), he talks of a bounty being offered for the men who bring in two cowboys who viciously cut up a prostitute for no reason. The girls want their justice. The Kid plans to find the men, gun them down and split the cash with Will, if he so inclined. But he is not interested, at least he thinks he is not. When the Kid leaves, he looks around at his run-down farm and thinks of what he could do for his children with that money.
He grabs his gun and rides off to his friend Ned (Morgan Freeman) to invite the man along on the adventure. He tells his kids he will be a few days, but will be back. At first Ned has no interest, but the lure of the money intrigues him and though he has not fired a gun in a long time, he goes along. They catch up with the Kid and join in with him, quickly discovering he is nearly blind. They suspect, rightly, that though he boasts of killing five men, he has not taken a life. And they continue to learn, finally deciding between the two of them the young man has never fired a gun to kill a man in his life.
When they arrive at Big Whiskey, the town where the prostitutes reside, it’s under the iron fist and threat of deadly violence by Marshall Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman). The folks of Big Whiskey live in fear of Little Bill, a former gunman himself hoping to live in peace, but always pushed into shocking violence, though never very hard. A British gunfighter, English Bob (Richard Harris), arrives with his biographer and encounters Bob having not turned in his guns and is beaten within an inch of his life. Along the way Bill also exposes English Bob as a lying fraud. With a smile, that masks a ferocity of rage within him, Little Bill lashes out in brutal, grim violence anyone who dares to question his authority, his law in the town.
When he hears William Munney is in town, Bill knows he is no fraud, and knowing William is unarmed, beats him too, nearly to death. Sick with a cold and badly beaten Munney recovers under the care of the prostitutes and as he recovers, he grows angry. He finds when they try to get the men who cut up the girl that Ned cannot kill like he used too, he freezes up. Munney does not freeze and fires, killing the man. They later find the camp of the men and the Kid shoots the other as he is seated on an outdoor toilet. As Ned, ashamed and confused, tries to leave town He is captured and tortured by Bill, horse whipped and threatened with more before he just dies.
While being paid his money Munney is told Ned is dead, and you can feel the storm growing inside him. He rides back into town and finds his friend, stood up in a coffin, and walks into the bar, shotgun loaded and in hand. He asks who owns the bar and the man replies, only to be gunned down by Munney without warning. Called a coward by Little Bill, Munney replies, “Well he should have armed himself before he decorated his place with my friend.” Aiming the gun at Little Bill, he misfires, but whips out his pistol and guns down seven men without hesitation, finishing Little Bill off with his shotgun. As he rids away, he threatens with death and the death of their families any man who comes after him. An epilogue tells us Munney moved his children to San Francisco and thrived as a businessman in dry goods. He was never heard from again.
Unforgiven is about the consequences of killing, how the murders haunt you for the rest of your life. Munney is blessed with being able to kill without conscience, or is he? Does he believe he can find redemption in the arms of his wife, and the love of his children after the death of their mother? Will understands the consequences and has lived with them a long time. When the Kid says one of the men had death coming, he replies with some sadness, “We all got it comin'” knowing death comes to us all. When he walks into that bar, he has become the William Munney we have heard about for the previous two hours and his fury is unleashed. He kills without remorse, never thinking just firing the gun until no more are standing, or no others pose a threat.
Eastwood first read the script in 1982 after finishing Honky Tonk Man (1982) and knew he was going to direct it but did not feel he was quite ready. He knew he wanted to pay Will Munney but thought he had to age into the role. Stretching himself through the years, after portraying a John Huston-sequel director in the superb film White Hunter Black Heart (1990), he deemed he was ready for Unforgiven. It was like the perfect merging of artist with subject, no one was better suited to direct this film than Eastwood who understood the often-veiled complexities of the western genre. Deceptive in their simplicity, there was always a great deal more going on under the surface than audiences thought with this genre. Though the three main themes are man vs. man, man vs. the landscape and man vs. himself, they are often grouped together, which is precisely what happens in the greatest of them. Eastwood saw in Unforgiven a chance to explore the consequences of a life of killing, realizing one can never escape the ghosts of what he is leaving behind. Though a dreadful farmer, he is doing his best for his children, but knows they deserve better. Only through crime can he hope to get an out from the life they are enduring. Only when he dons his guns or picks up a shotgun is he doing what he is truly good at. He talks about luck following him around when he was killing, but when he enters the saloon to kill Little Bill, he is against at least 10 other men and fearlessly guns them down, seven of them before the rest scatter. As he has said earlier to the Kid about death, “we all got it comin'” and here he deals it out for what they have done to his friend. It is an extraordinary performance from Eastwood, the zenith of his career, having evolved into a fine actor by the time he was 60. Better than anyone he understood his strengths as an actor and his weaknesses, but there is not a single weakness onscreen in Unforgiven.
Gene Hackman had to be talked into playing Little Bill, after withdrawing from the role of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs due to the violence and suggestions of violence in the film. Eastwood spoke with Hackman about what he wanted to say in the film, and Hackman understood, responding with one of his finest performances, creating a fearsome man to whom violence is a way of life. When Little Bill threatens Ned after whipping him, telling what is coming next will not be gentle as he has been so far, it is genuinely terrifying because we know he means it. Among the greatest film actors since his emergence in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), his work here is stunning, seething with an inner violence waiting for a target, busting to be unleashed. His award-winning performance as Little Bill won him all the Best Supporting Actor awards available to him in 1992, and remains among the actors finest, most frightening performance.
Morgan Freeman as Ned was a surprise bit of casting because we do not often see African Americans in westerns, but it was a bit of perfect casting. Ned is a man who once went along with Will, though Will did most of the killing. Whatever he could once do, domestic life has taken it from him and he no longer has the stomach for killing. How ironic he is the one to be treated with such mindless violence when he was the one heading out of town, going home to his waiting wife and the quiet life he has chosen to lead. Ned did not deserve to die, the exception to Will’s “we all got it comin'”. On his way to becoming one of the finest and most respected actors of his time, Freeman had already given stunning performances in Street Smart (1987) as a vicious pimp, the kindly driver in Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and as an older soldier in Glory (1989). He would go on of course to his superlative work in The Shawshank Redemption (1994) two years later, a master class in acting.
An unknown young Canadian actor, Jamz Woolvett, landed the plum role of the near blind Schofield Kid by audition and was fortunate to be in a Clint Eastwood film. While he was very good in the film, how could he not be overshadowed by the greats in the film? Never again, at least until 2021 has Woolvett done anything remotely close.
Richard Harris has a fine part as English Bob, a preening gunfighter who I think gets by more on lies about his reputation than anything else. His biographer, nicely played by Saul Rubinek, seems to have an awakening about Bob as he hears Little Bill speak of him and the events Bob has twisted in his favor. Bob is in no hurry to gunfight Little Bill, is he? He arrives with great pomposity but leaves broken and shamed. Frances Fisher is excellent as Strawberry Alice, the raging prostitute who bands the other girls together to put up the bounty on the two cowboys who cut up Delilah, demanding justice Little Bill does not give.
“It’s a hell of a thing killing a man” says Will, “you take away everything he’s got and everything will have”. The staggering consequences of killing hits the Kid hard, he simply is not wired for this and breaks down shortly after he shoots man. It never bothers Will, at least not that we see. He does what he has to do and incredibly has always survived. Talking with Ned, he discusses shooting a man several years before, realizing that the man never deserved it, and obviously it has haunted him.
When Will arrives in town to kill Little Bill, he’s riding the proverbial pale horse which Biblically death arrives on. Calm, purposeful, with killing his only intention, Will is focused and terrifying in his will to carry through what he is going to do.
And then he rides away, never to return and apparently never to kill again. But he will live his life knowing what he has done and knowing what he is capable of doing. How does one live with that.
The Los Angeles Film Critics honored the film, beginning a landslide of awards for Unforgiven, with Best Picture, Actor (Eastwood), Director, Supporting Actor (Hackman) and Screenplay honors, while the DGA Awards honored Eastwood with his first nomination and award. Nominated for nine Academy Awards, there was little doubt Unforgiven was going to dominate the Oscars and it did, winning Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Hackman), Best Sound and for Eastwood, of course, Best Director. The awards seemed to launch Eastwood as one of the greatest American directors of the modern age, which is precisely what he became with this film. The film also brought him his first Oscar nomination as Best Actor, a second coming for Million Dollar Baby (2004) 12 years later.
Impossible to shake, Unforgiven is an American masterpiece and work of art.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.