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The Best Films I’ve Ever Seen: Unforgiven

Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992)

(Contains spoilers)

I used to say that the hotel chain Best Western should just change their name to Unforgiven, because I like lame jokes, and love this film. While I might reconsider that today, it’s certainly up in the top 3 shooting it out with Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Made in 1992, long after the height of the genre’s popularity, Unforgiven is a revisionist Western, abound with moral greys and questioning the ideals of the traditional Western films of the 30s to 60s. It’s something of a bookend, a farewell to the Western in a time of its declining popularity, and so it’s appropriate that it stars and is directed by one of the most famous and popular faces of the genre in Clint Eastwood.

For me, Unforgiven is about stories and bravado, and how these things break down when put to the test in the harsh light of reality. The film opens with a long shot of a man digging a grave in low light, text crawl on screen telling us of a woman “not without prospects” who married a notorious outlaw named William Munny (Clint Eastwood), disappointing her mother, and who later died of smallpox. The film moves to a brothel in the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, where a prostitute is cut and disfigured by a cowboy for laughing at the size of his manhood, and the sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) orders the cowboy and his friend who accompanied him to pay the brothel’s owner Skinny compensation for the damaged “property” in the form of some horses. This soft punishment angers the prostitutes in the brothel, who put out a $1000 reward for the assassination of tthe two men, setting the events of the film in motion.

When we first see William Munny on screen, he is working on his farm with his two young children, having trouble wrangling pigs. He is approached by  man on horseback, the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett).

The Kid approaches William Munny at his farmhouse

The Schofield Kid is full of swagger, and requests that the infamous William Munny accompany him to Big Whiskey to assassinate the cowboys so they can split the reward. At first Munny refuses, but after a few days reflecting on his failing farm and the tough future it would bring for his children, he rides off to catch up with the Kid and recruits an old partner, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), to help. When they catch up to the Kid, they are again met with bravado and arrogance.

Munny and Logan approach the Kid

The Kid boasts about men that he has killed, and that killing the two cowboys for the reward money will be no problem for someone like him, but we soon learn that he is extremely short-sighted, and can barely see 50 yards in front of him. The Kid paints himself as a man not to be reckoned with, prideful and quick to anger whenever Ned or Munny may question his supposed abilities, but as the film continues we will see this bravado disintegrate. Before the group gets to Big Whiskey though, there is a subplot involving an infamous gunman named English Bob (Richard Harris), who has heard of the reward money and plans to go carry out the assassinations himself. We meet English Bob as he is making his way by train to Big Whiskey, and feel his notoriety through the fearful way other passengers react to the name. We also see his formidable marksmanship in a bird-shooting contest with another passenger. English Bob is accompanied by a biographer, W. W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), who hopes to catalogue Bob’s deeds for his next book. Through English Bob, Unforgiven will show us for the first time how stories, bravado and reputation don’t necessarily compare favourably with reality.

When English Bob arrives in Big Whiskey, he brazenly flaunts its no weapons within town limits rule and is soon beaten and arrested by Little Bill. In the jailhouse, Little Bill reads Beauchamp’s book “The Duke of Death” containing a story of English Bob getting the better of and shooting down a notorious gunfighter in a tavern, defending a woman’s honour. Bill tells Beauchamp that he was in the tavern that night, and rather than the glorious, skilful gunfight depicted in his story, the reality was much more messy, cowardly and honourless. English Bob was drunk, and the only woman involved was one who slept with the gunfighter, which made Bob jealous. Bob fired on the gunfighter in a surprise attack, and missed twice. When the gunfighter went to return fire, his pistol exploded in his hand, and as he was lying incapacitated on the floor, Bob approached him and shot him through the liver, killing him. To further demonstrate Bob’s cowardice and the shallowness of his bravado, Bill offers him a pistol in his jail cell, but Bob refuses, preferring not to take any chances in a gunfight with Little Bill. The next morning, Bob is kicked out of town, and Beauchamp decides to stay and write about Little Bill, who seems to be a truly hard man.

English Bob, beaten and driven from Big Whiskey

Soon after, we see Ned, Munny and the Kid arrive in Big Whiskey amid heavy rain during the night. They go to the brothel and speak with the prostitutes to learn more about the two men they’ll be killing, and where they will find them. Munny, rain-soaked and feverish, sits downstairs while Ned and the Kid cavort with the prostitutes upstairs taking an “advance” on their reward money. Little Bill arrives and beats Munny for carrying a pistol, throwing him out of the saloon. Ned and the Kid hear this commotion and leave through the upstairs window, meeting with Munny and disappearing into the night to recover outside of town. We have heard that Munny is a man to be feared, but instead all we have seen so far is an old man with a failing farm, too sick to defend himself from Little Bill.  Once Munny has recovered, the three men head off to complete their mission, ambushing and killing one of the two cowboys. Ned and Munny find that they have lost their taste for murder, with Ned unable to take the shot to kill the cowboy in the ambush, instead passing the rifle over to Munny, who reluctantly commits the deed. Ned decides to return home, having had his fill of this unpleasantness, while Munny stays on with the Kid to finish what they started.

Ned, Munny and the Kid reflect on having killed the cowboy

Munny and the Kid head to a cabin in which the final cowboy is hiding out, protected by some of Little Bill’s men. The Kid ambushes the cowboy as he visits the outhouse, shooting and killing him, and the Kid and Munny escape to the outskirts of Big Whiskey where they await one of the prostitutes arriving with their reward money. The Kid is clearly affected by his murder of the cowboy, admitting that his previous boasts were all just stories and he had never killed anyone before, breaking down and swearing off the life of an outlaw for good.

The Kid, troubled after his murder of the cowboy

A prostitute arrives with the men’s money, and informs the two that Ned had been captured by Little Bill, tortured to death while revealing Munny’s identity. Munny reacts to this news by drinking Ned’s bottle of whisky, his first drink since meeting his now-dead wife when he swore off the life of an outlaw. He gives the money to the Kid and sends him back to Kansas to give a share of the money to Ned’s wife, and a share to Munny’s children, then heads into Big Whiskey for revenge, where we see Ned’s body outside of the brothel, as a warning to other would-be “assassins”.

Munny enters the bar, crowded with Little Bill and his associates, with a shotgun and asks who the owner is. He shoots the unarmed owner down in cold blood, explaining he “should have armed himself, if he’s going to decorate his saloon with my friend.” He then moves the gun to Little Bill, with one shot left. Bill tells his men to open fire as soon as Munny shoots him. The shotgun misfires, but Munny is quick in drawing his pistol and manages to shoot Bill along with some of his men and emerges unscathed. Munny tells the remaining men “Anyone don’t wanna get killed, better clear on out the back”, and they oblige him by retreating. Bill, still alive but gravely injured, says he doesn’t deserve to die like this, to which Munny replies that “Deserves got nothing to do with it”. Bill tells Munny he’ll see him in hell, Munny pauses, replies with a simple “Yeah…” and finishes off Bill with a final gunshot. On leaving the bar to escape, Munny shouts into the night that if any man takes a shot at him, he’ll kill him, his friends, and and his family in retribution. We see various men hiding in the shadows outside the bar, all too afraid to take a shot at Munny. William Munny’s reputation, the horrible stories about his past as an outlaw, coupled with the terrifying display the men witnessed themselves in the bar as Munny gunned down five men single handed, allows Munny to escape unscathed even when vastly outnumbered, solely through the power of fear and reputation.

Munny seeks revenge in the bar, preparing to shoot Little Bill

Munny threatens to return for further vengeance if any of the prostitutes are harmed, or if Ned is not buried in a proper manner, then leaves the town of Big Whiskey, riding into another rain-soaked night. The film finishes with a final long shot of the farmhouse in low light, a title crawl explaining that Munny’s wife’s mother visited the farmhouse years later to see her daughter’s grave, with Munny and the children already long gone, rumoured to be in San Francisco where they have “prospered in dry goods”.

Throughout Unforgiven we are forced to think about stories and bravado. The Kid’s stories and boasts about men he killed and his prideful nature, English Bob with his own biographer and hard reputation, and of course William Munny’s storied past as an outlaw and scoundrel. We see it break down in various ways, whether it’s just outright lies as in the case of the Kid, or exaggeration and poetic license with English Bob. We compare Ned and Munny, who ran wild together in their past outlaw days, and how they have differed in old age. With Ned now unable to even take a single shot in anger, and Munny driven back to his old violent ways through tragedy. Munny found salvation, a better life and a way out of his old outlaw lifestyle through his wife, but fell back into violence after she was gone, although still trying to be better than before. We can think of how the title, Unforgiven, applies to him in this way: once absolved and saved by his wife, but later at the mercy of his predilection towards violence.

It’s fair to say this is one of my favourite Westerns, and, for me, probably the best film Clint Eastwood has directed.  Whether or not you enjoy Westerns, I still recommend Unforgiven.


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