1 Year, 100 Movies #68 Unforgiven (1992)

by Trey Hock on October 13, 2010

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!

For film #68 on AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies, “Unforgiven,” we once again visit the Western. As with “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Wild Bunch” before it, this film is set in the late 19th century, a transitional period when the untamed old West was fading and the famed hero bandit was disappearing with it. But whereas “Butch Cassidy” and “The Wild Bunch” focused on characters who could not change and were swept away as the Old West moved into the 20th Century, “Unforgiven” looks to a character who has changed and gets pulled back into his previous life for one final job.

As with the previous two Westerns, we can talk about what it means to get older, and how one’s personal landscape continues to change and move, in spite of anyone’s ability to adapt and change, but director Clint Eastwood has also crafted a film that explores what it means to be a hero, and how we perceive the legends of the West.

William Munny (Clint Eastwood) is an unsuccessful hog farmer in the Midwest who raises his two children by himself, since the death of his wife three years before. An outlaw and villain until his wife reformed him, Munny is drawn back into his outlaw ways by his need for money, and a young star-struck wannabe gunslinger, the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), who is on his way to kill two men for cutting up a prostitute in Big Whiskey, Wyoming. Though Munny initially turns down the Kid’s offer, his desperation leads him to call on his old partner, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), and catch up with Kid on route to Big Whiskey.

On their way, Munny explains to Ned that he has changed, that he is no longer the ruthless, drunken killer he once was.

Here we see Munny is running from his past at the same time he is returning to it. This struggle feeds the story in “Unforgiven.”

Logan and Munny catch the kid and get to Big Whiskey, where they are run out of town. They lay low just outside of town until the opportunity arises to kill their quarry. Munny kills the first, and the insistent Kid kills the second. Blinded by stories of adventure and glory, the Schofield Kid didn’t understand what the life of a gunslinger really meant until this moment.

Here Eastwood rethinks the glory of the bandit or outlaw. No more are they a hero to be lauded, but just a killer who takes the life of another for money. William’s life offers little comfort to the Kid, but his reflection on what it means to kill a man is poignant and beautiful.

Though the job is done and their reward is collected, there is little rejoicing because Munny and the Kid learn of Logan’s death at the hands of the corrupt and tyrannical lawman, Little Bill (Gene Hackman).

Here we watch as the dry and reformed Munny takes a drink and embraces what he must become in order to fully return to the life he had left so long ago. We soon discover the viciousness that Munny is capable of.

In this final confrontation, Eastwood, as both actor and director, shows us what it takes to be a legendary outlaw. Munny is ruthless and a willing to destroy any person that stands in his way. This is not pretty choreographed pistol dueling, but stark execution of another person. Munny ran from his past because it was ugly, even though the Schofield Kid and others glorified those criminal deeds. But sometimes justice is ugly, and Munny must reach to the depths of his viciousness to exact justice for the death of his friend.

When Little Bill claims that he does not deserve this fate, Munny can look at him calmly and state, “Deserves got nothing to do with it.” But the truth is that he does deserve it. He had it coming. Perhaps as Munny stated in an earlier scene, we’ve all got it coming.

There’s a lot more that “Unforgiven” has to offer, including a great performance from Richard Harris as English Bob. I think that “Unforgiven” is arguably Eastwood’s best work, and if you’re going to give him a nod, then it has to be this film.

Next up #67 “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966).

1 Year, 100 Movies #69 Tootsie (1982)

For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)

For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)

For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Reed October 14, 2010 at 5:09 am

There’s something about this movie that just didn’t connect with me. Then again, that holds true for pretty much all of Eastwood’s directorial efforts. But yes, this is probably his best.

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2 Trey Hock October 14, 2010 at 6:42 am

Reed, I agree with you as far as most of Eastwood’s movies. From “Midnight in the Garden” to “Million Dollar Baby” there is an emotional flatness which can keep a viewer at a distance. I find most of his work unappealing.

But I think the very thing that hurts his other films works in “Unforgiven.” These characters are closed off and injured. The style fits them well. Eastwood is crafting a pretty complex reinterpretation of the Western, while giving us a well rounded group of characters and compelling story.

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3 Eric Melin October 14, 2010 at 12:37 pm

I love this film. Its definitely my favorite Eastwood directorial effort. I think its worth discussing the revisionist aspect of it. Revisionist Westerns have taken a more cynical, darker view of the genre since the 1950s, but this one is particularly effective and blatant: Clue #1 – Saul Rubinek plays a writer who’s following around Harris to see the tall tales he’s heard come true before his eyes. Instead, he gets a rude awakening. I love how “Unforgiven” destroys the myth of the traditional Western, much like “The Wild Bunch” before it.

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