January 19, 2022

Gabbing Geek

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AFI Challenge Countdown #98: Unforgiven

Clint Eastwood rode off into the sunset with this, his last Western and a beautiful meditation on the effects of legend and violence on the West.

One of the things about being an aspiring film buff is watching a lot of classic movies that came out long before I was born.

I didn’t have that problem in 1992 when Unforgiven came out.  I saw that one in the theater at the tender age of 18.  I think I’ve been a Clint Eastwood fan ever since.

Eastwood, acting and directing the movie, was appearing in his final Western, and he started spending more and more time behind the camera.  I’m actually fine with that.  I like him as an actor just fine, but I think he does better work as a director.  Likewise, I’d rather see one of his Westerns than, say, one of John Wayne’s.  I’ll be seeing Wayne in a stetson a couple times before this project is over, but for now, let’s look at Eastwood’s last and best Western.

Eastwood stars as Will Munny, a retired outlaw.  During his criminal days, Munny was both a notorious drunk and an all around bad guy.  Much of Unforgiven deals with legends of the West versus reality, and the rest deals with how violence affects everyone.  This isn’t one of those movies where a hero rides off into a sunset.  Indeed, the last we see of Munny, he’s riding off into a driving rain storm in the middle of the night.  That comes after an incredibly brutal shootout where Munny kills five or six men without really breaking a sweat, but at the same time, even he concedes it was due more to luck than skill.

Why is Munny killing anyone again?  He gave up violence and whiskey for a devout Christian wife, a woman two years in the grave thanks to smallpox.  Munny avoids alcohol out of respect of her memory, and indeed, he seems a shadow of his former self without it.  He can’t shoot effectively with a pistol and has trouble mounting his horse.  He likewise doesn’t remember much of his old violent days, and would have just assumed left them behind were it not for his financial needs.  It seems a prostitute was sliced up by a pair of cowboys rather badly, and there’s a reward for the deaths of the two cowpokes.  Will only finds out when a young wannabe known only as the Schofield Kid comes looking to recruit Will for the job, and Will won’t do it himself with the help of his old partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman).

It says something that most of the men in the movie are known by nicknames.  The Kid doesn’t have a real name that the audience is ever told.  The main obstacle to the reward is the sheriff of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, Little Bill Daggett (the great Gene Hackman).  There’s a gunslinger called English Bob (the late Richard Harris), and reading over the closing credits shows most of the male characters listed by nicknames.  Ned and Will don’t seem to have any, but still give aliases when confronted by Little Bill.  Just about all the gunmen have legends and reputations, but the only one whose reputation is actually worse in terms of kills is Will, as Ned has to remind Will just how many men Will has killed in the past.

Violence haunts this movie.  No one dies easily.  It’s either quick and gruesome or long and agonizing, and violence begets more violence.  Little Bill dishes out more than a few brutal beatings to the likes of Bob, Will, and Ned.  Of the two cowboys accused of slashing the prostitute, one is obviously guilt-ridden and tries to make it up to the victim with the offer of his best pony.  Her co-workers turn it down on her behalf.

And therein lies another issue:  no one asks the victim what she wants.  True, she has some scars, but the scars are nowhere near as bad as the rumors say they are, just as the shooting skills of the likes of English Bob are nowhere near as good as the stories about him claim.  Her own opinions on the matter of her face are nonexistent.  No one asks if she wants the cowboys dead.  And she doesn’t say one way or the other.  She’s a victim, but the revenge the other prostitutes seek on her behalf becomes less about her and more about the vengeance.

And that’s what Unforgiven is ultimately about.  The legends may say one thing, but the reality is something else.  The gunslingers don’t win through skill or knowing what order to take out which opponents.  It all comes down to being the biggest, meanest, or luckiest son of a bitch in the room.  And when Will strides into that saloon at the end of the movie, the rain dripping off him, a rifle in his head, and drunk for the first time in years, whiskey hitting him like Popeye with a can of spinach, well, he’s easily the biggest, meanest, and luckiest son of a bitch in the room.  He is the unforgiven, but nobody seems to be forgiving anyone in this movie.  As he and the Kid say in an exchange after the Kid gets his first kill and it’s really bothering him:

Will Munny:  It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man.  Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.

The Schofield Kid:  Yeah, well, I guess they had it coming.

Will Munny:  We all got it coming, Kid.

NEXT UP:  Hey, it’s the first one that’s completely new to me!  Next is the 1938 screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby.

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