In the latest ‘What Dya Mean You Haven’t Seen…?’ post, where I finally get round to watching films people are incredulous I haven’t already seen, I am going to be taking a look at the 1993 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Unforgiven. Spoilers, naturally.
Plot: In the little town of Big Whiskey, the local prostitutes are just trying to earn a living doing what they do. However, one of the girls rubs a customer up the wrong way (not like that) and ends up getting herself cut up and left with severe facial disfigurements. When lawman Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) fails to take the appropriate action over the offence, the other prostitutes decide to take matters into their own hands and offer a bounty on the offenders’ heads. This attracts the attention of cowboy The Schofield Kid who approaches retired badass William Munny (Clint Eastwood) to help him with the hit. Munny begrudgingly accepts and enlists his former partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) to help.
Unforgiven was the first western Clint Eastwood had made in seven years, since 1985’s Pale Rider, and would mark the last one he would make (to this point). Immediately this draws parallels with Unforgiven’s plot. Eastwood hadn’t retired from making westerns but had left the film until he felt he was old enough to play the character of William Munny. In the same way Munny shows that he still has what it takes, Eastwood also proves that he can still gunsling with the best of them. Is this a bit of self-glorification on Eastwood’s part? Possibly, but it really doesn’t matter. There is also a more gentle side of Munny, as suggested at in the film’s brief prologue text, which allows this to be a more rounded performance from Eastwood and one that would earn him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
Whilst Eastwood is the cold hard killer with a softer side, Morgan Freeman’s Ned Logan shows absolutely no sign of ever being capable of taking someone out and is a rather odd character. He’s the other side of Munny, the one who can’t go through with the bounty and has fully changed his ways, but Freeman just doesn’t give the impression he could ever have been a killer and is not wholly believable. What is also little unsettling is the scene in which Logan is whipped by Little Bill. The symbolism of this scene is fairly obvious (whether intended or not) and coupled with the almost KKK-style display of the body illuminated by torches, it seems a little jarring.
A major theme running right through the heart of Unforgiven is that of morality. We are constantly being challenged to question the morality of pretty much all the characters. Who is wrong and who is right? Are any of them wrong or right or are the lines blurred? The prostitutes feel rightly aggrieved at the lack of justice but is it right for them to offer up a bounty on the offenders’ heads, especially when the victim seems happy enough to accept their apologies. Similarly, is Munny justified in taking on the hit? He wants to right a wrong (as well as earn some money) but killing someone who technically has already been sentenced, could well be seen as a morally wrong act. Logan decides not to go through with the job but was technically conspiring to murder and supplied a murder weapon. He seems to be doing the right thing but still has plenty of blood on his hands.
Little Bill is a prime example of the moral ambiguity present in the film. He stands for law and order and is trying to protect his town from violence. He’s building himself a nice little house. He seems like the epitome of all that is good. Yet for some reason he’s just as hateable as likable. He doesn’t dish out adequate punishment for the man who cut up the girl, yet kills Logan. For someone who apparently stands against violence, he’s quick to dish it out. He’s just a flawed individual, just like everybody else in the film. Maybe there is no wrong or right and the moral compass is one that never settles no matter which way it’s pointed.
Don’t believe everything you hear
As well as morality, Unforgiven also brings up the themes of lying and the way reputations can be built on little more than hearsay. Munny is apparently a hardened killer of women and children yet we know that he was married, has children and seemed to have changed his ways. Did he really kill women and children or are those merely tales spun that have been accepted as fact. Furthermore, the girl who is attacked apparently, according to The Schofield Kid, had her eyes but out and her breasts cut off. We know this not to be true yet that’s the story that has been told. An entire character, English Bob (Richard Harris), is based around the idea that the truth has been contorted and manipulated for one’s own ends, and The Schofield Kid is another who has lied to make people believe a certain version of events. Pretty much everyone in the film twists the truth at some juncture to serve their own purposes.
So who are the ‘unforgiven’? Well, again, it’s pretty much everyone. Despite doing the right thing, Logan is unforgiven for his past crimes, as is Munny (although he pretty much gets away with his aside from losing his friend). The girl’s attackers are unforgiven despite offering to give her their best horse as recompense. Little Bill is unforgiven for not properly sentencing the attackers, whilst The Schofield Kid will never forgive himself for his crime. Every single character in the film has a rich story to tell which makes it one of the deepest westerns you could hope to see.
The cinematography is beautiful throughout, particularly the plains and landscapes. The snow-covered scenery is perhaps the most eye-catching (even if it does make the timeline of events rather confusing, suggesting more time has passed than it really has) and is especially remarkable considering it was not at all scripted and was a merely a freak snowstorm.
If this really is Eastwood’s last ever western, then what a high note to go out on. It might be a little bit of fan service and an ego trip for him but there’s also a lot to it than that. Cowboys have always been about bringing justice to the Wild West but Unforgiven, in a similar way to John Ford’s The Searchers, makes it difficult to always distinguish between right and wrong.