Clint Eastwood and the western genre pretty much go hand in hand. Eastwood practically built his career out of playing heroic gunslingers navigating through the violent old west. From his iconic performances in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, to more traditional American westerns like Hang ‘Em High, Eastwood has really just become a staple of the genre. Wether it was intentional or not, he was also responsible for resuscitating this kind of film making with his 1992 revisionist western classic, Unforgiven, which has gone down in modern history as one of the best American films.
After cutting a woman working in a brothel in the town of Big Whiskey, Sheriff Little Bill Dagget (Gene Hackman) runs two cowboys out of town, despite the other girls wanting to see them hanged for their crime. As a last resort, the women at the brothel pull their money and put a bounty on the cowboys’ head, which draws in a couple of bounty hunters like English Bob (Richard Harris). It also attracts the attention of a young gunslinger called the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) who hires the help of a retired outlaw known for his brutality, William Munny (Clint Eastwood). After a wave of reluctance passes, Munny realizes he needs the bounty money and brings along his old friend, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), to help him and the Schofield Kid kill the two criminals. What this gang of bounty hunters don’t know is that Little Bill Dagget runs Big Whiskey with an iron fist, and he’ll be damned if a bunch of no good gunslingers undermine his authority.
I’m not really a huge fan of classic westerns where the hero is a moral gunslinger who faces off against the clearly evil bad guys. It doesn’t seem like that’s really what the west should be portrayed as. Granted, there are some exceptions, but I like my westerns to be a bit more complicated than that. That’s why I love a good revisionist western like The Wild Bunch and Unforgiven. There really aren’t any clear good or bad guys in this movie, even though you’d want to think that Clint Eastwood is the obvious good guy. This just isn’t the case, because it’s made clear that William Munny was an awful guy in the past and you can still see some of that evil lurking beneath the surface. On the flip side, Little Bill Dagget makes some pretty brutal moves in this movie, but there’s still a human side to him that just wants to live a peaceful life. This is an intriguing western with complex characters.
Another interesting thing about this movie is that it can be argued that Unforgiven is just as much about a lifestyle, set of beliefs, or state of mind as it is about the characters. There are a lot of characters in this movie that all get ample amounts of screen time, which makes it hard to really distinguish who the main protagonist is. This is a movie that does tell a story about a group of people who clash in a small western town, but it’s also a look at the violence and attitudes of people during the time period. Is it all accurate? I don’t know, but it is a good way of examining the tropes of a genre along with what is known about the time period. This is kind of a weird thing to figure out the first time you watch the movie, but after letting the structure sit with you for a while, it starts to really feel like Eastwood did something new with this movie and reinvigorated a genre and his faltering career.
Unforgiven is possibly the most beautifully shot western I’ve ever seen. A lot of this is due to Eastwood’s skill as a director, but credit also has to be given to cinematographer Jack N. Green. Green worked with Eastwood before Unforgiven and would work with him even more afterwards, but nothing in his career has really stood up to his work on this film. The silhouetted figures riding their horses in front of a setting sun has never looked as great as it does here. That along with the natural looking lighting in the various saloons and jailhouses makes this film feel as naturalistic as it does artistic.
Unforgiven is a modern day masterpiece that has gained the recognition and reputation that it deserves. It took home 3 Oscars, which were Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for Gene Hackman, and Best Editing. There’s plenty to enjoy with this movie, but Unforgiven is more than just a western featuring the heroics of the good guys and the evil deeds of the bad guys. Instead, it explores a time period and the thin line between leading a good life and falling into unforgivable sin. This may well be Eastwood’s best movie and certainly has a place as one of the best westerns ever made.