When John Wayne, arguably the most important Western star in history, passed away in 1979, Clint Eastwood remained the only major actor committed to the genre. And why not? After all, it’s the long-running Western TV series Rawhide that established him as a screen persona, and it’s his spaghetti Westerns for Sergio Leone (“The Good the Bad and the Ugly,” “A Fistful of Dollars,” “For a Few Dollars More”) that made him an international star in the 1960s.
Now Eastwood is back in the saddle again–this time as director and star of “Unforgiven,” an ambitious film whose aim is to tell a story and at the same time comment on Western heroism. Unforgiven is a point of departure for Eastwood as an actor and director. The movie successfully demythologizes the Western hero. Eastwood consciously set out to humanize his superhero image in the Leone’s Westerns and also in films that are not explicitly Westerns, but have used elements of the genre, such as Dirty Harry, which is actually an urban Western. In a recent interview, Eastwood said: “The film demythologizes idolizing people for violent behavior.”
Eastwood did his homework before directing this movie. He obviously observed the character roles that John Wayne played at the end of his career, most notably the fat, one-eyed Rooster Cogburn in the Oscar-winning performance in “True Grit” (1969), directed by Henry Hathway. In “Unforgiven,” Eastwood plays William Munny, an aged, down on his luck hog farmer and a widower raising two children. In fact, in the very first scene, the haggard-looking Munny is seen on his knees in the mud. Later, when he joins a young bounty hunter to avenge the two villains who cut a prostitute’s face with a Bowie knife, it is clear he is doing it for the money he desperately needs for his farm.
There is a studied quality to the whole film, which at times works against the viewers’ direct involvement with the story. The pacing is intentionally leisurely, allowing the viewers time to think about the characters and how they deviate from the more typical ones (both heroes and villains) in classic Western films. This film may remind you not only of Eastwood’s previous roles, but also of Alan Ladd’s outsider in “Shane,” Gregory Peck’s doomed gunslinger in “The Gunfighter,” and the two elderly gunfighters in Peckinpah’s elegiac “Ride the High Country.”
Yet the caliber of acting is uniformly high, which compensates for the movie’s other shortcomings. For starters, “Unforgiven” features Eastwood’s most mature screen work to date. His performance is multi-shaded, providing much wider range and expressiveness than his acting in former movies, which mostly relied on his quiet, self-effacing manner.
The reliable Gene Hackman gives another good performance as the vicious and cold-blooded sheriff. Hackman’s screen image is so contemporary that, at first, it’s somehow hard to imagine him in the Old West. Morgan Freeman, as Eastwood’s companion, and Richard Harris, as a greedy Englishman, excel in smaller but sharply defined roles.
Frances Fisher as the matter-of-fact madame lends a strong screen presence to a film that is otherwise dominated by men. The only Native American woman in the cast is married to Mrogan Freeman, Esatwood’s African-American sidekick.
A feminist streak runs through Unforgiven, even if most of the female characters are hookers. At heart, “Unforgiven” is a revisionist film, in which the hero confronts patriarchy, and attackes the notion of the Westerner’s gun as a reflection or extension of his phallus.
You can count the number of Western films over the last decade on two hands, and the recent big studio movies, Larry Kasdan’s Silverado and Eastwood’s own “Pale Rider,” were disappointing. Kevin Costner’s “Dances With Wolves,” which swept all the 1990 Oscar Awards, is also a Western movie, though the focus is on a revisionist view of the Native Americans.
“Unforgiven,” which bears no relation to the John Huston movie of the same title, shows progresst in Eastwood’s style as a director. The movie is dedicated to Eastwood’s two mentors: Sergio Leone, of his 1960s Spaghetti Westerns, and Don Siegel, who made with Eastwood some of his best movies (Dirty Harry, Escape from Alcatraz).
Dark and somber in both thematics and visuals, the narrative deconstructs the mythic glamour of violence and the mythic heroism of the gunslinger, two of the more prominent features of classic Westerns.
Released in the summer of 1992, Unforgiven was one of the few substantial American movie with “something to say,” rather than just offer frills and thrills of summer popcorn flicks. Surprisingly, this myth-debunking meditation on the savagery of the Old West was a critical and box-office smash, particularly after earning four Oscars, including Best Picture, Director for Eastwood, and Supporting Actor for Hackman.
William Munny (Clint Eastwood)
Sheriff “Little Bill” Daggett (Gene Hackman)
Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman)
English Bob (Richard Harris)
The “Schofield Kid” (Jaimz Woolvett)
W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek)
Strawberry (Frances Farmer)
Delilah Fitzgerald (Anna Thomson)
Quick Mike (David Mucci)
Davey Bunting (Rod Campbell)
Running time: 130 Minutes