#1 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.
When it comes to Clint Eastwood’s directing work, it’s important to separate the films he made for financial reasons (The Rookie, Firefox) from the ones that were more personal to him (Bronco Billy, Honkytonk Man, White Hunter Black Heart). This feels like the latter, a script he gravitated towards (after decades languishing in assorted places, including his own office when his script reader hated it), that didn’t really have much perceived potential for huge box office gains, and had a lot to do with Eastwood’s own image subverted. Of course, it’s obvious that there’s an effort to demystify the Old West gunslinger in general, but the main focus really does seem to be more personal for Eastwood. That it became a big hit and won Eastwood his first Oscars is something of an irony, I think.
A cowboy, Quick Mike (David Mucci) cuts up a prostitute, Delilah (Anna Thomson), in a fit of rage with the help of his friend Davey (Rob Campbell). Little Bill (Gene Hackman), the sheriff of the town of Big Whiskey, decides that the best thing is to fine the two some of their horses and give them to the owner of the cathouse, Skinny (Anthony James). This does not please Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher), the eldest of the women, and she ends up proposing a bounty for the two men of a thousand dollars, a search for justice that Little Bill does not approve of, promising to nip the whole thing in the bud.
Two states away is William Munny (Eastwood), a pig farmer with two children and a deceased wife with a violent, hidden past that his wife saved him from ten years earlier. One day the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) shows up with news of the bounty and rumors of the deadly William Munny. Munny demurs for a day when his and his children’s poverty becomes too obvious for him to pass up a share of a thousand-dollar reward for doing what he had done all the time before his marriage. He meets up with his old partner Ned (Morgan Freeman), and they catch up with Schofield with an agreement to split the reward three ways.
I’ve seen this movie a few times, and one detail has always escaped me. Munny gets sick from his pigs at the beginning. It’s a little detail that’s easy to miss, but it speaks to the expert construction of the script. The film doesn’t take time to explain little details or even metaphors (like Little Bill’s poorly constructed house), it merely presents them without much comment, much like the characters’ backstories. Munny and Ned were partners in the bad old days, and they reflect on the people they had partnered with (all dead) and the men they had killed, often in gruesome ways. Munny has been avoiding his past for a decade, but the second he sets foot off of his farm, he seems to know that he can’t escape what he’s revisiting. The fever becomes the vessel through which Munny’s past sins come to haunt him most explicitly as he sees visions of the men he killed. He’s haunted by the ghosts of his past.
In Big Whiskey, Little Bill shows he’s serious and capable by brutalizing the first gun for hire that comes along, a foreigner named English Bob (Richard Harris) with a writer, W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) in tow, cataloging Bob’s adventures and writing his biography with the name The Duke of Death. What’s actually going on is that Bob has been building up his own reputation as a pure-hearted killer to the point of parody which Little Bill details around a specific event that Beauchamp had written about in his book. The contrast happens not just between Little Bill and Bob, but between Munny and Little Bill at the same time. Munny doesn’t want to talk about his previous life to the Schofield Kid, and what little he does say is largely just to Ned and it’s all regret. He hated who he was before, the kind of gunslinger that Beauchamp would love to write about.
Arriving in Big Whiskey, Little Bill quickly focuses in on the trio of new arrivals, choosing to beat the obviously sick Munny while Ned and the Kid escape. Convalescing for a few days removed from town, Munny recovers, determined to do the deed he’s there to do, get the money, and go back home. He barely seems to remember his beating, and even if he did, he seems to not care about it. He’s not there to compound his trouble.
The killing of the two cowboys is an ugly series of events. Davey is a good boy who reacted badly to a frantic situation, who tried to make up for it by offering his best horse to Delilah. However, Strawberry Alice didn’t let him make up for it. That contract is still out, and his death in the rocks outside of town, is painful and slow, showing the limits of violence the three are willing to commit, leaving only Munny as the one who can do it. Steadily, Munny is becoming the man he was. Schofield takes the other one, dug in at a ranch, and it ends up Schofield’s first kill.
Another idea that comes up is the cost of violence. There’s a fantastic scene where English Bob is in his jail cell while Little Bill explains what really happened in Bob’s life to Beauchamp. Towards the end, as Beauchamp talks big about being able to kill a man, Bill hands him a loaded pistol and invites him to shoot him in the chest. The idea of committing murder is much easier talked about than done, and Schofield acts as a mirror to that idea with Munny. He bragged endlessly about killing five men, but the cowboy was really his first. It wasn’t a glorious, fun thing. It was messy, and the implications eat at him. “I’m not like you,” he says to Munny. Munny, though, is no longer the man his wife molded. He’s the monster he was, and he knows it, taking regular swigs of whiskey.
Still, he’s willing to just go back home with his share until he learns about what Little Bill does to Ned after capturing him. This inexorably sends him to fully embrace the man he was and become him again without mercy.
There’s been a thematic throughline in Eastwood’s work that has come up repeatedly, and it’s about how powerful men refuse to use their power to protect the innocent. It’s evident in films ranging from his entry in the Dirty Harry franchise, Sudden Impact, to High Plains Drifter to even stuff like The Eiger Sanction and Bronco Billy. It comes up here in how Little Bill is uninterested in finding justice for Delilah, instead being happy with acting as broker in a horse trade. His callousness extends to his treatment of Ned who came to Big Whiskey to do violence but ended up doing none himself. Munny isn’t set off by the injustice of Little Bill’s treatment of Ned. Munny is not a moral man when he’s committing violence and on the drink. No, he’s going to go after Little Bill because Little Bill hurt someone Munny cared for. There’s no grand reason for his violence, it’s personal loyalty and anger, but mostly anger.
When Beauchamp tries to get the exclusive at the end of the final shootout, he tries to assign certain narrative grandiosities to Munny’s actions, but Munny is dismissive of them all. He was lucky is all, just like always. It’s the only way to get through a long life as a gunslinger: be lucky and be violent. Of course, Little Bill’s explanation about how a gunman who can keep his head but shoots slowly can have a leg up on another who shoots quickly but can’t aim because he isn’t calm enough to aim has some purchase on the situation as well. Munny’s a hardened man who is well-drunk and very angry and very practiced in death. Add some luck, and it’s no surprise that he can come out of a gunfight standing upright.
There’s so much packed into this film. It’s wonderfully dense in the best of ways without feeling over-busy or over-stuffed. There’s a clarity to the storytelling brought on by it’s ability to keep things unstated but shown that really gives it a wonderful depth. The images, the histories of the characters, and the ideas are never addressed directly or over-explained but given just enough detail to make their point before moving on, trusting the audience to pick up implication without needing to force feed it to them.
Performances are great throughout with particular notation needing to be made of Eastwood’s performance, especially after the two showy performances he had given in White Hunter Black Heart and The Rookie. Here, Eastwood gives William Munny this deeply wounded quality that morphs into such incredible, understated anger. The rest of the cast is just as great, though, with Hackman stealing every scene he’s in with his combination of wry wit and menacing demeanor. Richard Harris has fun in his small role, and Morgan Freeman is like a rock as Ned. Woolvett is wonderful as the kid out of his depth hiding it with immense and unearned hubris.
This is the complete package of a film. This is easily Eastwood’s best work as director up to this point in his career. If he had retired after this, I would have understood. It’s hard to imagine topping this.
7 thoughts on “Unforgiven”
One of my top 100 films. Heck, it might be in my top 10 of all time. This is Eastwood’s Masterpiece, all that he has been has lead up to this film. From Rowdy Yates to the Spaghetti Westerns to Dirty Harry to Bronco Billy…all built up to this meditation on violence and guilt.
One of the great things about this script is how real, three dimensional, complicated everyone is. Little Bill Daggett is the antagonist, but…he’s not wholly wrong. William Muny isn’t a pure hero but he’s justified in his final vengeance.
The violence Little Bill metes out is in the service of Order, he is deterring professional gunmen from coming to the town under his protection, he’s not a tyrant he doesn’t rule the town, her serves it. He is a man of violence used to protect. Of course we also see violence directed wrongly and yet…yet Little Bill did indeed sniff out William Munny. Munny WAS there for the whore’s gold, he was sick and offering no violence and yet…yet Munny was just like English Bob.
Likewise Munny is going after a bounty, yes he’s murdering for money but legally…you could put a price on a man’s head at the time. The Railroads were notorious for it. Yet he also has a moral clarity and awareness of right and wrong, good and evil. He cares about his family and his friends, cares enough to kill. And, it’s worth mentioning, Munny is mis-informed about the extent of the crime, via the usual grapevine/telephone games. He is at least partially swayed by reports of great violence against women, a chivalric avenging that is also not inappropriate to this time period. Munny regrets his violent past and he is not really going back down the outlaw trail. He takes the money and his kids and goes to California. Greed isn’t what motivates him, family and, yes, Justice does.
I want to opine a bit more about Munny and his outlaw past. I don’t think he’s ‘becoming what he was’. Munny has, and has kept, a capacity for violence. Not all men have it or keep it, Ned lost it, the Scholfield kid thought he had it but all he had was youth and bravado. Booze doesn’t change who you are. Boozes lets out the real you, removing inhibitions. Munny has always been the same man the whole time, the difference is that he exercised control over himself after his marriage. He tried to change, if not his nature, then his behavior…which is all a man can do. When he heads to the final showdown, he is primed for killing, having chosen to remove his inhibitions. Yes, it’s in service of revenge, or a dark reflection of Justice, one higher than law or American morality, Justice for a friend’s murder. This is why Munny is, per the title, Unforgiven. Forgiveness requires repentance, and at the climax of the movie, he isn’t repenting his sins, he is embracing them.
For all the excitement of the finale and the aftermath, the fact that Munny wouldn’t or couldn’t change in the end gives a somber downbeat. There is an element of tragedy here, for victims and avengers alike.
It’s deep and meaty and well made in every single way.
I love it.
I’ll never touch my Top 10 out of sheer obstinance and laziness, but if I were to append it with an 11-20, Unforgiven would be there (also Alien, probably).
It might be the most perfect screenplay ever produced, and it meshes perfectly with Eastwood’s approach to directing. He was no chameleon in the director’s chair, making every movie pretty much the same way (when he does a tiny bit of Hitchcockian stuff in Absolute Power, I was shocked). His way is really good for more meditative films with strong characters where there isn’t a great need for stylistic flare.
This is the best movie that Don Siegal never made. This is what Leone could have been had he prioritized character over style. This shows that Eastwood had higher highs than either of his mentors (I question how much of a mentor Leone could have been since he didn’t speak English and Eastwood doesn’t speak Italian, though).
Really, the man could have just retired after this. It’s the sort of movie that directors dream of getting, and the idea that the script languished for literal decades because no one was interested in it (plus his script reader who hated it) is flabbergasting. Well, Hollywood, so not that flabbergasting.
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