Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven arrived at a time when audiences were slowly saying goodbye to classic and revisionist Westerns in favor of high-octane blockbusters driven by special effects. This makes it a perfect candidate to nail the coffin closed on September’s Horsepower Month as all of us here at The Film Era begin our fearsome trek into October’s 31 days of horror. David Punch, one of our talented staff writers, included this film as the last entry in “The 10 Greatest Westerns and the Order in Which to Watch Them.” This place on the list is incredibly appropriate for Eastwood’s film. Riddled with deep respect for the numerous foundational movies that came before it, Unforgiven is an eloquent funeral song that bids a perfect farewell to a dying era of cinema.
The film inhabits a dynamic time in the American frontier. Gun toting outlaws of the Old West are mostly all dead and those still kicking have put away their pistols. Now they work in barber shops, general stores, and stables. They hunt, fish, farm, and build houses for cash—anything to hide the wounds of their savage youth. These former killers awaken in the dead of night, haunted by the ghastly faces of their victims, but with so few of these rugged individuals left, their traumatic experiences develop an alluring, mythical quality. For the casual outsider looking in, these shameful deeds become sensational entertainment. Writers and reporters scoot from town to town, searching for tales of bloody gunfights to turn into profitable publishing. Children play pretend in the daylight, locked in imaginary firefights complete with index finger cannons and mouth-made sound effects. At night they gaze up at the stars, dreaming to one day become gunslingers.
Eastwood plays a Kansas farmer named William Munny, notorious for killing men, women, and children as a ruthless mercenary. He now raises two young ones of his own after the death of his loving wife Claudia. When cash becomes scarce and a deadly fever creeps among his entire team of pigs, a silhouette of opportunity arises. Enter a young stranger, the self-proclaimed ‘Schofield Kid’ (Jaimz Woolvett). Expecting to encounter a battle worn, cold-blooded killer, Schofield is perplexed to find an old codger covered from head to toe in pig shit. He informs Munny of a strange commotion out of Wyoming. A cowboy decided to bust out a blade and slice up a woman’s face. Now he and his accomplice are wanted dead, and Schofield is looking for the right partner to help claim the bounty. He’s heard of the legendary William Munny and how he’s “cold as snow and don’t have no weak nerve, nor fear.”
Munny initially denies this invitation because he is no longer the man Schofield speaks of. He was civilized by marriage to a pure-hearted woman and now leads a somewhat contrite existence. When he explains to Schofield that Claudia cured him “of drink and wickedness,” we get the feeling he’s trying to convince himself more than anyone that the old days are dead and gone. He repeats variations of these lines throughout the film like a careful mantra, as if to keep his rowdy former self at bay. Eastwood’s portrayal of Munny is patient and humble, perfectly convincing the audience of his committed desire to be a better man.
Finally Munny gives in and recruits his previous partner, a sharpshooter named Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), to join he and Schofield on a hunt for the wanted cowboys. As they travel together, we witness two very different worlds collide. Munny and Ned seem reluctant to revisit their destructive ways while Schofield treats the job like a macho rite of passage, boasting of multiple killings like trophies stuffed inside his saddlebag. The banter between them is comical, but it serves a higher purpose than to simply generate laughs. In these scenes, the characters show us who they really are. The old gunners are quietly revealed as two men nearly crippled by their horrible sins, and their young companion is unmasked as a blind wannabe with an unhealthy yearning for infamy.
The journey of this ragtag trio is intercut with bits of daily life in Big Whiskey, Wyoming. Sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) dictates his post with ferocious conviction. There are no guns allowed in Big Whiskey, a rule he enforces with signs hung on the outskirts of town. If a visitor or regular citizen happens to ignore or forget the rules, the vindictive Sheriff subjects them to sadistic ass kickings and barbaric humiliation. Though at first he may appear to be a firm example of the “Corrupt Sheriff” trope, Hackman brings certain nuances to the character that make him stand alone. He is undoubtedly the villain of the film, but he’s strangely similar to Munny or Ned. Little Bill is tainted by the furies of his past, but has found a way to live with them. As a man of the law, he justifies depravity as a necessary aspect of his public duty.
This film is directed with poised efficiency reminiscent of various master filmmakers. The luscious frames brim with spirited movement and poetic silence seemingly inspired by the expert work of Akira Kurosawa. Eastwood’s world is populated with rich companies of interesting people much like the stunning Westerns of Howard Hawks, John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, and Sergio Leone. In Unforgiven we meet memorable minor characters like English Bob (Richard Harris), a suave gentleman gunfighter with a reputation for embellishment. His biographer sidekick W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) follows the phony “Duke of Death” around like an obsessed fanboy, smirking at the townsfolk as if he believes himself to be one half of a two-man celebrity entourage. Beauchamp and Bob, along with the wide-eyed Schofield Kid, represent our own reverent, desensitized acceptance of brutality and bloodshed in popular culture. These men are dazed and disconnected, operating with an energy separated from the repercussions of the carnage they repeatedly romanticize.
Also quite important to the story is the rebellious group of women who finally get fed up with being treated like livestock. The most memorable performance among them is Frances Fisher’s Strawberry Alice, the fierce madam of the brothel who orchestrates the disastrous bounty responsible for the events of Unforgiven. She wants revenge for the awful disfigurement of Delilah (Anna Thomson), a timid working girl who did nothing wrong except giggle at the sight of a brutish man’s tiny pecker. The attack is downplayed by Little Bill and Skinny Dubois, the weasel-like owner of the establishment, so the ladies seek retribution outside the law. The cowboy’s cowardly act of malice and the women’s tenacious hunger for vengeance are a tragic catalysts that brew heavy tension toward the film’s ominous conclusion.
Violence carries a tremendous weight in Unforgiven. After Munny guns him down, the first cowboy slowly bleeds to death as he begs for one last gulp of water. Munny shouts at the man’s company to get him a drink, promising he won’t shoot as they comfort their dying friend. Ned is visibly shaken by the chaos and elects to return home, leaving Munny and Schofield to finish the job. They approach the second cowboy sitting inside an outhouse. Schofield rips the door open and hesitates for a moment before blasting his target three times in the chest. Later he grovels and cries, crumbling into a weakened sliver of himself. This plunge into murderous terrain shatters the naïve illusions left behind by a perilous pursuit of toxic masculinity, poisoning Schofield’s spirit and changing his life forever. With a gut full of booze, he tearfully confesses this to be his first true kill.
The wave of havoc shows no signs of slowing down as Munny finds out that Ned was captured and killed by Little Bill and his goons. This severe act of cruelty destroys the brittle shell that contains Munny’s inner demons and transforms him yet again into a frightening ghoul of a man. After chugging some liquor for the first time in eleven years, he rides into town alone like the Grim Reaper. First he blasts Skinny Dubois for decorating the face of his bar with Ned’s lifeless body. Then he proceeds to kill anyone else foolish enough to oppose him, ending with a ruthless point-blank execution of a shell-shocked Little Bill.
Eastwood realizes that to dissect the concept of violence it must first be shown without omitting the powerful consequences. He’s aware no opposing argument can be proposed without clarifying why the carnage was appealing in the first place. This approach challenges the overall influence of violent media and questions the ways general audiences absorb it. Is the fulfillment we find the fault of the creator whose content isn’t revolting enough to turn viewers away, or is it caused by bloodthirsty consumers who frequently return for more?
Eastwood’s film was originally developed under the working names The William Munny Killings, The Cut-Whore Killings, and Whore’s Gold. By choosing Unforgiven as the title, Eastwood and screenwriter David Webb Peoples pose a few intriguing issues. Who is it that Munny seeks forgiveness from? His wife? The countless people he killed? Or does he long to forgive himself? In twenty-six years since the film’s release, answers to these searing questions remain elusive. Nevertheless, Eastwood and his actors triumph by using rigorous technique to evaluate many complex facets of our puzzling human nature. They firmly communicate the rippling effects of violence and the merciless ways it can twist the human soul. The end result is a cinematic experience that resonates long after the film’s final credits, lingering like a tormented ghost of the Western genre.