Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece Unforgiven is one of the few Western genre films that managed to receive an Oscar for Best Picture. What makes this even more noteworthy is the fact that Eastwood both directed and starred in his film. The success of Unforgiven helped to establish Clint Eastwood as an A-list director. Although the film premiered in 1992, Eastwood had the complete script since the early 1980’s; he apparently wanted to wait for the right time and right cast to appear. The leading actors would eventually be Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, and Richard Harris.
The basic story of Unforgiven is as follows: in the town of Big Whisky, Wyoming, two drunken cowboys disfigure a local prostitute and are treated leniently by the town’s Sherrif. The other prostitutes of the town are outraged and decide to place a bounty on the heads of the cowboys that attacked their friend. An old, notorious outlaw is sought out by a young upstart with the promise of a share in the reward. He reluctantly agrees and garners the help of an old friend to join them as well. The three then set out to find the men responsible.
This great cast and fantastic script makes for a near perfect western. However, as I will elaborate bellow it turns common western themes around quite a bit. If you’re interested you can check it out at the Union University library. Please note this film is rated R for violence and language.
**** Minor Spoilers Ahead*****
Clint Eastwood stars as William Munny, a vicious outlaw. In his youth, Munny committed many robberies and murders, but he then reformed, married, and started a family. The film finds Munny with his wife has recently passed away and struggling with an unprosperous farm and two young children. Munny’s longtime outlaw friend, Ned Logan, played by Morgan Freeman, is enlisted to help. Ned has also reformed and settled into a quiet life free from the crimes of his past; however, the reward is too good to pass up. The young gunslinger out to make a name for himself is played by Jamiz Woolvett; he calls himself the “Schofield Kid” due to the revolver he carries. The next character we are introduced to is English Bob played by the late great Richard Harris. English Bob is a famous killer who has made a name for himself working for railroad companies to kill disgruntled Chinese workers. He is accompanied by his biographer W.W. Beauchamp played by Saul Rubinek. Mr. Beauchamp is fascinated with gunfighter tales of the past and he portrays English Bob as a chivalrous and honorable hero in his pulp accounts of the gunman’s exploits. Meanwhile, the story’s central antagonist is that of “Little Bill” Daggett, played by Gene Hackman. Little Bill is the sheriff of Big Whisky- he sees himself as a man full of grit and power. He commands authority in the town due to his past as a lawman in the tough areas of Kansas and Texas.
The themes and characters expressed in this film are in stark contrast to the common dogma of the Western genre. The outlaws that set about their mission of revenge on the cowboys are in fact much more emotional and live in guilt of their previous acts. Clint Eastwood’s portrayal of William Munny is very moving as he struggles with the shame of his past and the life of crime that he has returned to. Richard Harris as English Bob also breaks the myths of the Wild West. He carries himself as a noble British gentleman but is in fact a simple, back-shooting murderer as many western outlaw folk heroes tended to be. Gene Hackman’s character of Little Bill Daggett helps to steal the show as he can go from charming and charismatic in one scene to cold, cruel, and quite sadistic- not the traits you want in a lawman. This film blurs the lines of good and evil and perhaps correctly paints the Wild West as rather morally grey.