Directed by Clint Eastwood (insert film titles here) and written by David Webb Peoples (Soldier, Accidental Hero, Twelve Monkeys) Unforgiven is a bleak, grim picture of the old west.
Eastwood is Will Munny an ex-murderer, robber, gunfighter, and he’s an alcoholic. His wife has died and he is raising his two kids and hogs in a derelict area of countryside. His hogs are all dying from some sort of fever and times are beyond tough, they look miserable.
The film starts with a prostitute getting her face savagely beaten by an unhappy customer. She has been left horribly scarred and her ‘pimp’ demands restitution. The local sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman) decides that a couple of horses will even things up. Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher) decides to take matters into her own and the other prostitutes hands by offering a bounty for the death of the two cowboys she deems responsible.
The ‘Schofield Kid’ (Jaimz Woolvett) arrives at Munny‘s farm while he is working his hogs. Tired and muddy, he listens to the ‘Kid’ about the bounty and initially rejects the offer of teaming up with him to collect the money. That Will has changed his mind is evident when he takes his pistol out and starts practising. Discovering that his aim isn’t what it used to be, he switches to a shotgun. He goes to see his best (and only) friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) who he rode with in “the old days.”
He talks Ned into accompanying him and the Schofield Kid to Big Whiskey, Wyoming where the bounty can be collected. They catch up to the Kid and find that he is as blind as a bat without his glasses and can hardly see with them on. Undeterred the three ride up to Big Whiskey to collect the bounty.
At Big Whiskey, Little Bill has found out that “them whores” have offered a bounty and is furious. He knows that his town is going to fill with gunfighters and bounty hunters. He enforces a new law that requires all people entering the town limits to relinquish their weapons before they enter.
English Bob (Richard Harris) enters the town with his “biographer” W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) who is writing Bob’s life for the ‘Penny Dreadfuls’ so popular in the old west. English Bob is an infamous gunfighter and he refuses to hand his guns over to the deputies who control the town line.
Little Bill tackles Bob in his saloon and getting the advantage over him with the aid of his deputies arrests Bob and beats the hell out of him. Little Bill is an overbearing bully who relishes in telling Beauchamp the “truth” about English Bob’s exploits. Gleefully, he points out how Bob usually ‘back shot’ his victims and that he is, in fact, a coward. He turns Bob loose with his gun ruined and Beauchamp decides to stay in Big Whiskey and write about Little Bill.
Will, Ned and the Kid have arrived in Big Whiskey. Will has picked up a pretty good dose of pneumonia and is very ill. He rides into the saloon delirious from fever. He is so sick that he doesn’t see the sign posted at the town limits about turning in his guns. He is in the saloon when Little Bill and his deputies confront and then beat the sick man.
Will passes out and when he comes to, he is being seen to by the prostitute who was beaten at the beginning of the film. After recuperating, Will, Ned and the Kid go to kill the first of the two cowboys, Ned, it turns out, no longer ‘has it in him’ to kill anyone, Will has to use the Spencer rifle to shoot the cowboy. Later he and the Kid go to the cowboy’s ranch and the Kid shoots the other cowboy to death in the outhouse.
When he and Will return to their camp, they find out from the prostitutes that Little Bill has captured Ned and beaten him to death. Will starts drinking from a bottle of whiskey and turns deadly. He rides into town to kill Little Bill and his deputies. After dispatching the law force of Big Whiskey, he rides off admonishing the townspeople to “Bury Ned Right.” Or he will return and kill them and their children.
Throughout the film Eastwood makes sure that the audience knows that Will Munny was a very bad man. His badness stemmed from the alcohol he drank. We learn that Munny killed women and children when he was under the influence. We also learn that his wife, made him change his ways and besides loving her, he was grateful to her for changing his life.
Will Munny is a tragic figure. He is haunted by his past acts and he is haunted by the death of his wife. No wonder that at the start of the film he is raising hogs in what must be some sort of penance for his previous misdeeds. That he feels remorse for the horrible things he did when drunk is obvious, he is constantly asking Ned to reaffirm that he is “no longer like that.”
Eastwood as a director has taken great pains to “de-glamorize” the west and the violence that was it’s everyday existence. Eastwood’s west is grim and bleak and muddy. The deaths of everyone is dirty and small. Will says to the Schofield Kid, after he admits that he has never killed anyone before, “death is a helluva thing, takes away everything a man is and everything he’s ever gonna do” [sic]
Unforgiven is Clint Eastwood’s last western and his own homage to two of his mentors, directors Don Siegel and Sergio Leone. As a western swan song it is nigh on perfect. Little wonder that the film got as many awards as it did (four just from the Academy in case you were curious). It was also listed in 2007, as the #68 Greatest Movie of All Time by the American Film Institute.
I don’t know about that, but I’d say I think it ranks among the top ten westerns of all time.
- Clint Eastwood (mrmovietimes.com)
- The Last Challenge/ The Pistolero of Red River (1967) (timneath.wordpress.com)
- For a Few Dollars More (1965) – Leone’s School of Showdowns… (videokrypt.wordpress.com)
- Quentin Tarantino and Johnny Depp saddle up to give new life to the western (guardian.co.uk)
- Clint Eastwood: 35 Years, 35 Films, 64 Bucks (ritholtz.com)
- Movie Project #27: A Fistful of Dollars  (twscritic.com)
- May 31 1930 Clint Eastwood born (craighill.net)
- Clint Eastwood Birthday: 9 Memorable Movie Moments From the Acting Legend (news.moviefone.com)
- The Truth About Gunfights in the Old West (neatorama.com)
4 thoughts on “Unforgiven (1992): How the West Was Bleak”
This is one of the greatest movies I never want to see again. Eastwood is a superb director, but sometimes, bleak doesn’t begin to cover it. Million Dollar Baby left me feeling just short of suicidal. Life it tough enough without spending my entertainment budget on getting even more depressed. There are a few dark movies I watch because I love them enough to overcome my phobia, for example, The Seventh Seal (the only Bergman movie I can watch), Oh What A Lovely War (hough this is funny in a black humor sort of way and the music is downright catchy), Caberet (ditto). Mostly though, if I have a choice, funny wins.
Oh my Lord, I was like you when I watched Million Dollar Baby! I have never watched the film again. I was so depressed at the end! Unforgiven I have to be in the mood for, but the performances of Hackman, Freeman and Eastwood were transfixing. And of course Richard Harris’s turn as ‘the Duck,’ I can’t honestly say I have a definite preference, but westerns and horror films are about an even tie. Comedy does come a very close second though! 🙂
This was another one I never saw and really should have. I’ll definitely be checking it out soon. Thanks Mike! It seems that Munny is a bit like a grittier, darker John Marston from Red Dead Redemption. Maybe Munny was part of the inspiration behind Martson? Anyway, sounds great! By the way, how was Pale Rider? That was another one I haven’t yet seen. I have the ‘Man with No Name’ trilogy, but beyond that I haven’t seen many other Eastwood westerns, and probably really should.