Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

As Clint Eastwood gives what is likely to be his last screen performance, in Gran Torino, now seems a good time to revisit one of the jewels in the crown of his late career. In much the same way as Walt Kowalski distils the essence of Eastwood’s many ‘make my day’ blue-collar urban avengers from Harry Callahan onwards, so the greying gunman William Munny is the natural summation of Eastwood’s even more iconic screen persona – The Man With No Name.

It’s dedicated to ‘Sergio and Don’, the two directors who inspired him to be a director and undoubtedly brought out the best in him as a performer. Sergio Leone, of course, created the image of Eastwood that still endures – the taciturn, amoral and unfeasibly cool bounty hunter, a still and invulnerable presence at the centre of the giddying genius of three peerless spaghetti westerns. But Don Siegel, director of Dirty Harry and many more of Eastwood’s Seventies gems, stretched him far more as an actor, exploring some of the conflicts and contradictions in the image of the self-reliant, amoral, existential anti-hero.

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All that they taught him came together in a story that took many years to bring to the screen and was an avowed attempt not just to summarise his career in Westerns, but to bid farewell to it – and debunk a few of the genre’s myths in the process.

Few actor/directors would be better qualified to do that. Eastwood’s career path spanned the history of the post-war Western; starting as a bit player in the assembly-line oaters of the early Fifties, then becoming a fixture in long-running TV cowboy series Rawhide, before spearheading the genre’s revolution in the Sixties. He helped to keep it alive in the Seventies and Eighties by using his Malpaso production company and undoubted Hollywood clout to nurture projects like The Outlaw Josey Wales and Pale Rider. Even when his films had a contemporary setting (Bronco Billy, Honkytonk Man) they shared the genre’s dominant themes – how an individual’s choices and character determine his destiny, abiding by codes of honour and friendship despite the temptation to compromise.

But Unforgiven is a very different beast to all of them. From the start the tone is stark and brutal, stripping the Old West of all its glamour and romance. In a grubby saloon in the Wyoming town of Big Whiskey, two cowboys are letting off steam in a bar/brothel. One of the prostitutes ridicules the size of her client’s manhood; enraged he slashes her face with a knife and seems on the point of killing her when stopped by the bar owner Skinny Bill (Anthony James).

The local sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) whips the offender and orders both cowboys to pay a fine of seven ponies, payable to Skinny Bill. Outraged by what they see as a lax punishment, the other prostitutes club together to hire bounty hunters to kill both cowboys.

Many miles away, in Kansas, William Munny, an ageing gunfighter who abandoned his old life to marry a much younger woman and set up as a farmer, is in dire straits. His wife has died of smallpox, leaving him with two young children to care for as well as manage the farm. Our first glimpse of this latest incarnation of the Man With No Name is of him rolling in filth as he tries to control a pen full of recalcitrant hogs. The implication is clear; once the credits have rolled on the dark glamour of the pistolero’s life, all that remains is a miserable, beaten old age working at a hard, austere life for which nothing in your past has prepared you.

When the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), a young tyro keen to make a name for himself, visits the farm and offers the chance to ride to Wyoming and kill the cowboys for a share of the bounty, Munny initially refuses but realises that the money is desperately needed. He recruits a pal from the old days, Ned (Morgan Freeman) now also living as a farmer nearby, and the three set off for Wyoming.

Meanwhile, others have come to Big Whiskey, lured by the bounty. Chief among them is English Bob (Ed Harris), a gentlemanly gunslinger who travels the West with a biographer (Saul Rubinek) in tow, making his living from trick-shooting displays, penny pamphlets detailing his earlier exploits – and the occasional lucrative commission like this one.

But Little Bill, who has a past as chequered as Bob’s or Munny’s, is wise to the dangers and has plenty of deputies, as well as the other cowboys, behind him. It soon becomes clear that whoever wants the bounty is going to have to earn it the hard way...

The set-up is traditional, but the film constantly confounds the audience’s expectations. As the battle between the bounty hunters and Little Bill escalates, the death toll undermines any sense of natural justice at work, and the details of the initial crime become blurred and distorted. In the end, what actually happens to the two cowboys is almost irrelevant; this is a film about how violence breeds violence and what, if anything, the people involved can do to break the cycle.

The violence here is shockingly real. Eastwood the director has no interest in replicating the clean-cut shootouts of the old-style Western, or even Leone’s bloody but stylised showdowns. Here killing a man is either brutal and protracted or short and messy, a matter of ambushing your man from a distance or (in one blackly comic sequence) catching him unawares in an outside toilet. A fair fight is the last thing any of these characters want.

In fact, every aspect of life in this film’s world is hard - and indeed unforgiving: life in a frontier town is dirty and squalid; ‘riding the trail’ is bloody uncomfortable and likely to give you pneumonia to boot; giving a man the slightest offence is liable to get you killed.

The ways in which the characters react to this life is the core of the film. And because Peoples and Eastwood invest so much care and attention in making them believable, flesh-and-blood people, you care deeply what that reaction will be. Particularly when it becomes clear that Munny, in particular, is finding that once you’ve gone back to your old ways, it gets a lot easier to just keep going...

The script is fantastic. It’s Peoples’ only Western, though he wrote it early in his career before he shot to fame as the Blade Runner scribe, but it has the authentic tang of the books and newspapers of the period, and the best of John Ford’s work; the stylised, self-taught phrasing of Victorian-era Scots-Irish immigrants transplanted half a world away. The irony of hearing such formal, slightly flowery speech describing such grim and violent events is one of the film’s joys.

But the chief one is the performances – uniformly excellent and dominated by an outstanding quartet. Harris is a masterclass in vanity and self-delusion, his urbane pretence finally slipping to reveal the guttersnipe chancer below. Freeman is the least fleshed-out of the main characters, but brings his simple decency and knack for scene-stealing to the party as always. And Hackman is a fascinating contradiction; as much a ‘man of blood’ as any of them but clinging to trappings of civilisation like his sheriff’s star and his half-finished retirement cabin by the lake; not a black-hatted villain, but an ordinary man trapped in the same cycle of violence as everyone else. As for Eastwood the actor, he’s darn near perfect. Finding the humanity and pathos in an amalgam of all his grey riders but retaining the cold and dangerous charisma that shot him to stardom in the first place. For my money, it’s undoubtedly his finest performance.

Perfectly paced and beautifully shot, this manages to be both a successful piece of revisionism and a classic Western at the same time. For all its well-made points about the manufactured image of the Old West (as Rubinek’s character makes clear, a lie fashioned because it was so much simpler and more reassuring than the truth) Eastwood the star and director realised that deep down, we still wanted to see his character walk alone into a bar full of opponents and say: “anyone doesn’t want to die, better leave now”.

Ironically, a film designed to be a swansong started a sub-group of its own; the world-weary gunfighter unable to escape his destiny continues to ride forth, in Open Range, Appaloosa and even a Gothic oddity like Seraphim Falls. Even Clint couldn’t kill the Western, but as a climax to his on-off love affair with the genre, Unforgiven couldn’t be better.

Reviewed on: 20 Mar 2009
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Unforgiven packshot
An ageing gunfighter is lured out of retirement to provide for his children.
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Director: Clint Eastwood

Writer: David Webb Peoples

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, Richard Harris, Saul Rubinek, Frances Fisher

Year: 1992

Runtime: 130 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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