THE 28: #10, UNFORGIVEN (1992)
Clint Eastwood: Will Munny
Gene Hackman: Little Bill Daggett
Morgan Freeman: Ned Logan
Richard Harris: English Bob
Frances Fisher: Strawberry Alice
Jaimz Woolvet: The Scholfield Kid
Screenplay by David Webb Peoples
Directed by Clint Eastwood
UNFORGIVEN takes place during the transition from the Old West to the tamed frontier. It's appropriate that it remains Clint Eastwood's final Western since it serves as a kind of elegy to one of Hollywood's most enduring genres. The film was released in 1992 and cowboy movies weren't that much of a draw at the box office (pun intended). Eastwood himself was transitioning from one of the most bankable moneymakers in pictures to an eclectic and nuanced filmmaker. He had made some fine movies as a director in the 70s and early 80s: PLAY MISTY FOR ME, THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, THE GAUNTLET, and PALE RIDER among them. He dabbled in action and comedy, as well. UNFORGIVEN was a turning point, though. He followed it up with a remarkable string of films including A PERFECT WORLD, THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, MYSTIC RIVER, MILLION DOLLAR BABY, and his dual take on Iwo Jima, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS and LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA. It is UNFORGIVEN that remains his masterpiece and in our 2018 culture that debates the merits of a good guy with a gun, it is fascinating study of moral ambiguity in a world bent on establishing rule and order.
Eastwood plays an aged and reformed gunfighter and bounty hunter trying to tend to two children and a hog farm after the death of his beloved Claudia. He is a terrible hog farmer and even though he has been "cured of drink and wickedness," he looks defeated. Along comes a young fellow calling himself the Scholfield Kid offering him a chance to make some fast cash going after some men that cut the face of prostitute in the town of Big Whisky. The bounty was put up by the girl's madam, Strawberry Alice. Will needs the money, so he reluctantly agrees to go on one last ride. He secures the services of his old friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman).
Juxtaposed with this is the story of Little Bill Daggett, the sheriff of Big Whisky. He is played by Gene Hackman, who won the Oscar for the effort. Little Bill rules over Big Whisky with zero tolerance and an iron fist. He is determined to rid the town of lawlessness and vigilante justice. He is building a house, a symbol of the civility he wants to instill in Big Whisky. Little Bill is a savage in his own way, though. Vicious, mean, and violent. So, we have two sides of the same coin, really. Who do you root for in a situation like this?
The movie, I think, wants us to empathize with Will. After killing the men who cut up Strawberry Alice's girl, Little Bill kills Ned in an act that sends Will completely back to his dark side. He won't reset until his vengeance is complete on Little Bill. When I first saw the film with my wife the weekend it opened, I knew I was watching an instant classic, but I also struggled with my feelings toward Will. In my gut, I knew Little Bill was the bad guy, but there was Will yelling during the climax that any man who shot at him would be shot along with his wife and children. He meant it, too. Whatever redemption may have been present for him is long gone. Should justice have been brought to Little Bill because of his murder of Ned? I suppose so. Yet, Ned and Will and that Scholfield Kid took the law into their own hands. I'm having a hard time even today figuring out who the good with the gun is supposed to be in UNFORGIVEN. Will Munny doesn't strike me as a good guy, just a severely damaged and unrepentant soul.
My wife and I saw the movie in my hometown of Poplar Bluff, MO, when it opened. The cinema was nearly sold out and it seemed all of us there had come to be entertained by one of our favorite screen heroes in the genre that made him a superstar. He was The Man With No Name. He was Josey Wales. He was also Dirty Harry (and don't get me started on Dirty Harry). When the movie reaches its final, impeccably staged gunfight, the audience around my wife and me cheered Clint on. "Get 'em, Clint!" a few said. They were entertained, which, I suppose, is what they paid hard-earned money for. As Will Munny walked into the darkness with guns blazing, my wife and I sat in sad silence. We couldn't cheer for Will Munny. We could only mourn.