What Dya Mean You Haven’t Seen… Unforgiven?

Unforgiven In the latest ‘What Dya Mean You Haven’t Seen…?’ post, where I finally get round to watching films people are incredulous I haven’t already seen, I am going to be taking a look at the 1993 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Unforgiven. Spoilers, naturally.

Plot: In the little town of Big Whiskey, the local prostitutes are just trying to earn a living doing what they do. However, one of the girls rubs a customer up the wrong way (not like that) and ends up getting herself cut up and left with severe facial disfigurements. When lawman Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) fails to take the appropriate action over the offence, the other prostitutes decide to take matters into their own hands and offer a bounty on the offenders’ heads. This attracts the attention of cowboy  The Schofield Kid who approaches retired badass William Munny (Clint Eastwood) to help him with the hit. Munny begrudgingly accepts and enlists his former partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) to help.

Unforgiven was the first western Clint Eastwood had made in seven years, since 1985’s Pale Rider, and would mark the last one he would make (to this point). Immediately this draws parallels with Unforgiven’s plot. Eastwood hadn’t retired from making westerns but had left the film until he felt he was old enough to play the character of William Munny. In the same way Munny shows that he still has what it takes, Eastwood also proves that he can still gunsling with the best of them. Is this a bit of self-glorification on Eastwood’s part? Possibly, but it really doesn’t matter. There is also a more gentle side of Munny, as suggested at in the film’s brief prologue text, which allows this to be a more rounded performance from Eastwood and one that would earn him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

Whilst Eastwood is the cold hard killer with a softer side, Morgan Freeman’s Ned Logan shows absolutely no sign of ever being capable of taking someone out and is a rather odd character. He’s the other side of Munny, the one who can’t go through with the bounty and has fully changed his ways, but Freeman just doesn’t give the impression he could ever have been a killer and is not wholly believable. What is also little unsettling is the scene in which Logan is whipped by Little Bill. The symbolism of this scene is fairly obvious (whether intended or not) and coupled with the almost KKK-style display of the body illuminated by torches, it seems a little jarring.

Moral compass

Logan & MunnyA major theme running right through the heart of Unforgiven is that of morality. We are constantly being challenged to question the morality of pretty much all the characters. Who is wrong and who is right? Are any of them wrong or right or are the lines blurred? The prostitutes feel rightly aggrieved at the lack of justice but is it right for them to offer up a bounty on the offenders’ heads, especially when the victim seems happy enough to accept their apologies. Similarly, is Munny justified in taking on the hit? He wants to right a wrong (as well as earn some money) but killing someone who technically has already been sentenced, could well be seen as a morally wrong act. Logan decides not to go through with the job but was technically conspiring to murder and supplied a murder weapon. He seems to be doing the right thing but still has plenty of blood on his hands.

Little Bill is a prime example of the moral ambiguity present in the film. He stands for law and order and is trying to protect his town from violence. He’s building himself a nice little house. He seems like the epitome of all that is good. Yet for some reason he’s just as hateable as likable. He doesn’t dish out adequate punishment for the man who cut up the girl, yet kills Logan. For someone who apparently stands against violence, he’s quick to dish it out. He’s just a flawed individual, just like everybody else in the film. Maybe there is no wrong or right and the moral compass is one that never settles no matter which way it’s pointed.

Don’t believe everything you hear

As well as morality, Unforgiven also brings up the themes of lying and the way reputations can be built on little more than hearsay. Munny is apparently a hardened killer of women and children yet we know that he was married, has children and seemed to have changed his ways. Did he really kill women and children or are those merely tales spun that have been accepted as fact. Furthermore, the girl who is attacked apparently, according to The Schofield Kid, had her eyes but out and her breasts cut off. We know this not to be true yet that’s the story that has been told. An entire character, English Bob (Richard Harris), is based around the idea that the truth has been contorted and manipulated for one’s own ends, and The Schofield Kid is another who has lied to make people believe a certain version of events. Pretty much everyone in the film twists the truth at some juncture to serve their own purposes.

Unforgiven

So who are the ‘unforgiven’? Well, again, it’s pretty much everyone. Despite doing the right thing, Logan is unforgiven for his past crimes, as is Munny (although he pretty much gets away with his aside from losing his friend). The girl’s attackers are unforgiven despite offering to give her their best horse as recompense. Little Bill is unforgiven for not properly sentencing the attackers, whilst The Schofield Kid will never forgive himself for his crime. Every single character in the film has a rich story to tell which makes it one of the deepest westerns you could hope to see.

The cinematography is beautiful throughout, particularly the plains and landscapes. The snow-covered scenery is perhaps the most eye-catching (even if it does make the timeline of events rather confusing, suggesting more time has passed than it really has) and is especially remarkable considering it was not at all scripted and was a merely a freak snowstorm.

If this really is Eastwood’s last ever western, then what a high note to go out on. It might be a little bit of fan service and an ego trip for him but there’s also a lot to it than that. Cowboys have always been about bringing justice to the Wild West but Unforgiven, in a similar way to John Ford’s The Searchers, makes it difficult to always distinguish between right and wrong.

Chris

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28 thoughts on “What Dya Mean You Haven’t Seen… Unforgiven?

  1. Ryan McNeil says:

    Great piece on a truly great film.

    The movie has been seen as Eastwood trying to atone for the glorification of violence and killing in his western heyday. Watching everyone in this movie wrestle a little harder with the consequences of pulling their pistol stands in direct contrast to all of the stone-cold gunslinging we watched for so many years.

    Deep down, now that we’re just over twenty years out (cripes I’m old!), I’d love to see another film where we find out what has become of The Schofield Kid.

    • Thanks Ryan, appreciate it! That is a very interesting take on the film and I can definitely see that, although Eastwood doesn’t wrestle too hard when it comes to killing. There is a definite shift in this compared to normal westerns though and you can definitely see them thinking about the consequences of their actions more.
      Seeing what happened to The Schofield Kid would definitely be interesting, perhaps having someone track him down for killing that guy. Quite surprised no-one has approached that yet!

  2. ckckred says:

    I can’t believe I haven’t seen Unforgiven before. I’ll try to see it soon. Nice review.

  3. CMrok93 says:

    One of the best Westerns of all-time and probably one of Eastwood’s best. It’s not what you’re used to seeing in Westerns, especially one from Eastwood and that’s what really surprised the hell out of me. Great review.

  4. Mark Walker says:

    Superb review of an absolutely superb film Chris. This is truly one of the very finest westerns ever made. Thoroughly deserving of it’s best picture award and one I’m hoping to revisit myself soon. Nice one man!

    • Thanks very much Mark! It really is a superb film and I would definitely give it another watch, which is always the sign of good film! Agreed about the Oscar and I think Hackman was well deserving of his too, I thought he was brilliant. Definitely think this is my favourite western now.

      • Mark Walker says:

        I’m between this and The Good, The Bad & The Ugly as my favourite western but it’s certainly one of the best. Agreed on Hackman as well, he was superb!

      • Yeah that’s also a good one, it’s a tough call. I’m probably leaning more towards Unforgiven, but that could well be because I’ve seen that recently and can remember more about it. I’d definitely call those top 2 though.

  5. sanclementejedi says:

    Glad you finally got to check this one out. I also like the title of this feature… Just thinking about this makes me want to get whiskey drunk and start shooting up a saloon.

  6. ruth says:

    Oy, I haven’t seen this one Terry [sheepish smile] I know, I’m going to see it eventually! Westerns is not my fave genre but I’m willing to make exceptions on some and this is one of them.

  7. Interesting read Chris… about time you caught this one, definitely one of the titans of the Western genre.

    Definitely Eastwood’s career reflection flick, but at the end he kills everyone anyways. LOL. One of my favorite scenes of all time. Once he gets told of Ned’s fate and he pulls out the bottle… you just know all hell is breaking loose. 😀

    • Yeah it was one I’ve been meaning to check out and I’m very glad I did, it’s a superb film.
      That’s such an amazing scene. When i saw it, I thought it was crazy that he wasn’t shot and a bit unrealistic, but then I realised I didn’t care because it was so awesome! I reckon I’d act like that if someone killed Morgan Freeman! 🙂

  8. Great film to take a look at, Chris. Glad you finally got to see it.

    I’m reminded a little bit of Huckleberry Finn, of all things. There’s a scene in that book where Huck, having been told all his life that freeing a slave is wrong, decides that if he’s going to Hell for freeing Jim, then he’s going to Hell. He’s going to do what he feels he must, regardless of the consequences or what society says. William Munny, and the theme of being “unforgiven” feels a bit like that to me at the end — he believes he’s already damned for the things he’s done in the past, and that no amount of clean living and raising his kids can save him from that. And killing Little Bill and the others just compounds his sins… but it needs to be done, and he’s the man to do it. It’s a very complicated take on morality.

    • That’s really interesting Morgan, I haven’t read Huckleberry Finn but from what you’ve said, I can definitely see the comparison. Munny definitely seems to have a ‘what’s a few more kills?’ attitude at the end and them killing Logan was enough to push him back into his old ways. That last scene did feel like somewhat of a swansong, one last reminder that he’s a badass.

  9. Dan says:

    Unforgiven gets better and better with every viewing. To think I didn’t like it when I first saw it. What was I thinking. Great film – love it now – one of my favourites.

  10. sati says:

    Great review! I’m not usually fan of westerns but I really loved this one. Out of recent movies in genre this, The Assassination of Jesse James and True Grit were in my respective top 10s of the year.

    • Thank you! I haven’t seen Jesse James yet, although I plan to, but I really enjoyed Tru Grit, I thought that was brilliant! It’s a genre I always think I’m not a massive fan of but then actually quite enjoy watching them.

  11. I still haven’t seen this film.. I think I started it once, but wasn’t in the mood for it so turned it off… silly me.

    Great write up

  12. Dan says:

    Unforgiven gets better and better with every viewing. To think I wasn’t much of a fan of it when I first saw it. Now it is probably my favorite western.

  13. One of my favorite Eastwood Westerns, along with The Outlaw Josey Wales, and a cool review, Chris! I’d never looked at the film the way you had, so I’ll have to watch it again and keep your views in mind when I do!

    And if you HAD to give it a star rating, what would it be?

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