UNFORGIVEN (DIR:CLINT EASTWOOD) (SCR: DAVID PEOPLES)
In 1993 the Academy awarded the Western UNFORGIVEN as best picture of 1992. It was a bit of an odd turn; after first awarding the Western CIMARRON as best picture, way back in 1931, it wouldn't be until DANCES WITH WOLVES's victory in 1990 that another such film would be so awarded. And then there would be just two short years before another Western win. But then, this really isn't such a surprise, given that both films are conscious re imaginings of the classic Western style, and that they are far more adult in their appeal then the more child oriented Western films of the past. But the award for the film UNFORGIVEN was meant for more than just the movie itself, it was clearly also a lifetime achievement award for its iconic director and star, Clint Eastwood.
Eastwood's career began back in the 1950's when, after working as a struggling extra for years (look for him in 1955's B movies THE REVENGE OF THE CREATURE and TARANTULA) he landed the plum role of Rowdy Yates on TV's RAWHIDE in 1959. This lead Sergio Leone in 1964 to cast him as the lead in his highly entertaining Western A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. While Eastwood's macho character was, in some ways in the tradition of legendary Western star John Wayne, his "man with no name" protagonist was no white hatted hero. When we first see him, riding into town on a burro, wearing a filthy shawl and sporting razor stubble, Leone firmly showed that this was a new kind of cowboy, one more cynical and jaded than the ones of old. A FISTUL OF DOLLARS was a success, and Eastwood reprised the character for Leone twice more, in 1965's FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE and 1966's THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY. Unfortunately, Eastwood then made more Westerns in Hollywood (like 1968's HANG 'EM HIGH) that were mostly pale imitations of his work with Leone. Then in 1971 Eastwood would find his next iconic character when he made DIRTY HARRY for director Donald Siegel. That also marked the year that Eastwood himself became a director with the odd thriller PLAY MISTY FOR ME, which he also starred in. For the next twenty years Eastwood would continue to act in and sometimes direct mostly action films with wildly uneven results (in 1978's silly EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE he co-starred with an orangutang!), managing to keep his star power and manly image mostly intact as he approached the age of sixty.
David Peoples first wrote the film's script, then called THE WILLIAM MUNNY KILLINGS, in 1976, to little interest from Hollywood. Eastwood read the script and saw potential in it for him as both something he could both direct and star in; eventually he bought the rights for it 1983 and then sat on it for years, waiting to make sure that he was the same age as the main character in the script. In 1991 he felt the time was right, and he quickly struck a deal with Warner Bros to fund the film. He then talked Gene Hackman into playing brutal sheriff Little Bill Dagget, assuring the worried Hackman that the film would not glorify violence. Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris were both quickly cast in important roles, and the movie was set. It was shot mostly in Canada near Calgary (somewhat ironicly for a Western!). Over the years Eastwood had built a reputation as a director that ran a fast moving, no nonsense set, and true to form he brought the film in four days ahead of schedule. Strong reviews and word of mouth made it a sizable hit, with a box office take of around $100,000,000 on a budget of $35,000,000.
It tells the story of William Muny, a retired bounty hunter, who is approached by a young man called "the Schofield Kid"(Jaimz Woolvett) who wants the two of them to kill two men who brutalized a prostitute and collect the bounty put up by owner of the brothel that she worked at. He reluctantly agrees, and, bringing along his friend Ned (Freeman), they head for the town of Big Whiskey, where they inevitably run into the town's vicious sheriff, Little Bill Dagget (Hackman), who has already disposed of another hired killer, English Bob(Harris).
UNFORGIVEN was the fourth Western that Eastwood directed (and the second that he worked with cinematographer Jack Green on), and he clearly knew how to make the genre look good, with beautiful shots of men riding horses through rippling fields of grain or across sunset skies. Not to mention the superlative way he captures the memorable image of a shotgun wielding Eastwood arriving for the film's final shootout, showing the gruff, killer stare that he used so often over the years.
It's easy to see why Eastwood admired Peoples's script; here is a complex and intelligent view of the old west that still ends with a traditional shootout and that allows Eastwood's character (and Eastwood the Western icon) to wreak violent revenge and ride off alone one last time. Almost right away, the screenplay throws out the simplistic view of good guys and bad guys that so many classic Westerns have. In the opening moments, we see Quick Mike(David Mucci) brutally slice up a prostitute's face. Then, sheriff Bill Dagget gives Mike and his brother Davey (Rob Campbell) a mild penalty, much to the anger of prostitute Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher). She quickly raises funds from her fellow prostitutes to put a price on the head of the two brothers. While we can admire Alice's anger at Mike's cruelty, is it really right for the two brothers to be killed, given as they did not kill the prostitute? In fact, Davey's only real crime is not stopping his brother, and he truly appears sorry about what has happened and tries to make restitution later. Clearly, this is no evil villan, and Will, the Kid and Ned are not so easily seen as being on the side of goodness.
Equally interesting is the character of sheriff Dagget; in old Westerns the sheriff is almost always a heroic figure, and yet the sadistic Dagget is the least likable character in the film. But even he has understandable motivations: he definitely believes that he is on the side of right and order, administering rough justice in the proper manner, and if that means doling out brutal beatings and even torture, then so be it. (This film may have come out years before the war on terror, but it seems eerily prescient!) Hackman has a marvelous death scene, in which, to his last breath, he proclaims that it's wrong for a man like him to killed by an outlaw like William Munny. He is that most interesting of characters, a man that the audience perceives as bad (look at the joy he takes in beating English Bob and William, and the way that he lectures to them as he does so) but who thinks he is good. Hackman would win a best supporting actor award for his performance, and it's easy to see why; with his just his walk and manner, he perfectly embodies the self righteous sheriff.
Another nice theme in the script is the idea that the old west was already in the process of mythologizing itself; when flamboyant gun man English Bob (Harris joyfully plays the role) rides into Big Whiskey, he brings along WW Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), an author who is in the process of writing up Bob's exploits, dubbing him "the duke of death". After beating and imprisoning Bob, Dagget explains to Beauchamp that Bob is no great assassin, and that Bob won one famous shoot out only because his opponent shot himself in the foot! Here, Peoples is reminding the audience that the tales of old west glory were exaggerated over the years, and that we should watch old Westerns with a cynical eye.
The use of violence in the film is very effective in that it is usually ugly and brutal; from the cutting of the prostitute, to the cries of a man slowly bleeding to death, there is no glory here (one shoot out even takes place in an outhouse). In fact, when Ned can't bring himself to shoot a wounded man, he is not portrayed as a weakling or coward, he's just making a moral choice about killing. And after the Shofield Kid shoots a man for the first time, the gravity of what he's done horrifies him so much that he's willing to give up his share of the bounty and ride off. Again, he is not supposed to be a coward, he's just realized that he is not a killer like William.
Eastwood is to be admired for allowing himself not only to appear old onscreen, but also off his game as a killer and badman. At first, his character doesn't seem like much of a famous outlaw anymore: he's trying to be a pig farmer, his aim is poor, and he keeps getting thrown from his horse. Until the end of the film, his character never really seems all that impressive. We hear tales of how good he was at killing people, but now he seems to have lost his touch; he shoots one man, but only after several missed attempts, and he lets himself be captured by Dagget easily. But, in the film's final shoot out, he quickly and coldly guns down five armed men without taking a scratch, and is so impressive that he can ride out of town without anyone confronting him, even when they have a clear shot on him. While this is an exciting scene, I also find at odds with the rest of the film: here is a violent scene where the hero out draws the bad guys in a blaze of glory, living up to the myth of the gunfighter that the rest of the film seems to be opposed to. Perhaps Peoples is saying that while some stories of the old west were exaggerated, there were some men who lived up to the hype. Either that, or perhaps it was decided that Eastwood's character had to live up to the audience's expectations at least once; in any event, I think this traditional ending weakens an otherwise intelligent film a bit, and I wish that it had a less traditional kind of ending, like, say, having both Dagget and Will die; after all, if you're going to make a revisionist Western, you should go all the way, in my opinion. But I don't think that this is a fatal flaw, and I imagine that the classic Clint ending gave audiences what they wanted and added to the film's box office, so on that level I can't argue with it.
SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?
There were a number of fine films released the same year as UNFORGIVEN, like Spike Lee's excellent bio pic MALCOLM X, James Foley's excellent adaptation of David Mamet's play, GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, Robert Altman's hilarious THE PLAYER, and Mike Newell's highly underrated (and wonderfully romantic) ENCHANTED APRIL. But, since UNFORGIVEN functions as a lifetime achievement award for Eastwood, and a nice send off from him to the Western genre, along with being an excellent movie in its own right, it's a hard choice to argue with.