The “Spaghetti Western” is something that most people associate with the old 60’s and 70’s, and that is mostly thanks to the currently controversial star of over 60 films: Clint Eastwood. In the year 1992; Eastwood released a different kind of masterpiece: Unforgiven. This film was quieter, and more cerebral than any Western people had seen before. It was the biggest hit of 1992; taking home four Oscars. What made the picture so great? Several elements of cinema at its finest (even if the movie missed the mark in a few places).
The movie starts off from three directions. One involves the cruel “anti-violence” sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) who refuses to punish strongly enough a cowboy who gets caught cutting up a prostitute, which leads her friends to put a bounty on that cowboy’s head. The second thread involves the reformed extremely-violent cowboy Bill Munny (Eastwood) who gets drawn in by a newcomer cowboy “The Schofield Kid” to try to earn that bounty. The third involves pompous British sharpshooter English Bob (Richard Harris) who wants to mess with some Americans and pick up the bounty himself.
On his journey, Munny re-connects with his old friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), who joins Eastwood and “The Kid” to make a not-so-tightly-knit trio.
Meanwhile, things go wrong for English Bob and his bookish sidekick W.W Beauchamp (played by Paul Rubinek) when they clash with the increasingly evil Little Bill who, despite refusing to let anyone hunt down the “whore slasher,” grows violent and beats English Bob in front of a full town square. Later, the stakes increase between the lawman and the cowboys as the old murderous Munny reappears in a grand psychological transformation, even as the once-macho Schofield Kid shrinks back in another.
This is not your typical Western or even Spaghetti Western (which, if you’re wondering, is a more complex version of Old West stories released earlier in film’s history). Unforgiven might not have the gory violence of some older Westerns, but it has the gunslingers, killers, cowards and lawmen that made the genre great, while also taking the time to display psychological action. It was a wondrous new thing when the film was released, and it still is today.
And talk about big names! Eastwood, directing himself, a charismatic Gene Hackman in his Oscar winning role were the two standouts of course. But Ned was also one of Morgan Freeman’s best roles who was phenomenal as the mellow center of gravity in an otherwise raging group of characters. We were also quite fond of the ladies’ portrayal of the revenge-taking prostitutes and the brief but memorable charm and rage of Richard Harris as English Bob, especially in his scenes with Hackman. Overall, this was a fantastically acted film from some of the greats.
I won’t lie; it’s dull at a few points because of Eastwood having too much fun with long shots and cinematic techniques. It also attempts to be--and falls short at being--funny at certain moments. Eastwood should have left the comedy after English Bob’s charming attempts to convince a group of Americans mourning President James Garfield that having a royal ruler is a better solution, surprisingly the funniest scene in the movie. This movie does a great job proving that great does not mean perfect in every way.
This is not a family movie by the way. It opens with a man having sex and slashing a woman with a knife which is just the start of the violence. So it’s a great movie, for anyone but a child.
Dad Responds: It was a little weird watching this picture with Ben and his brother, given how many Westerns old (John Ford) and new (Sergio Leone) they haven’t seen. Still, as much as Unforgiven’s greatness derives from the commentary Eastwood is making on a film genre he helped re-invent, it’s still a wonderful straight-shooting story filled with the kind of psychological complexity Ben rightly complimented.
As a member of an older generation, I’m a tad more forgiving of long shots of long wind-ups, especially when they set the stage for the frightening transformation of the main character from an elder gunman who thought he found redemption to unstoppable angel of vengeance. Unforgiven has lost none of its luster in the decades since it rightly gobbled up so man deserved Oscars.