I saw this movie years ago and like anybody I loved it. But watching it again recently I was surprised to find that it was better than I remembered. UNFORGIVEN is a GFM (Great Fucking Movie) for many different reasons, most of them you know, but I’ll try to point out a few of them.
For one thing it’s a story that you never quite know where it’s going. Supposedly it’s designed so you think Little Bill (Gene Hackman) is the good guy, since he’s the sheriff. I didn’t get that though because the first time you see him he comes in to settle this dispute in the brothel where some assholes cut up a prostitute because she gave a giggle at his “teeny pecker”. Little Bill isn’t evil but he obviously makes a poor decision by not punishing these guys but just fining them a couple ponies. No even horses, he specifically says ponies.
At best Little Bill seems like a Dirty Harry sub–villain, an ineffectual bureaucrat in the police department who is not tough enough on crime in the movie’s opinion. But that turns out to be just in this one scenario, because he happens to not be too enlightened when it comes to gender issues. In fact he is very tough on crime (Eastwood apparently asked Hackman to base his performance on notorious LAPD Chief Darryl Gates) and beats one of the protagonists to death during an interrogation.
That isn’t surprising. What is surprising is that he’s not entirely a bad guy either. There’s a long section of the movie where we actually do side with him. He knows the prostitutes have put out a bounty on the creeps who slashed them, and that killers may be headed into the town. So each time a stranger comes into town he and his deputies confront them and take their weapons away. This doesn’t come across like some anti-gun control message – it seems like a smart way to do his job. (And a challenge for Clint as hired killer William Munny to overcome.)
One of the many classic scenes in the movie is when Little Bill has English Bob (Richard Harris) in jail and has a long conversation with his “biographer” W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek, the cokehead producer in TRUE ROMANCE). This scene is part of why the movie is known as a revisionist western. Beauchamp has written up all these tall tales that English Bob told him, believing them to be true. But Little Bill joyfully pisses on his parade. He was there when one of the stories took place and says that actually Bob was just drunk and shot an innocent man.
It kind of blows Beauchamp’s mind, you can see him lose respect for Bob and you can see Bob getting sad, knowing that his fan club is switching sides. But he does have some loyalty, so it really fucks with his head when Little Bill hands him the keys to the cell and a loaded gun and dares him to shoot.
It’s a test and a lesson. He doesn’t think W.W. will shoot him and is trying to show him that murder is not the fun he makes it out to be in his books. Rubinek is great in this scene. He goes through shock, terror, fascination, temptation and deviousness. The second before he could escape the uncomfortable situation unscathed he pulls back and challenges Little Bill, asking what would’ve happened if he had just given the gun to Bob. Then he could help him escape without having to pull the trigger himself. He thinks he’s outsmarted Little Bill by suggesting this, but then Bill dares him to go through with the plan. W.W. can’t figure out what this maniac cop wants him to do. He doesn’t really want me to do that, does he?
During all this English Bob is in the cell watching, wondering what the fuck is gonna happen here. He’s the audience. He’s as tense as we are.
It’s a funny scene too though, the way Bill taunts Bob, pretending to misread the book title “Duke of Death” as “Duck of Death.” And Bill is the subject of taunting himself in a scene where his deputies make fun of the house he built. That’s one thing I forgot about the movie – it’s pretty fuckin funny. The overall tone is dark and sad but there’s alot of humor mixed in there too. There’s a big scene where Munny gets his first target and instead of being glamorous it’s a slow and awkward death, and everybody clearly feels awful about it. But even in this scene there’s some good laughs when Munny is so bothered by his dying victim’s cries for water that he yells at his friends to bring it to him and promises not to shoot at them.
And oh yeah, I haven’t even gotten to Clint yet. This was a groundbreaking role because he is the greatest icon of westerns and here he is turning that persona on its head. William Munny could be the future of some character like The Man With No Name or Josie Wales. Years later he fell in love, his wife got him to stop drinking and killing, he has kids and a humble pig farm. But his wife dies and without that positive influence he’s tormented by memories of his murderous past. When the young, tough-talking Schofield Kid (James Woolvet) tries to get him to come kill the whore-slashers you know he’ll accept the offer but you don’t know if it really is for the money or if he’s jonesing to kill again. He’s definitely ashamed of that past, but who knows what’s going on in that head?
It seems like the main reason he’s doing it is to try to provide a future for his kids. He’s falling in hog shit and that’s yet another way he doesn’t want his kids to follow in his footsteps. He seems like a good father the way he talks to them, demanding hard work but not expecting the impossible, telling them to do the best they can with separating the hogs and then clean up. On the other hand when he tells them to kill a chicken if they get hungry and he’ll be back in a week or two, that doesn’t seem like that good of a father. But things were probaly different back then. Kids were tougher. Now days kids gotta have cell phones so their parents can check with them all day and make sure they’re not watching R-rated movies, back then you just left them on a pig farm for weeks to fend for themselves while you went to kill a couple guys. “Kill a chicken if you get hungry” is the equivalent of “there are chicken nuggets shaped like dinosaurs in the freezer.” And he didn’t have to worry about them looking at porn on the internet.
But as usual I digress. We know from what people say that Munny was this badass killer, but we see with our own eyes that now he’s old and washed up. He can’t shoot a pistol straight so he has to use a rifle. Whenever he tries to get on his horse it tries not to let him, making him look like a jackass. He tells his kids it’s because he used to be cruel to animals before he met their mother and they’re getting back at him. The first time he’s confronted by Little Bill’s deputies he’s in a saloon, hunched over like the sick old man he is, staring at the drink he knows he can’t have. You almost believe he’s gonna lose.
But you also know there’s this bad motherfucker in there somewhere. English Bob exaggerates his stories, so does the Schofield Kid, but Munny actually underplays his. His old friend Ned (Morgan Freeman) reminds him that in a story where he supposedly killed 2 people he actually killed 3. This is one of the few movie badasses who’s embarrassed by what a badass he is. He keeps saying “I’m not like that anymore,” as if trying to convince himself, and Ned keeps agreeing with him, like a friend reassuring a friend that the new hair cut looks fine.
The ugliness of violence is always a theme. Munny is haunted by it to the point of breaking down and crying about it, FIRST BLOOD style. The Schofield Kid idolizes killers and thinks it would be cool to be one, but quickly learns otherwise. I think the genius of the movie is the balance between being honest about the ugliness of violence and satisfying the audience’s need for it. I mean, if he knew it was gonna be best picture maybe he would’ve known to get all high and mighty and not make it a satisfying western. But this is Clint we’re talking about here. That’s not in his nature. So even in a best picture he has one of the all time great OH SHIT IT’S ON moments.
For the whole movie Munny has been avoiding alcohol and associating it with his wicked past. When Schofield kills a guy for the first time and is obviously upset about it Munny tells him to take a drink, like that’s the only way to numb the pain. Then, as the prostitute tells him the story of Little Bill beating Ned to death for what he did, Munny starts to swig off a bottle. It’s so casual it took me a second to even realize it. And as you’re seeing him switch back into cold-blooded killer mode, it just so happens that the story she tells is also the all important “just how badass is he?” monologue, because she’s recounting what Little Bill said about Munny, that he’s a killer of women and children and police and etc.
And he gets his revenge and has multiple classic lines (“Well he should arm himself if he’s gonna decorate his saloon with my friend,” “Deservin’s got nothin to do with it,” etc.) but when he storms out of there threatening to kill and burn the family of anyone who shoots at him or who doesn’t properly bury his friend or who cuts up or otherwise harms a whore he’s like a vengeful demon. This man who’s been quiet and hunched over for the whole movie is now yelling like a madman as the rain pours down on him. And he’s finally commanding the respect of his horse. He’s a fuckin maniac. The evil twin of the old Clint Eastwood movie persona. He does not ride off into the sunset.
But, you know, if a guy goes on a rampage when he drinks, and you call your town “Big Whiskey,” you gotta expect problems when he shows up. Put two and two together, people.
Man, what a great set of characters, and what a great story. I’m not sure why they never made the sequel about him prospering in dry goods in San Francisco. That sounds pretty exciting.
I’m sure most of you have seen UNFORGIVEN, but I know I have a younger generation of readers that maybe was not of age when this came out, or were abandoned on a pig farm to fend for themselves and did not have access to it. If for some reason you haven’t seen this one I say put it on the top of your list.
Believe me, I know what you’re thinking. Just because it was best picture doesn’t mean jack shit. So was CRASH. DANCES WITH WOLVES won over GOODFELLAS. DRIVING MISS DAISY won and DO THE RIGHT THING wasn’t even nominated. I think one of the LOOK WHO’S TALKING movies won one year, and it was the same year that 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and TAXI DRIVER came out. I might be remembering that last one wrong but the point is these people are fucking lunatics.
Okay, well played, young readers. But how about I point you to an award with a little more meat behind it, one that I can personally vouch for the integrity of? Well my young friends, it just so happens that UNFORGIVEN is #4 on the Badass 100. Number four, man! You can’t beat that, other than to be numbers one, two or three. It’s behind only Clint’s own Man With No Name trilogy, the LONE WOLF AND CUB series, and YOJIMBO.
Forget about how “important” it is or any of that shit. Even if it wasn’t saying anything it would still be some top shelf hollywood movie making. THE GODFATHER is important too but you don’t give a shit about that while you’re watching it because the thing is so fucking entertaining, that’s all that matters. This movie is much smaller and more intimate but it’s the same way.
I can practically guarantee you will love this movie. If not, kill a chicken. I’ll be back in a couple weeks.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.