Unforgiven is rightly seen as the crowning moment in Clint Eastwood’s career, both as an actor and a director. Not since his work with Siegel and Leone had he made something with such resonance (even if that resonance was at times more aesthetic than relating to content).
The story goes that the director read and bought David Webb Peoples’ script The William Munny Killings and then sat on it for years until he was the right age to play the title character. While it might be argued that this gestation period allowed the content to fully percolate within the director’s mind, I suspect the truth is more prosaic.
There’s no sense that Eastwood the director has approached the script any differently to any other project, and it’s certainly not the case that subsequent films would bear the hallmarks of a steep up-step in style and content. Eastwood the director is nothing if straightforward (it’s why, like Woody Allen, he has such a high turnover); entirely competent but not given to virtuoso signatures or tricky editing. The consequence of this is that his films are as good or as bad as the script he is working from. In the case of Unforgiven, every scene of the screenplay (which was all up there on screen according to Peoples; Eastwood only changed the opening voiceover to text) is dynamite and consequently the result is taut and gripping.
But this is a relative rarity for the director, particularly when it comes to his more prestige choices. His natural impulse is to let the scene play, with minimum interference. It can be refreshing to behold in an age of director OCD but it means that a screenplay that isn’t up to scratch can be languid or unfocussed when the director takes control of it.
David Webb Peoples career as a screenwriter had, up to that point, been defined by his work on Blade Runner. He took over from Hampton Fancher, revising and rewriting his script (they are co-credited). Prior to that, he scripted the Oscar-nominated Oppenheimer documentary, The Day After Trinity, but most of the ’80s was fairly undistinguished; Ladyhawke, Alien knock-off Leviathan and his little-seen directorial debut (again featuring Rutger Hauer, who appeared in Blade Runner and Ladyhawke) Salute to the Jugger aka The Blood of Heroes. The ‘90s saw unqualified successes, recognised for the quality of their screenplays, with Unforgiven (Best Original Screenplay-nominated) and Twelve Monkeys (co-written with his wife), but also mangled arrivals (Hero, Soldier).
Peoples has been little heard from since, which is a shame as, of a fairly limited number of produced scripts, he can number among them three recognised classics. But, if Blade Runner is distinguished as much by its world-building aesthetic as its writing and Twelve Monkeys traps the viewing within a tricky narrative, Unforgiven is something else again. It attracts through character and theme, but chiefly through character.
Revered as an anti-violence discourse, Peoples is on the record as saying that was not his intention at all, albeit he was set on making it clear that violence is frightening and not glamorous at all. Arguably, the film would be less powerful if it wore a message on its sleeve. The characters come first, and William Munny is a character who has lived most of his life violently, a man desperately trying to convince himself that he has changed his ways. This about-turn is due to the cherished memory of the love that saved him from complete destruction.
Weaved around this are the reactions of others to both the threat of violence (the lawman who bans guns from his town and coldly barters payments as amends from the cowboys responsible for slashing the prostitute’s face) and the mythmaking that surrounds it (the inexperienced young gun who wishes to make a name for himself based on tales of derring-do, the hack writer who aggrandises the dirtiest little episodes into magnificent and honourable gunfights). It’s self-evident why it was regarded by many as drawing a line under the western genre, as it seemed to effortlessly comment on all that has made it endure within a palpable, energised narrative. The Academy Award that year went to The Crying Game, which understandably attracted attention for its twist, now more of a footnote than an enduring classic.
One might point to Gran Torino, a film that could be argued to be overtly anti-violence (as well as making heavy weather of commenting on racism) but is much less resonant. Superficially, it has the “right” ending on its side (whereas Unforgiven allows for catharsis through violence). Thematically, however, there is something over-calculated and lacking in nuance about its construction.
It’s also worth considering Eastwood’s standing at the time. As a star, he continued to prevail even though he had just entered his seventh decade. But, while he had a number of successes during the 1980s (including sci-fi tinged Firefox, Dirty Harry returns in Sudden Impact and – to series-ending diminished returns – The Dead Pool, spiritual western Pale Rider (to the extent it borrowed a metaphysical vibe from High Plains Drifter) and Marine recruitment drive Heartbreak Ridge) his clout had been eclipsed by younger guns (Harrison Ford) and there was a sense of formula and repetition to his choices. The Harrys and western continued to circulate to keep up the grosses, but his heart wasn’t in them. And his potential for “artistry” was limited by his self-direction or employment of pals to steer ships (Buddy Van Horn). No one would write him off, but his most recent vehicle (The Rookie), an attempt to tap into the buddy cop genre, teamed him with Charlie Sheen to general apathy.
I wouldn’t quite compare his ‘80s run to David Bowie’s creative indifference, but Eastwood the star ploughed a fallow field for much of the decade. He tried something different with Honkytonk Man, true, but it was only when he left the acting behind that he seemed to hit a groove. Bird, in 1988, was a Charlie Parker biopic resulting from the director’s lifelong love of jazz, and it showed a corresponding care and precision of approach. The baggage of Eastwood the actor was not present, and when he again tried something different with White Hunter Black Heart his star presence may have been a distraction from the content (an underrated, fictionalised account of director John Huston’s desire to shoot an elephant while on location in Africa).
Of course, the 1970s can’t be whitewashed as failure-free. From The Outlaw Josey Wales on, Sondra Locke became an unfortunate de rigueur presence (as with Woody Allen and Mia Farrow, by dint of their relationship). He also appeared in creatively ever-less engaging Harry Callahan sequels and two mystifyingly popular comedies co-starring Clyde the Orangutan. There was still time for Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and the superb Escape from Alcatraz, both – tellingly – reaping artistic rewards through teaming with career directors.
It’s arguably rarely been on Eastwood’s radar to push himself as an actor; increasingly what grabbed him, and particularly in the wake of the acclaim for Bird and Unforgiven, were directorial projects. By accounts he didn’t especially enjoy his stint guided by Wolfgang Peterson in In the Line of Fire. With a few notable exceptions, his starring roles post-Unforgiven have been fairly forgettable and, particularly during the 2000s, his interest in wider-ranging material has increased as his screen appearances have lessened. I’m not overly convinced of Eastwood as an auteur in the sense that fellow workaholic Woody Allen can be clearly defined. Apart from a body of work, his choices have been so variable and inconsistent in tone, theme and quality that I slightly cynically ending up thinking it’s purely about his iconography. But Unforgiven has the effect of pulling in all the different strands of his work, all his roles and directorial choices, and appearing to making a sense and order of them. As an actor he has made a career of taciturn masculinity; Unforgiven both deconstructs that and re-affirms it (one of the many tensions within the script) and it’s this lack of spoon-feeding that ensures it will be continually revisited in years to come.
One might suggest that the film should have cast itself, given the quality of the script. Yet the director (not infallible when it comes to picking the best actor for the job) fills the screen with faces that not only have a comparable screen history with the lead but which are perfectly cast to reinforce the film’s meditation on what violence does to a man as he grows older, be it escaping into alcohol, fantasy or self-justification. Eastwood, Gene Hackman (Sheriff “Little Bill” Daggett) and Richard Harris (English Bob) were born in the same year and had been recognisable on the big screen for more than three decades. There is a concordant weight and substance to their presences that makes every scene between them electric. It’s a joy to see Harris versus Hackman, Hackman versus Eastwood.
Harris has a relatively brief screen time, but the effect is indelible. Siskel and Ebert complained that the film might have been tighter (a mystifying criticism) if he had been excised, but his character is crucial to the themes that Peoples wishes to explore. He is an affected braggart, but a charismatic and likeable one. He should be insufferable due to his vanity, belittling of his host countrymen (winding them up over their lack of royalty and why president’s are more susceptible to assassins), and his hubris in employing a writer (Saul Rubinek as W W Beauchamp) to document his glorious escapades. But he is a charmer; even when the veil is parted as he is wheeled out of town cursing its inhabitants in his real accent (most definitely not RP) Harris ensures that you want to see more of him.
English Bob: Well there's a dignity to royalty. A majesty that precludes the likelihood of assassination. If you were to point a pistol at a king or a queen your hands would shakes as though palsied.
Barber: Oh I wouldn't point no pistol at nobody sir.
English Bob: Well that's a wise policy, a wise policy. But if you did. I can assure you, if you did, that the sight of royalty would cause you to dismiss all thoughts of bloodshed and you would stand... How shall I put it? In awe. Now, a president... well I mean... (chuckles) Why not shoot a president?
His presence establishes plot details that can later be dealt with in shorthand and introduce tension. The banning of guns, and the brutal consequences for those who ignore this rule, instantly come into focus as Munny and his company tramp into rainswept Big Whisky. Thematically, the mythologising of the Old West has already been touched upon through the conversations The Schofield Kid has with Munny but the sharp relief that Little Bill throws Bob’s lionised version of events into is bracing and hits as hard as the kicking Bob receives from Bill. Beauchamp is as beguiled by the truth as the fantasy, for the simple reason that while the story is unheroic it is remains dramatic.
This is partly where those who wish to promote the film as anti-violence go wrong, because, while it is consistent in presenting an unvarnished, relentlessly harsh portrait of the cowboy age, it does so employing a playwright’s ear for dialogue, pause and repetition. It is thrilling to hear these actors delivering constructions so well-crafted. By the time Munny leaves Little Whisky, his character has descended into an apocalyptic fury that will be wreaked on any who cross him.
William Munny: You better bury Ned right!... Better not cut up, nor otherwise harm no whores... or I'll come back and kill every one of you sons of bitches.
Both Harris and Hackman had a jobbing 1980s, with a few highlights. Harris had recently committed a late-career resuscitation in his Oscar-nominated performance in The Field. Hackman essayed a series of reliable performances in forgettable films, but hit on the occasional meaty part (Mississippi Burning, Postcards from the Edge). Following Unforgiven, the decade or so up until his retirement would show more consistent choices in generally superior material. He had apparently turned down the script in prior to Eastwood’s involvement, and he reportedly had concerns that the film would relish its violent content.
He was right to relent, as Little Bill is the antagonist who’s point-of-view you can understand while deploring his methods. After all, his gun control policy has been effective if stamping out (some or most) violence in Little Whisky. It doesn’t justify his drastic punishment on those who break the law, but his policy of deterrence is coherent. If he beats the living shit out of anyone darkening the town with a firearm, others will think twice about it.
Little Bill has no doubts over his moral code or what he does to enforce it. He has the law on his side, of course, but while most of the other characters are shown to reflect on their actions Bill is shown to actively justify it, to embrace it. He is not wanton; his response to Alice’s (Frances Fisher) demand for justice and whipping is, “Haven’t you seen enough blood for one night?” What he is willing to do is dictated by his control (or lack of it) over a situation. This is played out most clearly during the torture of Ned; we learn after the fact that Bill lost it when he learned that the second cowboy had been killed.
He’s also nothing if not practical; he shows no sympathy for the mutilated whore, but is quick to ensure a deal is made to compensate Skinny Dubois (Anthony James) for the loss of trade this will cause. Ultimately, it is this lack of feeling for “emotional” justice that leads to his downfall; it leads to the price on the head of the perpetrators of the crime and so to the vengeance of Munny for the killing, and disrespect to the body, of Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman).
As with the other main characters, Little Bill is possessed of humour but his is mostly evidenced in a cold, sneering manner. When not expressed as he delivers punishment, it demeans (his reading of “The Duck of Death”, repeatedly and purposefully mis-quoting the title of Beauchamp’s yarn about English Bob is very funny).
One might suggest that Bill sees things “as they are”, and, compared to the likes of Beauchamp and Bob, he arguably does. But we’re cued in that he is no less jaundiced in other respects. He appears willfully oblivious to his ineptitude as a builder and tellingly has no trace of self-effacement when Beauchamp, on the receiving end of a downpour inside Bill’s house, jokes, “Maybe you should shoot the carpenter”. If he can’t see this, what else must he be blind to?
Little Bill: I don't deserve this... to die like this. I was building a house.
William Munny: Deserve's got nothin' to do with it.
The fourth man on all the posters is Morgan Freeman. Ned is the considered former accomplice of Munny, but their interactions convey the sense of a man who stood back from much of the alcohol-fueled carnage Munny inflicted in his younger days. Freeman has always been adept at conveying great understanding and insight with just a look, and in a screenplay that employs pauses as meaningfully as the relishable dialogue, he uses this to great effect. Munny continually repeats the mantra that he has changed in the hope that saying it enough will make it so. Ned says little, and it’s clear from the look his Native American wife gives as he leaves that she knows his life has changed even if he doesn’t realise it. His discovery that he can no longer kill a man (despite being technically the most skilled of the trio) brings with it a mixture of relief and sadness, but Ned does not dwell on the matter once realisation has dawned.
In the script, Ned was white; the director simply thought Freeman was the best actor for the role when he auditioned, irrespective of race. As mentioned, Eastwood made minimal changes to the script and a consequence of this is that Ned, a black cowboy, passes from situation to situation without encountering any abuse or adverse treatment (for the flipside to this, see Tarantino’s Django Unchained). While I’d praise Eastwood unreservedly for keeping the script as written, this is one area where he would surely have been better, for purposes of verisimilitude, to make some revisions (however minor). It’s a delicate balance he would risk upsetting, though, as changes might have shifted the thematic purpose. As it stands, Ned’s presence is slightly incongruous, especially as the film in general is seen as something of a crusader for “what it was really like”.
The performances of Anna Levine as Delilah (whose face is cut up) and Jaimz Woolvett as The Schofield Kid also deserve a mention (to be honest, I could do a paragraph on every speaking part in the film, but I must temper myself). Woolvett has a difficult role, since the Kid is impetuous, foolish and immature. His false bravado is fooling no one from his first scene, and the task of investing sympathy into such a character isn’t easy. Particularly when his manner is mostly aggressive or insulting (“He ain’t nothin’ but a broken-down pig farmer”). But Woolvett conveys the cracks in his character’s shell skillfully throughout. From his shortsightedness to the self-loathing he feels when he finally kills a man, the Kid has tried to conceal his fear and humanity through bombast.
Delilah, meanwhile, is possibly the most tragic character in the film; consider the moment when the cowboy who stood by, while his friend cut her up, brings her a pony and an acknowledgement of kindness and then sadness flickers across her face. Later, when Munny demurs her offer of gratification, she is touched by his honouring of his wife. Only for this to be shattered when Alice scoffs and informs her that Munny’s wife is dead; most likely she will conclude that Munny was lying in order to avoid her scarred attentions.
Then there is Munny himself. The aging outlaw, unable to climb atop his horse without considerable trouble, haunted by nightmares of those he has killed, whose only crutch is the memory of the departed wife who believed in him. It’s easily Eastwood’s most affecting performance; Munny’s inner conflict resonates with dialogue that shows a man of limited philosophy trying to maintain what he believed to be a moral turnaround. If English Bob presents willful misrepresentation of his past and Little Bill a contrastingly exactitude in recounting every detail, Munny’s history is as misremembered and uncertain as the stuff that legends require. It is telling that, besides The Schofield Kid being singularly unimpressed by the sight of Munny compared to all that he has heard about him, the conversation concerning Delilah reveals how quickly word of mouth renders an event or detail unrecognisable. The Kid’s version of her mutilations is different to the one we have just seen, and when Munny later recounts it to Ned there is additional embroidery.
William Munny: I ain't like that no more. I ain't the same, Ned. Claudia, she straightened me up, cleared me of drinkin' whiskey and all. Just 'cause we're goin' on this killing, that don't mean I'm gonna go back to bein' the way I was.
We’re left under no illusions about Munny’s past. He “dynamited the Rock Island and Pacific in '69 killin' women and children an' all”.
Little Bill: You'd be William Munny out of Missouri. Killer of women and children.
William Munny: That's right. I've killed women and children. I've killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another. And I'm here to kill you, Little Bill, for what you did to Ned.
Legendary misdeeds snowball; Peoples even includes a joke at the expense of this idea, as if to prove the rule by exception, when Ned suggests to Munny that he killed one more person in a fight than the record tells.
Some may have considered the pace slow because it’s 90 minutes before Clint kills anyone. And, when he does, it’s a messy slow death for his victim (who, we have already seen, is the accomplice with some moral compass having tried to atone for Delilah’s treatment with the gift of a pony). Davey is trapped under his horse when Ned fires the first shot. Munny takes over and eventually hits him in the gut, making for a painful end.
Davey: I'm dyin' boys. Jesus, I'm so thirsty.
William Munny: Give him a drink of water, goddamn it. Will you give him a drink of water, for Christ's sake? We ain't gonna shoot.
This is a world away from the choreographed violence of the classic western and even further from the Leone ones that made Eastwood a star.
But, such is the nature of this type of film, it sets out injustices to enable “justice” to be ultimately served. In terms of narrative trajectory and balance, at least. In that sense it isn’t nearly as innovative as many have claimed it to be. When the showdown comes, we want Munny to dispense justice on Little Bill; it is the cathartic finale that we have earned.
Little Bill’s caution to Beauchamp that “A man who will keep his head and not get rattled under fire, like as not, he'll kill ya” proves true in the clumsy (but – and this is the key – thrilling) shootout. That Munny keeps his head thanks to whisky is irrelevant. In the oft shown clip, Munny shoots “an unarmed man” (but we have observed how money is all-important to him, so he had it coming) and deputies repeatedly fire at, and miss, Munny at close range (earlier we saw how petrified they were at the prospect of confrontation, until Little Bill arrived). A “moral” ending might have seen Munny die in the shoot-out, as his own justice for all the evil acts of his life. But as he says to Little Bill, “deserve ain’t got nothin’ to do with it”. Ultimately, all that is required for Munny to be the “hero” in the end is for the “villain” to show worse behaviour. But Eastwood the director leaves you in no doubt that he has brought down hell around the town, as Munny finishes his bottle of whisky and spits warnings at anyone out there in the darkness.
It’s important to resist the urge to require a neat package of perspective at the conclusion. If Munny “wins” it is at the loss of all that he kept at bay, and if he did indeed go on to make a name for himself in dry goods it won’t help him sleep at night or diminish the knowledge that he got Ned Logan killed. (As an aside, the surnames of the main players is worth considering. Is it a coincidence that “Munny”, “Bill” and “Bob” are all references to money, and that all three characters make a living from violence in one way or another?)
Eastwood surrounds himself almost exclusively with his regular production crew, such that composer Lennie Niehaus, director of photography Jack N Green and editor Joel Cox are all old-hands. Their work is exemplary, from Niehaus’ score based on a theme that Eastwood came up with (perfect, although later Eastwood compositions rather showed up his limitations as a creative force on the music front; they sounded much the same). Green’s work is particularly striking in the framing shots of Munny at his homestead, and the thunderous, sodden shroud of darkness of the final confrontation (further emphasised by Niehaus’ nightmarish rumbling soundtrack).
Eastwood suggested at the time that this might be his last effort as both director and star, something that has proved repeatedly not to be the case since. He has, however, left it has his final word on the western genre. He was wise to do so, as scripts such as this, and the alchemy that takes place when turning them into a film, occur very rarely.