One of the finest westerns ever made is Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Based on a screenplay by David Webb Peoples, this 1992 film serves as the encapsulation of the icon’s work and as a distillation of Old West mythology. It’s powerful and evocative as a genre picture and it’s also a hauntingly personal expression for the director, producer and star.
Eastwood dedicates Unforgiven to Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, two mentors who helped him shape his career. Thanks to his work in Leone’s Dollars Trilogy and in Siegel pictures like Dirty Harry and Two Mules for Sister Sara, Eastwood was able to forge a name for himself as one of the industry’s most reliable stars. Unforgiven functions as another turning point.
Here, he is William Munny. He’s a hog farmer, but he’s not much of a hog farmer. His wife is recently deceased and he’s taking care of two kids. Money is tight when the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) comes calling. He wants Munny’s help in killing a couple of cowboys responsible for cutting up a whore (Anna Levine) because Munny was once a pitiless killer.
Eastwood’s character eventually agrees and picks up his partner Ned (Morgan Freeman) to head to Big Whiskey in Wyoming. Meanwhile, the local sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman) has been chasing away gunfighters seeking the reward for killing the cowboys. Among the also-rans is English Bob (Richard Harris), a man who totes his own biographer (Saul Rubinek).
Eastwood’s character initially insists to the Schofield Kid that he’s no longer the monster of his past. He doesn’t drink whiskey anymore, either, and his wife Claudia cured him of wickedness. He’s been enlightened, plucked from the grime of the Wild West by the wings of an unseen angel. Unforgiven doesn’t explore the redemption of Munny, though.
It’s more interested in the limits of salvation. Munny lives under the guilt of sin so much so that he even brings it up when he struggles to mount his horse. Not only does his diminished capacity to do the things killers do speak to his age, it speaks to the pressing influence of blame. When he collects Ned for the journey, Unforgiven contends with two battered souls eking out a living in the Kansas ether.
And somehow, Munny’s able to tilt the narrative to rival the corrupt sheriff. Somehow, he’s escaped his wicked life relatively unscathed and he’s able to make it right. But as with most things, the darkness is still inside and the demons can still be loosed. When Eastwood squares off against Hackman in the climactic scene, the sky rains blood.
Unforgiven is about unfinished business. For all the well-meant gumption behind the idea that a man can be cured of wickedness, Eastwood suggests it’s a pipe dream. His character confirms that “deserve’s got nothing to do with it,” that the path suggested by Dante Alighieri’s “dark woods where the straight way was lost” always drives through the mud-slicked streets of the West.
Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly argued that humanity was essentially a blend of the titular traits. One could no more be rid of the bad or the ugly than one could be rid of the heart or the brain. All have the capacity in one way or another and there are choices to be made in the wave of self-interest that follows. In Unforgiven, Eastwood has learned the lessons well.
Cinematographer Jack N. Green captures the world with a glorious array of beautiful compositions. The opening shot is one of the finest, with a sunset posing the shadow of a man, a house, a tree, and a grave. And the closing shot shows the progression, the world in between a downpour of rain, mud, backlit interiors, and widescreen honesty.
It’s tempting to argue that there are too many characters in Unforgiven, with English Bob and his biographer seeming on the redundant side. But a closer look reveals them as parts of a larger whole, with the characters populating Eastwood’s world reminiscent of the western tradition of communities bubbling over at the fringes. These are populated, full towns.
With Unforgiven, Eastwood asserts himself as a titan of the western genre. That was never in doubt, but this movie places him on a different plane. It’s a considered, haunting film. And while Eastwood’s journey may never go back to the way it was, there’s a sense that the inseparability of responsibility from a good conscience will remain the stronger message.