With Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood – cinema’s second most iconic cowboy – returned to the genre he and Hollywood had all but abandoned and delivered the finest performances of his career both in front of and behind the camera. Capitalising on the lessons he learnt acting under Sergio Leone and Don Siegel – to whom the film is dedicated – and from his own 20-year career as a director, Eastwood revised the revisionist Western, removing whatever romance remained, and presenting a psychological landscape as harshly realistic as his film’s physical setting of sweaty whorehouses and filth-strewn streets.
When an irate ranch hand slashes a young prostitute’s face, her co-workers at a Wyoming cathouse – outraged by the leniency of the punishment imposed by tyrannical local sheriff ‘Little’ Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) – club together to place a bounty on his head, and that of his pretty much innocent accomplice. Tempted by the reward – and the glory of earning it – a youthful and unlikely-looking gunfighter known, possibly only in his own mind, as ‘The Schofield Kid’ (Jaimz Woolvett), pitches up at the decrepit homestead of decrepit pig-farmer William Munny (Eastwood), an infamous former fastgun and ‘killer of women and children’ and ‘just about everything that ever walked or crawled’. Having grown up hearing of Munny’s pitiless proficiency as an executioner, he hopes to enlist the older man’s lethal assistance in claiming the money – but, having sobered up since his murderous youth, and with two motherless children to care for, Munny isn’t eager to return to an outlaw life. (At first, he won’t even admit he is William Munny, afraid The Kid has come to avenge a father or uncle he killed before he hung up his holster.) He realises, though, that his pigs are dying and his son and daughter are suffering, and eventually he is persuaded to dig out his shotgun and six-shooter. Unfortunately, his decision ropes in his equally aged and out-of-practice partner, Ned (Morgan Freeman), and makes inevitable a collision with Daggett and his zero-tolerance regime.
It’s never likely to end well – and indeed it doesn’t. If the drama of other films is – as is often claimed – ‘gripping’, then the drama of Unforgiven is positively vice-like. But, as Barry Norman noted when he included Unforgiven in his choice of the 100 best films of cinema’s first century, while ‘how it all works out, who dies and who doesn’t’ is fascinating enough, it’s the subtext of the film that’s truly riveting. Most Westerns – although ostensibly set in a lawless frontier where order is always unstable and violence the only arbiter – follow a stringent set of moral rules: however hairy it might look for him in the middle of the movie, come the final shootout the film’s goodhearted gunslinger will, by virtue of his moral superiority to his opponents, prove the quickest draw and the keenest shot. Unforgiven is far too intelligent – and far too unforgiving – for anything as soft as that. The victor of its climactic gunfight doesn’t survive because he is a hero, or defending a righteous cause, but because he is the best at shooting men dead. He, more than any other character in the film, has understood its creed: in life, ‘deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it’.
Even a filmgoer with a phobic aversion to watching Westerns, or scenes of violence, or even Eastwood movies, won’t find much fault in Unforgiven. Most faultless of all is its acting. The performances of Hackman, Freeman and Richard Harris as ageing gunhands – and perhaps even of Woolvett as a would-be William Munny – were all equally Oscar-worthy, but it is was Hackman’s grandstanding, but ultimately pathetic, display as ‘Little’ Bill that took the year’s Best Supporting Actor award. Originally reluctant to accept the role because he didn’t want to be seen brutalising a black man so soon after the Rodney King / LAPD incident, Hackman allowed none of his initial trepidation to transfer to the screen. As in his other Oscar-winning turn – as ‘Popeye’ Doyle in 1971’s The French Connection – he plays a violent and unlikeable law officer who, because of his profession, is nominally a good guy but is hardly a hero. His portrayal of an honest but philosophically suspect strongman, who believes in aggression only when he is the aggressor, is one of the standout explorations of American masculinity in a genre rich in such studies.
Hackman’s wasn’t the only Oscar won by Unforgiven; two, for Best Picture and Best Director, deservedly went to Eastwood. A third, for Best Actor, did not. Because the Academy – justifiably – felt that Al Pacino had been overlooked when nominated for performances for which he probably should have won Oscars, they – unjustifiably – honoured him for one for which he certainly should not: his hammy, half-baked blind man in Scent of a Woman is tiresome and amateurish when set against Eastwood’s subtle and painstaking performance as William Munny. But I doubt the Oscar-voters’ error irked Eastwood much: Unforgiven, and its critical and awards show success, had at last legitimized him as one of the world’s great moviemakers. It is not only one of Hollywood’s greatest Westerns, but also one of its greatest films.