There is a stateliness and repose, a stillness even, in the shots of the land in Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven that persuasively evoke the pervasive mood of the film -- melancholy -- and help underscore its predominant theme: death. The majestic vistas of Alberta, Canada, have served Eastwood's generous, retrospective glance at the western genre as comfortably as a time-worn saddle. For instead of revisiting the Monument Valley horizons of the vast majority of John Ford's films, here we're almost reminded of Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller for the similarly ruminative depiction of man's mortality set against the power of timeless creation. Far more than his limited acting skills would suggest, Eastwood has matured as a director: The painterly still-life depictions of the mountains, meadows, wheat fields, and brooks that surround and cover the fictional town of Big Whiskey like a shroud evocatively point to man's vulnerability before nature. It is a dark and thoroughly existential cowboy story. For that, some will doubtless deem it too soporific and bleak.
Aided by a screenplay written some twelve years ago by David Webb Peoples, Eastwood portrays nature as a multifarious but fundamentally singular force, while the diminutive men and women who play their parts on the field of human conflict are depicted either as spiritually broken or morally fraudulent. There is an abundance of victims, but not a single hero, in this film. Human fallibility is stressed at the expense of virtue. Violence begets violence with often horrifyingly blank motivation. Thus, I've heard some folks tag Unforgiven "a cynical Nineties version" or "a Yuppie western," sympathies that speak volumes about our own audiences but add little to a discussion of a neglected filmic tradition or an assessment of its historical prerogatives. It also shows how many in the movie-going mass would gladly forgo Unforgiven's moral gray areas for a steady diet of like-it-is John Wayne spectaculars.
Among its boons, Unforgiven is rich in irony. Convincingly aged and diminished, Clint Eastwood plays Will Munny, a former gunslinger and cold-blooded murderer in his dotage. Will is a widower reformed from booze and killing who toils on a pig farm with his two children (falling in porcine excrement more than once). One day, a wanna-be young gun (Jaimz Woolvett) arrives at the farm to ask for his help in killing two men accused of maiming a prostitute. A $1000 ransom has been set from the whores' collected savings, attracting every killer in the region. Will at first demurs, but then changes his mind. The proposed assassinations, variously referred to throughout the course of the film, constitute the compelling moral argument. The attempt to revisit the past comes back to haunt Will Munny.
Munny searches out his former partner (Morgan Freeman), like himself a retired firebrand turned farmer, and the two older men seek out the kid and make tracks for Big Whiskey. Meanwhile, the town sheriff (Gene Hackman), a staunch enforcer of the law (which includes a no-firearm policy upon entering Big Whiskey), discovers that every murderer in the West is heading toward his town. In one of the more amusing -- and brutal -- sequences in the film, English Bob (Richard Harris, in a brilliant cameo), a smooth-talking assassin, comes into town pleading the cause of the British monarchy to any and all who will listen, but is nabbed by the sheriff and his deputies, beaten up on Main Street, and made an example of to warn other intrusive gunmen. English Bob has brought his own biographer (Saul Rubinek), hard at work on a series entitled "The Duke of Death." While nursing his wounds in jail, Bob listens as the sheriff repeatedly calls him "The Duck of Death," while setting the historical record straight to the wide-eyed chronicler.
But the comedy ends there. In Unforgiven men sitting round a campfire reminisce about a man whose teeth went out the back of his head from a gunshot. They're killers, but they're death-obsessed, too, and the ghosts are often more vivid than the living. (Even Munny's dead wife is a looming presence.) This recalls Eastwood's last western, made in 1985, Pale Rider, a tribute to George Stevens's Shane, where the lone character of the title is alleged to be dead. Lit in Rembrandtian browns and blacks, the cinematography emphasizes the morbidly intractable course of events. In Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns of the Sixties, Eastwood was a nameless, and elusively romantic, figure. As a 62-year-old horseman, there are intimations of desperation in Clint's carriage these days. American Film once asked Leone what he saw in Eastwood, and this was his answer: "When Michelangelo was asked what he had seen in the one particular block of marble which he chose among hundreds of others, he replied that he saw Moses. I would offer the same answer to your question, only backwards. What I saw in [Eastwood], simply, was a block of marble." As star turns go, his performance in Unforgiven is fittingly marmoreal, and yes, of its kind, magnificent. (Shades of Wayne's cancer-consumed outlaw in his final western, The Shootist.)
Conversely, Gene Hackman has always been a dependably malleable actor, but never more so than here, playing a man whose ramrod straightness at first inspires admiration, then mirth (as he spoofs English Bob), and finally, as his campaign against wanton violence in Big Whiskey turns sadistic, repulsion. It's one of his richest roles because the complexities of moral ambiguity permit him to bask in a wide palette of realistic effects. In a sense, the sheriff is the protagonist of the film because of his perfidious extremism; what propels the story to its culmination -- when Will Munny rekindles his past and rides into town, provokes and then shoots his way out of a bloodbath -- isn't the ransomed murders but the sheriff's torture of an innocent man.
There are some anachronisms and revisionist innovations in the screenplay that betray a late twentieth-century sensibility. Without question "full of shit" is not an average expression of consternation your everyday 1880s cowboy might sputter on the range, nor is "asshole" the penultimate westerner's preferred epithet. Also, when Munny's black partner is assailed, in current politically correct fashion, never is the N-word uttered by his adversaries. (Fifteen years after the end of the Civil War, you can bet your weathered Stetson that the passions and prejudices of that tragic conflict registered on the placid terrain of the old West.)
Too much has been written lately regarding the death and resurrection of the western. Most recently there was a column in the Miami Herald by Bill Cosford outlining his views on the cause of its demise, and I'm sure the distinguished critic will forgive me if I indulge in some friendly expostulation and rebuttal. Cosford names as "the seeds of the Western's popularity and the agents of its collapse" some rather mind-boggling specimens. Point one is that "Horses no longer interest people. They are no longer transportation for anyone, and no longer even expensive pets for any but the affluent few." A curious observation, that. Does Cosford imply that in the heyday of the Hollywood western -- a period covering the end of the Thirties through the Fifties and on to the Sixties, with Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Cheyenne Autumn -- the main source of transportation was Mr. Ed? And is he suggesting that audiences were more enamored of Gene Autry's pony than with the Singing Cowboy? Pretty kinky, Professor Bill.
Point two: "The `wide open spaces' remain, but they are no challenge to anyone who doesn't seek them out. We fly over the badlands." Still obsessed with ways of getting around. It may come as news to the fine critic of the Herald, but long before middle-class America discovered Club Med, prop planes flew over the badlands, too. But what any of this has to do with alleged disinterest in the genre is for Elvis to decipher.
Point three: "Violence endures as a narrative staple in movies, and modern movie violence is much more explicit than anything vintage westerns employed. Those were the days of the bloodless gunshot and the bruise-free, rollicking fistfight. The reality of violent America overtook the myth of western showdowns." Cosford cleverly ignores the post-vintage westerns that appeared in the aftermath of the Sixties, such as the gruesomely realistic fables of Sam Peckinpah. (Is there a violent western to exceed The Wild Bunch's slo-mo carnage?) The British critic Robin Wood, in a definitive essay on Peckinpah, wrote that he was the successor to John Ford: "An heir Ford would not have wished to acknowledge, but an heir nonetheless." The realistic western was not a contributing factor, as such post-studio-era shoot-'em-ups as The Long Riders, Pale Rider, and now Unforgiven abundantly show.
Point four: "As for that great scenery, it is now within the reach of the average American, not to mention the average Japanese." A basic rehash of the first statement, but curious nonetheless. Is Cosford suggesting that Japanese capitalism is responsible for America's ennui regarding John Wayne? If so, it's a view worthy of Pat Buchanan.
Point five: Cosford writes that "period pieces are a tough sell." There he goes again. It's interesting to note that of the Academy Awards Best Films of the past decade, many of them (Amadeus, Dances With Wolves, Gandhi, The Last Emperor, and Out of Africa, to name five) could be labeled period pieces.
Point six: "The theme of the white man as civilizer and rightful appropriator of `untamed' lands is now in such disarray that a good part of the appeal of Dances With Wolves was laid to its portrayal of the Sioux as spiritual superiors to the settlers." Again Cosford ignores the appeal of such consciousness-raising westerns as Jeremiah Johnson, Little Big Man, A Man Called Horse, and Soldier Blue, which came in the aftermath of Vietnam in the early Seventies. And, of course, Ford's Cheyenne Autumn offered a less ethnocentric viewpoint than was previously seen in, say, The Searchers.
And finally: "Only the myth of the outlaw hero seems to have any resonance left for modern audiences, but even that idea has long since migrated onto modern, urban plots." For a more eloquent rebuttal to this proposition than this critic could ever manage, I recommend the reader pick up a copy of Robert Warshow's essay entitled "The Westerner," written in 1954 and utterly marvelous, which compares the saddle-and-spurs genre to the ganster movie -- "men with guns." Suffice to say that, since the debacle of Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, bottom-line producers appear to have placed a moratorium on the western. Audiences, as ever, have been underestimated. Give us a good western, and we'll pack the multiplex like Texas cattle.
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And before the critical cowboy rides off into the sunset, I would admit more films than High Noon, The Searchers, and Shane into the pantheon of great examples of this misplaced genre. The list is too long to complete, certainly, but on my desert-island VCR I would not want to be without Stagecoach, The Ox-Bow Incident, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Red River, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Wild Bunch, Barbarossa, The Long Riders, and yes, Unforgiven.
Directed by Clint Eastwood; written by David Webb Peoples; with Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris, and Jaimz Woolvett.