Release Year: 1992
Genre: Drama, Western
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: David Webb Peoples
We're going to let ol' grizzled-face McGee (that's our affectionate nickname for Clint Eastwood) take the mic on this one.
In August of 1992, shortly before the release of Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood had this to say to a reporter from the New York Times: "I'm not sure this will be my last western, but if it is it'll be the perfect one." (Source)
Which: whoa. Nobody, clearly, ever told Clint Eastwood that "modest is hottest."
But one thing's for sure: even if Unforgiven isn't the best Western movie (there are some other serious contenders for that title, like Shane, Once Upon A Time In The West, The Wild Bunch, or True Grit, to name a very few) it's way up there at the tippy-top of the best-of lists.
And let's not forget that it brought in the Oscar for Best Picture in 1992, which makes it one of three (or four, if you count No Country For Old Men) Westerns ever to get that honor. Unforgiven got a total of four Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Supporting Actor.
The story is deceptively simple: a very bad former outlaw named William Munny (Eastwood) comes out of retirement and gets back in the murder-for-hire business (he needs the money, he says) only to find himself up against the equally evil sheriff of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman).
If you think that sounds a little bit like Robin Hood, you're right. But if you also noticed that this movie sounds rife with moral ambiguity…well, you're also right. And it's the second thing that made this movie such a smash-hit.
Is Will Munny good? No. Is Little Bill good? No. Do they represent two sides of the Wild West (the law and the outlaw)? You bet.
Clint Eastwood delivered up a super-dark (literally—a lot of this movie takes place at night, in the rain, or both) film that has you checking and re-checking your morality compass. There are no white hats or black hats in this film—everyone is operating in a gloomy gray when it comes to morality.
And that's why Unforgiven keeps topping the Best Westerns of All Time lists: this isn't the story of a battle between good and evil, it's a battle between evil and evil…or, if you're feeling charitable, a battle between simply bad and bad.
So we kind of agree and disagree with Eastwood's bragging statement. Unforgiven isn't a perfect Western…because there's no such thing as a perfect Western. The Western is a genre that morphs as our collective understanding of what the Wild West was changes.
But Unforgiven is perfect in its portrayal of a West, if not the West. It's a dark, complicated, ominous, violent and slightly insane film about a dark, complicated, ominous, violent, and slightly insane time in American history.
In other words, its imperfection is perfect.
Because the Wild West was messed up.
Sorry to ruin your fantasies of noble gunslingers and noble sheriffs and noble schoolteachers and noble homesteaders all hanging out and having potlucks.
The reality of the Wild West was that it was…well, wild. Murder was notoriously easy to get away with. Power was notoriously easy to abuse. Pretty much everyone on the frontier felt alone, desperate, and scared. And those who didn't were most likely sociopaths.
…which brings us to Unforgiven.
This is, at its heart, a movie about two total creeps who have tried to make good. Clint Eastwood's Will Munny is a murderous loner who has been tamed by domestic life. Gene Hackman's Little Bill is a psychopath and control freak who has tried to keep his insanity in check by following the letter of the law.
But when the reality of the West—that super messed up reality we were just talking about—interferes with their world order, all hell breaks loose.
And the hell that breaks loose in Unforgiven isn't the slick kind you're used to seeing in Westerns. No one dies in a blaze of glory and there are no merit-based shootouts at high noon. Instead, someone gets shot while they're sitting on the toilet. Someone gets accidentally whipped to death. Others are shot while they're already wounded lying on the ground. Hardened killers have nightmares about dying and wake up screaming. People pee their pants at the sight of violence.
If you want justice, hayrides, and riding off into the sunset, then you probably want to watch another Western.(As Will Munny would say, "Anyone don't want to get killed, better head on out the back.")
But if you want to see diseased pigs, leaky roofs, and a protagonist who rides off into a pitch-black rainstorm after uttering the line "Deserve's got nothing to do with it"—which: dang, that's cold—then welcome.
We're starting to wonder if there's anything Clint Eastwood can't do. He directed the film, produced the film, starred in the film, and…wrote the main theme? Touché Mr. Eastwood, touché. (Source)
Clint really wanted to keep things authentic on his set. Like super authentic. To that end, no motor vehicles were allowed on the set. (Source)
Ready for some hard truth? Clint Eastwood is allergic to horses. Yes folks, the guy who is nearly synonymous with Western films is allergic to the only animal really ever in them. You can't make this stuff up. (Source)
Here's another good one. Rumor has it that Clint Eastwood once threatened that he would kill Michael Moore if the latter showed up at his house with a camera. While the story isn't exactly verified, Clint did say it wouldn't be a bad idea to kill him. Maybe old Clint is taking his past roles a little too seriously? Maybe? (Source)
What Makes A Western?
Itching for some answers? Here's a good place to start: a page that explores the elements of Western films.
Revise, Rinse, And Repeat
All the info about Revisionist Westerns: the gloomy cousin to the regular ol' Western.
Power To The Peoples
Here's some light reading—a link to Peoples' screenplay for Unforgiven.
When Watching The Film Isn't Enough
A sophisticated book about Western films that has a fantastic chapter on Unforgiven.
E & E
A book about ethics in Eastwood's films.
The Lonely Planet of Western Films
A great, book-length guide to great Western films. (Yup; Unforgiven's in there.)
A long paper (a whopping eighty-three pages) about Unforgiven.
An insightful review of the film.
Get It, Gene
A video of Gene Hackman winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. (Totally deserved, in our opinion.)
And the Oscar Goes To…Clint Eastwood.
A video of Clint Eastwood winning the Oscar for Best Picture (he produced Unforgiven).
Just in case you want to relive that final, famous encounter.
A short clip of the final fight scene in Unforgiven.
Big Whiskey, Looking Little
A shot of part of the Unforgiven set.
Looking Sharp, Fellas
Clint Eastwood directs Richard Harris (English Bob) and Saul Rubinek (W.W. Beauchamp).
Have Gun, Will Travel
A close-up shot of Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood holding—what else?—rifles.