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Unforgiven- How the West was Deconstructed

February 14, 2012
The  Unforgiven Clint Eastwood’s brooding, dark, revisionist Western, that turned the genre on it’s head, swept the Oscars. In a way it was a repudiation of  Clint Eastwood’s gun slinger image, that made him such a big star, and also on the perils of  vigilante justice. The movie won the Best Picture, Director, Best Supporting Actor to Gene Hackman for his role as the sadistic Sheriff.  This post is being published as part of  Oscar Blogathon  at  Outspoken and Freckled.
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The Wild West, a place that is romantic, mysterious and exciting. Or so it was for quite some time, as Hollywood churned out some classic westerns with stars like John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda ruling the roost. Later during the 60’s, Sergio Leone, turned the Western genre on it’s head with his Sphagetti Westerns, and introduced a new star, Clint Eastwood. The Dollars trilogy, was unlike other westerns, with sparse dialogue, wide angle shots, panoramic landscapes, and gritty realism. While Clint Eastwood’s revisionist westerns held fort for some time, they all but faded out during the 80’s, before Kevin Costner resurrected the genre, with hsi epic award winning Dances With Wolves in 1990.

But what do you make of some one, who having gained his fame as a gunslinger cowboy, actually mocks at that image, and strips away the glamor behind it. Honestly speaking when i first saw Unforgiven, i did not like the movie at all. All my life i had idolized Clint Eastwood, as the ultimate symbol of cool, the man with the quickest gun, he was some one whom i fantasized about being always. And here he was playing some one totally opposite to that image, instead of a cool, fast drawing gunslinger, what i was seeing was an old man unable to even mount his horse , some one whose hands shook while firing a gun, no this was not the Clint whom i idolized. But then of course repeated viewings of the movie, just made it one of my favorites. Till Unforgiven, i was a fan of Clint, the actor, never mind what people said about his acting skills, he was the man for me. Post Unforgiven, i still remained a fan of Clint, the actor, but in addition to it, i also became a fan of Clint the Director.

Clint actually beautifully sets up the movie in the beginning itself, when a voice over tells about his character William Munny. We come to know he was a notorious criminal and a murderer, who was feared in his hey days. As it says

She was a comely young woman and not without prospects. Therefore it was heartbreaking to her mother that she would enter into marriage with William Munny, a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.

And then the movie shifts course to a whorehouse somewhere in the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, 1880, where 2 drunken ranch hands, Davey Bunting( Rob Campbell) and Quick Mike( David Mucci), get into a scuffle with some of the prostitutes and end up slashing one of them across the face with a knife. When the bar owner Skinny( Antony James) and the brothel madame Alice, demand justice from the local sheriff, “Little Bill” Dagget( Gene Hackmann). Bill however lets both of them off, asking them to deliver 7 ponies to Skinny, failing which he would be after them.

Alice is however furious at which she sees as a very lenient punishment, and also the way, Little Bill, condones their actions. She puts out a bounty of 1000$ to any one who can shoot the two offenders. A young bounty hunter Schofield Kid ( Jaimz Woolvett) seeks out Munny, having heard a lot about him. Munny however is now leading a retired life on a pig farm, with his kids, his wife having passed away long time back. He is not too eager to go along with the Kid, having given up his past life, but goes along, for the money he needs. He meets up with his old partner Ned Logan ( Morgan Freeman) and along with the Kid, ride to Big Whiskey, Wyoming.

In the mean while motivated by the 1000$ bounty, a railroad worker named English Bob( Richard Harris) arrives at Big Whiskey. Bob is an egoistic, gunslinger with a reputation for shooting helpless Chinese workers, and he is accompanied by his biographer Beauchamp(Saul Babineck). Bob disregards the warning by Little Bill not to carry any gun and cockily walks into town. He however has a run in with Little Bill, who beats him up badly and throws him into prison. Munny, Ned and The Kid, meanwhile enter Big Whiskey, which comes to attention of Little Bill. Would the trio be able to get the bounty? Would they be able to steer clear of the sadistic sheriff? 

Unforgiven is a movie that totally strips away the glamor beneath the gun slinger cowboy image, popularized by John Wayne and later Clint Eastwood. And none more so than Eastwood himself, as in the scene, where he tests his shooting skills, and comes a cropper. His kids, who have known him only as a farmer, are surprised to see their dad, doing shooting.

But the best part for me is in the character of Beauchamp. When he arrives, at Big Whiskey, with English Bob, he has this romanticized idealistic view of the West, but the first time he is exposed to the real violence, he begins to shake. And the part where Little Bill deconstructs the myths about English Bob, to Beauchamp, showing him the actual reality, is one of the finest, because thats where Clint actually strips away the aura and mystery. Little Bill wonderfully sums up the actual ethos of the West when he says.

Look son, being a good shot, being quick with a pistol, that don’t do no harm, but it don’t mean much next to being cool-headed. A man who will keep his head and not get rattled under fire, like as not, he’ll kill ya…It ain’t so easy to shoot a man anyhow, especially if the son-of-a-bitch is shootin’ back at you.

I mean that entire sequence right from the moment Little Bill faces English Bob to the part, where he plays a cat and mouse game with them, is the one where for me, Clint totally breaks down the romantic image of the gunslinger.

One more thing i loved about Unforgiven, was the way Clint actually sets up everything through intelligent use of dialogue. We learn about the character of Little Bill, from the conversations by his deputies. Also the exchange between Little Bill and English Bob, when they meet , hints at a rivalry between them in past.

Again the conversations between Munny and Ned, and the initial conversation between Munny and The Kid, give a lot of insights into Munny’s character. Instead of using a voice over, to explain every character’s motivations, what Clint does here is to let the characters talk about each other, and reveal them. Even Clint’s murderous past life, is not revealed in flash backs, it again comes out through the dialogue. Also the way Clint Eastwood, etches out the characters is brilliant, not just the principal ones like Munny and Bill, but even the supporting ones like Beauchamp. English Bob’s parting words when he is led away from the town, show the typical distate English have for Americans.

The major theme of Unforgiven is the mythical hero vs real one. In different ways, Schofield Kid and Beauchamp are the ones idolizing the heroic gunslinger, but when exposed to reality, their perception changes totally. Munny also takes up the assignment, because he needs the money for his family more than anything else. Also Little Bill is a complex character, not totally black, he has this aversion to people carrying guns in town, because of the experiences he had previously. Yet when a whore is assaulted, he just dismisses it off as a one hand incident, showing he does not treat them as “law abiding citizens”.

Unforgiven has an ensemble cast giving their best performances. Clint Eastwood as the aging, ex gunslinger William Munny, is great as usual, effectively parodying his own image. Especially in the scene, where he tests his shooting skills and also in the climax. Gene Hackmann, gives one of the best bad guy performances on screen. As the sadistic, bullying sheriff, he sends a chill down your spine. Hackmann for me has always been a very underrated actor, in spite of some fabulous performances in his career, like The French Connection and Mississippi Burning. He totally deserved the Best Supporting Actor award. Morgan Freeman as the soft spoken, peace loving Ned, also delivers another great performance as he does usually.

The Unforgiven, does not offer much of wide screen vistas, or breath taking action scenes, or gun fights. What it does offer is a noirish, gritty, de construction of the Western genre. It has great characters, an excellent screenplay and some of the best dialogue. It offers the viewers a layered view of the Wild West, free of all cliches. Clint Eastwood had revised the Western genre, with his spaghetti Westerns in the 60’s, and here he actually deconstructs his own mythical image.

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7 Comments
  1. I did not see the movie, but after reading this, I am going to get it and watch.

  2. A great tribute to "Unforgiven", my most favorite one in the Western genre. While veering off the much trodden path of typical Westerns in showing the darker side of Wild West, it also sticks with the core theme of Sphagetti Westerns, i.e. revenge. The last confrontation between Eastwood & Hackman is stuff of legends. Keep writing such brilliant tributes. 🙂

  3. Hi Ratnakar…!! How are you doing…I am Shiva(if you remember)…we had several discussions on PFC.I watched Unforgiven last year and as you have put it so well…its a complete antithesis of the ever-popular Gunslinger charisma…even I was stunned by the way Eastwood has portrayed himself.Unforgiven touches on so many aspects…the hard life of a Rancher,the wicked sheriffs,the whorehouses,the way woman were treated,the justices and injustices of the West,and that Indian wife of Ned Logan…that image stayed with me forever…(I don't know why…it just stuck)and above all "killing is not fun,its not glamorous at all"…as The Kid realized.Gene Hackman played almost similar role in another Western- "The Quick And The Dead"…movie was a bit silly…but if you are in love with Westerns you can watch it…so I did.Until the start of last year…I was not into Westerns,never bothered to watch but their prominence made me wonder why they are so popular and integral part of cinema…chanced upon Dollars Trilogy and here I am…however silly a Western may be…but I love them now…and Eastwood(I haven't seen the other popular gunslingers of yore,didn't like John Wayne) is the ultimate cool guy on earth…much before our Dabanggs and Singhams found cool…he was oozing "cool" out of every pore…!!If not large,I have watched a reasonable number of Westerns…whatever I have watched my favorite is Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch"…!! Whats yours…??

  4. Siva, thanks for the long winded comment,well Westerns in a way appeal to audience for their tales of revenge,honor values which are universal. Also the Wild West theme works in every country,each having it's own badlands area, in India the Chambal area for eg. Quick and Dead was more of a masala movie good fun neverthless.Westerns I like1) The Dollars Trilogy2) Outlaw Josey Wales3) Wild Bunch4) The Professionals5) 3:10 to Yuma(new one).6) Assasination of Jesse James by Coward Robert Ford( slow moving but loved it).7) The ProfessionalsAmong the classic era Westerns1) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre2) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence3) The Searchers.

  5. Haven't seen The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,The Searchers…but I have seen all others…Sierra Madre again remains one of the greatest…!!What do you reckon about the recent Drive(Ryan Gosling)…I think its a modern take on the mythical gunslinger…where vast landscape shots were replaced with glittery night-footage of the city…and the horse-back changed to sportscars…while the charisma and the killing-skill of the leading-man remains just the same…!!Just digressing now but can't help mentioning I watched Incendies yesterday…really liked it…have a go if you like some non-english cinema…!!And please write something about David Lynch movies…I want to know your perspective on them.

  6. As you may, this is my favorite Western, Ratnakar. You gave the film its due with a fine write-up, my friend.

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