When I first saw Clint Eastwood’s multi-Oscared “Unforgiven” I wrote: “He still blows everyone away in the end-or is it the whiskey shooting?” And that “no one can say that Eastwood has tried to mask aging on screen!”
Eastwood (who in addition to directing the movie was nominated for best actor), Gene Hackman (who won best supporting actor), Morgan Freeman, and Richard Harris all seemed old then-and that was twenty years ago. Now they are dead (Harris), retired (Hackman), or considerably older onscreen. They were already mature and explicit about the pangs of aging back then.
Eastwood played William Munny, a once-vicious outlaw and killer who had retired to farming in Kansas and raising two children (his wife/their mother is dead), who comes out of retirement for that movie cliché “one last job,” to earn a $1,000 reward offered to whomever can kill “Quick Mike” and “Davey-Boy” Bunting, two cowboys who disfigured a woman named Delilah Fitzgerald
In Big Whiskey, Wyoming, gunslinger “English Bob” (Harris) and his biographer, W. W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) turn up. English Bob is disarmed my the sheriff, “Little Bill” Daggett (Hackman), a gunslinger who has gone straight, but is still a tough and sometimes vicious enforcer of the law (which he defines as he sees fit). “Little Bill” savagely beats “English Bob” before ejecting him from town.
Though there is a lot of violence, including yet another instance of Eastwood absorbing a lot of punishment before the final shootout, I think the movie is more a critique of violence than a celebration of it. As in the work of Eastwood’s de facto mentors as a director (the film has a dedication to Serge [Leone] and Don [Siegel], who largely forged his steely, laconic persona), critique/celebration is uncertain.
In addition to the impressive acting, the film featured Oscar-winning editing by Joel Cox (who had already directed nine movies directed by Eastwood and a couple of more starring him, with more to come) and Oscar-nominated cinematography by Jack N. Green (who had already shot half a dozen movies directed by Eastwood and was far from done).
“Unforgiven” is very well crafted, but is it a great film? Not in comparison to “The Wild Bunch.” In some ways “The Wild Bunch” was more romantic and had more gratuitous violence than “Unforgiven,” but it has an epic/tragic sweep that “The Unforgiven” does not-and the wild bunch didn’t shoot their way out against impossible odds in the end. In the final gunfight Eastwood should at least be wounded by Hackman (who earlier kicked the sh_t out of him).
“Unforgiven” is the best western to win a best-picture Oscar (“Cimmaron” and “Dances with Wolves” are the others), but I don’t think is even in contention as “best western” (competition for “The Wild Bunch” includes “The Searchers,” “Fort Apache,” the latter two both directed by John Ford, and Howard Hawks’s “Red River” and “Rio Bravo” and I have a special fondness for the early demythologization of “The Gunfighter” with Gregory Peck in the title role). (John Huston directed an anti-racist (thus, revisionist) western starring Burt Lancaster, Audie Murphy, and Audrey Hepburn called “THE Unforgiven” in 1960, btw.)