Over the years I have had many different jobs. Both before and after college I had worked in a restaurant as the head chef, overlooking assistant cooks, waiters and bus-boys. I drank heavily in those days and most of my free time was taken up in bars after my shift was completed. I remember a local pub down the block from where I kept my first apartment and the owner had piped in illegal cable TV where me and the rest of the lush-lives in the area drunkenly argued over the merits of the movies showing on Turner Classic Movies and HBO. Once the bartender yelled out last call, I would, usually, slither home and sleep the rest of the day away until my work shift started again and found myself repeating the same routine from the day before. In those days, the arguments and discussions about film that I had with that very bizarre crew of know-it-alls was usually forgotten and would start up all over again the moment my first beer and shot were poured the next night. I know, somewhere in there, in the middle of the countless bottles and cans and overflowing ashtrays, there was some merit in the theories and observations we were making about the movies we watched in that dimly-lit shit hole of a pub. The unfortunate part about all of this is that we often lost track of the interesting points we were making the more we drowned our livers in booze.
Years later, after drying out, I ping-ponged from one job to another, always looking for a place where I could make money and live a quiet existence devoid of the types that I HAD frequently associated with in the gin-mills of my home-town. For thirteen years now I have been working for a taxi and limousine service in my area. I am the dispatcher and my job consists of screening phone calls from weary individuals looking for a ride home after work, or to the market, or to take a date out on the town (and, hopefully, not to any of the places I used to peruse in my youth as a lovable, if not notable, drunk). Where I work now I am the master of my domain. Once the receipts and the money from the night before has been accounted for and counted, and after my rush hour period has subsided, I usually find myself facing the hours between midnite and 6am with a lot free time to do whatever strikes my fancy. I bought a Blu-Ray player to my office and, for the past several years, have enveloped myself in rewatching and rediscovering the classic films that I have loved for decades. The drivers that share the same shifts with me join in in watching and, more often than not, discussions about the films I bring into work with me occur both during and after the movie is run.
I had a bit of training in the art of motion-picture making when I was in college and, like Sam, our fearless and tireless leader here at WONDERS IN THE DARK, I also dabbled in writing reviews and essays on the movies we were studying and making. We analyzed, picked apart, dissected and rolled around ideas and theories all the time. Yet, now, working at the cab company, I find that little of what the people surrounding me as we watch have to say enlightening or even remotely curious. I find myself alone, even in a room of many people, stammering from aggravation as I try desperately to get them to understand what lies beneath a good film. I try with all my might to spark some kind of deep thought or understanding that what we see up there on the screen is not just only about story and pretty pictures. They look at me, almost sideways, thinking that I make too much out of what is, to them, purely simple.
Jacob is a young man in his mid-20’s. He attended college at New York City’s SVU and studied animation. As part of his education, Jacob had to sacrifice himself to the gauntlet of many hours in classes pertaining to film history and analysis. He was introduced to film the way we should all be introduced to film, from the very beginning when the art form emerged, seeing the great films in order and watching the growth of the medium get bigger, better and more complex as years, decades and a full century passed. Jacob, unlike me, was privileged in the sense that he was able to take it all in, step by step, with the firm hands of film scholars and professors to lead him along, all the while answering his many questions and either embracing or shooting down his theories about particular films, their meaning and the film-makers who gave everything they had in them to put their visions and messages on the big screen. Jacob is a pleasant, almost timid young man who looks at film with the wide-eyed wonder of a child combined with the knowledge of a seasoned critic and film historian. He’s a well-mannered, passionate young man whose life is committed to the creation and appreciation of film and the making of movies.
Jacob lives a few blocks away from my work-place and often stops by to say hello and see what films I have playing on the TV in the wee small hours of the morning. Often, he will sit in with me and the drivers and watch along with us, offering up a blurb of criticism or an idea he has about a particular film we are viewing. When I was asked to write this essay on Eastwood’s magnum opus, UNFORGIVEN, I was, initially, frightened at the prospects of taking on one of the most iconic films of its decade of release and one of the most talked about, analyzed and applauded movies of all time. After all, what can be said about UNFORGIVEN that hasn’t already been said? How would I offer up something that wasn’t already written down or spoken about on shows like SISKEL AND EBERT or any news program that reviews movies at the end of each week?
It was the youthful perspective of this tall, lanky, slightly geeky kid from around the block, that graduated from SVU that gave me a bit of backbone to willingly tackle one of the truly great movies of our generation.
Clint Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN is a significant film in many ways. Not the least of which is that it’s probably the most critically lauded western to emerge from the past several decades that saw the genre almost die as quickly as the lawlessness depicted in the film died at the turn of the century. It’s a movie that embraces all of the genre clichés, yet it only uses those clichés to purvey a deep sense of importance in its message about the abhorrent nature of a disease that sees violence spark off even more heinous violence once a violent act has been committed.
We all know the story of UNFORGIVEN, how it’s about a retired gunslinger and murderer of everything that ever walked and crawled on the face of the earth at some point, going back into action one last time to make some money for his starving children. However, watching the film recently, with Jacob, I was floored by something my friend said:
“You know, when I first saw this film in college, I know that everyone, myself and the others in my class, thought that this is the kind of film we all aspire to make. It’s a simple film whose simplicity masks a deep-rooted message about the film-makers beliefs. It’s about violence as a disease and how the depiction of violence, great violence, is really the only way to convey to the masses how terribly wrong and contagious violence is. From a writing stand-point, UNFORGIVEN is the kind of film a screenwriter prays he will be able to write up at some point in his career and, for the director, it’s the kind of simple film he/she longs to make knowing that it’s so much more than its simplistic plot.”
Since watching the film a few months back, and recalling what Jacob said that night, I have revisited UNFORGIVEN several times. Each time I watched, I kept what Jacob said as close to the front of my thinking about the film as possible. With every viewing since that night, I saw in UNFORGIVEN’s simplicity a message sent in an almost graceful ghost-like waft towards me the way sublimity wafts into the mind of a listener of a Beethoven symphony or a Bach concerto. Eastwood was creating, in the kind of slickness that was the hall-mark of his mentor, Sergio Leone, a kind of sermon in pictures and words that condemned violence as a contagion that cannot be stopped once the ball was rolled into motion. As seen in the film, the first act of violence, committed by a drunken horse wrangler who reacts badly to a hookers innocent giggle over the sight of his tiny dick, sets off an almost snow-ball like reaction that just gets bigger and bigger as the films story progresses. In this, I think that Eastwood is bearing his thoughts that any and all acts of blind and reactive violence will only lead to more.
If this theory is, indeed, correct, then the enormity of the violence that results from that first act will become more elaborate, bloody and corrosive. Corrosive, however, seems to be the key word in the analysis of UNFORGIVEN’s violence, for as the film progresses we not only see those that are used to committing the act go back to their old violent ways, but people of a nominally peaceful nature become blood-hungry in the process. The town of Big Whisky, for all intensive purposes, is a peaceful place where fire-arms must be sacrificed to the law-enforcers upon entrance of the hamlet. The towns Sheriff, a former gunslinger himself, is a hard man, but his rules and regulations have kept the town from experiencing the “wickedness” that he knows all too well from his jaded past and knows could come if a gun is in the hand of the wrong individual when the wrong, heated moment comes along. This, in and of itself, is a kind of double-sided conundrum as the lack of enforcing the laws of the town with a punishing violence towards the horse wrangler are met with a blood-lust by the hookers that feel they have been unjustly violated. Strawberry Alice, the leader of the whores, begs and pleads with “Little Bill” Daggett, the towns Sheriff, for justice (i.e. a painful beating with a bull-hide whip) only to become violently incensed when the justice is revealed to be the payment of some horses to the owner of the brothel. In Alice’s mind, the payment should go directly to the disfigured call-girl. In “Little Bill”s mind, the payment of the horses represents an even trade for the brothel owners damaged “property”.
The catalyst for the major violent action in UNFORGIVEN is the blood lust of Alice and her band of whores. They set out to avenge the violence inflicted upon them by offering up a 1000 dollar bounty to whoever rides into town and kills the horse wrangler. Word spreads throughout the state and the nefarious bad-guys that wear violence on their shoulders like lawmen wear badges all turn their sites on the town of Big Whisky. It’s here that Eastwood introduces one of his best and most memorable screen incarnations. The character he plays, one William Munny, is a retired gun-slinger and murderer for hire. After marrying a woman of moral pureness, Munny had put his wicked ways and alcoholism aside and fathered a family and created a home dominated by the purity of his woman’s heart. A pig farmer that really knows nothing about pigs, he is bad man turned good though his dismay at his lack of skill in farming has him often questioning his life after his wife succumbs to illness and dies. Alone and caring for two small children, Munny is almost immediately drawn to the memories of his old skills as a killer when he learns of the score he can make if he were to bust out of retirement for one last violent job. At first, Munny seems ill equipped to take on the task, but the closer he gets to Big Whisky the more he is reminded that some people are born to certain trades and that once you become good at something you never really lose complete sight at what you are born to do. Saddling up on a horse that is as broken as he is at the start of the quest, Munny ventures, along with his old partner in crime, Ned (the always reliable Morgan Freeman), towards his payday and his date with his old friend, violence.
What’s significant, at least to me, about UNFORGIVEN, at this point, is how Eastwood and screen-writer David Webb Peoples (BLADE RUNNER) weave in and out of the concept of violence as a ravaging disease. Once Munny sets out on the trail towards Big Whisky, we are given examples, through conversations and visuals of how horrifying men like Will and Little Bill were when they were the kings of their trade. Little Bill has no problems with beating a visiting assassin from the United Kingdom, one “English Bob” (a very cocky, but mannered, Richard Harris), nearly to death just for showing up in town with a concealed pistol and uses the beating to send a message to “all those villains” that are even remotely thinking of trying for the 1000 dollar bounty. The beating of Bob is one of the show-case moments in the film and the violence inflicted on this man is so gut-wrenching as to become almost un-watchable for a first time viewer of the film. Again, it’s the theory of violence as a corrosive, un-stoppable force taking the next enlarging spin down the snow covered hill as the ball grows bigger and bigger. What’s even more unnerving about the beating and Munny’s journey to Big Whiskey is that both English Bob and Munny see the run for the bounty as not only a way to score some quick cash, but as an heroic act in the name of the unprotected. I’ve always found this flip-side of the story coin to be one of the most fascinating aspects of Peoples and Eastwood’s analysis of the corrosive nature of violence as I think that Munny would be completely disgusted by the words of Alice had he ever gotten in the same room with her. Munny is a man who is under the assumption that the women he is coming to avenge are helpless victims when, in fact, they are as tainted by violence, and a lust for it, as Munny was years ago when violence was part of his daily diet.
The finale of the film is a classic example of what a great western does best. Atmospherically, the film has the look of a Ford western and is swathed in the dim lights of kerosene lanterns and sweat and grit trudged into a room from a muddy road leading to the front doors of a gin mill engulfed by a rain storm. But, Ford never saw or plotted the kind of violence that Eastwood and Peoples unleash in the final moments in the saloon that will see Will Munny prove he’s a man of such heinous action that he can clear a room after firing a single shot. That Munny doesn’t stop after the initial blow, killing more than a dozen men in just a few short minutes and scattering the frightened as far out of town as they can get on their horses acts as the bedrock statement that what starts with a violent act will end, ultimately, in a supremely violent act. Munny is ice-veined in these final moments of the film, never flinching or blinking, and the old time killer rears his head at a broken community one last time to show the corroding populace that what they think is fair and right is really anything but. As Munny rides out of town in the storm, his horses hooves slamming the puddles to sound like the steads pulling a funeral carriage, the townsfolk look on at him in awe and realize they could have served themselves better by keeping their mouths shut and turning the other cheek. Big Whisky is now a broken town, lost without it’s rules and the men that made them and the corrosion that started with a blood lust for revenge has laid waste a community and will, most likely, give way to a town of lost souls who remember the violence that ruined them as they repeat the tale to others as they drink themselves into a stupor. I have often felt sure of myself that Big Whisky would collapse from rampant alcoholism and addiction after Munny’s exit for the folks of the town would be forever haunted by the spector that they summoned for their foul deeds.
As far as the technical aspects of the film are concerned, UNFORGIVEN is a near flawless work by a director who had finally found his maturity. Eastwood had labored for over two decades to find his ultimate voice as a director. Often, he would dip his elbow into waters that he had treaded earlier in his career as an actor and under the tutelage of directors like the aforementioned Leone and Don Siegel (Siegel, even more so than Leone, I feel, gave Eastwood an understanding of how to film raw violence). However, while many of the parts of Eastwoods early directorial labors showed much promise, they never really seemed to come together as a sturdy whole. Sure, there were some anomalies in that canon of early features and, clearly, we can all admire a film that is as assured as THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES. But, between that wonderful 1975 western of revenge, Eastwood would flounder in genres like screw-ball comedy (EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE), sentimentality (BRONCO BILLY, HONKY TONK MAN) and even projects that were dear to his heart (the jazz biopic, BIRD). It’s almost as if the director/actor was waiting for David Peoples and UNFORGIVEN and a story that not only stirred up his beliefs but also represented issues that were dear to his heart and his moral psyche. With UNFORGIVEN, the directors choices and firm hand seem to be guided by the spirits of his beloved friend, Leone, and the landscapes that John Ford had made famous in film westerns like THE SEARCHERS, MY DARLING CLEMENTINE and FORT APACHE. There is a minimalist influence on the scope of the film, one that conveys only the necessities that serve the story and its underlying themes and metaphors and what is seen on the screen are only the things demanded by the screenplay and without unnecessary details that would allow the viewers mind to wander. The cinematography by Jack N. Green is studded with warm oranges and browns that signify a precious idea of a loving home, something Munny hopes to regain after his acts are completed, but never wavers away from the coldness of the prairies and dead fields that lead to the antiseptic and dead blandness of the neat rows of buildings that make up the little town of Big Whisky. Visually, the film is a landmark for Eastwood who, in his correct thinking, creates a world in which all the visual western clichés reside but never truly represent the kind of reality seen in THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES. By maintaining this look and feel throughout the entirety of UNFORGIVEN, Eastwood successfully manages to present the drama in an almost storybook setting of simplicity that blindsides the viewer from ever looking away from what is important. Like a fable from a children’s book, it’s only the basics we need to have plopped into our lap that point us in the direction of the underlying moral themes of Peoples’ screenplay.
That simplistic application doesn’t just define itself in the visuals alone, however, and the performances throughout the film serve the story the same way the cinematography and simplistic production design of the film does. As “Little Bill” Daggett, Gene Hackman delivers a turn of unapologetic psychopathy that would rank him as one of the most vile and violently divided souls in the western genre. As played by the Academy award winning actor, Hackman’s sheriff is a man who honestly believes his wickedness has brought him to a place of inner enlightenment and that his rules and laws are the result of seeing so much bad and being able to say he lived through times of unfathomable evil. Hackman plays the sheriff as a kind of cut and dry thinker, “my way or the high-way” in his every attitude, and whenever he’s on screen the viewer has tendency to sit up in his seat and tighten every muscle in their body as if they were preparing to deflect a direct blow from such a loose cannon. Daggett is a man who spouts what he believes is right and wrong, but will often revert back to his psychopathic ways when he cannot get his desired reaction. Hackman’s character is a snake-like hypocrite, a killer masquerading as a savior and Hackman practically steals every scene he’s in as he viciously turns the tables on the likes of Saul Rubinek’s periodical reporter.
But, even with Hackman and an ensemble cast that give everything they’ve got to populate the film with interpretations of gorgons that Munny will have to overcome on his journey towards rediscovering his true nature, it’s Eastwood AS Munny that owns the film outright. Long gone is the steely-eyed assurance that made characters like Dirty Harry Callahan and “The Man With No Name” figures of importance in Eastwood’s career as an actor and William Munny is, in the beginning of the film, a kinder, aloof and gentler version of the hard bitten cynics he had played for years. William Munny is a desperate man in the beginning of the film, a blundering failure in a life of moral goodness and integrity, yet, in those eyes we can see a combination of desperation for the want of a good and simple life and, at the same time, a glint of the hard-as-nails remorseless killer he had once been. Looking at the performance just a few days back, I really focused in on how Eastwood refrains from allowing the character to burst into reactive violent animation, holding back his true nature as a bad man, and the finale represents a tour-de-force for the actor as he unveils himself as a sweating powder-keg of dynamite that explodes when one too many people juggle his emotions and eventually drop the load. In the final moments that see Munny facing off against a saloon filled with men creating a violent posse against him, Eastwoods characterization turns on a dime and the once shaking and quivering man setting out for good becomes a wraith of cold killing that could curl the toes of cinematic madmen as infamous as Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates. Eastwood really does give his finest performance in UNFORGIVEN but it’s not just because he’s playing a man unlike any other he had played before; it’s because he’s allowed the character to do a reverse transformation from evil to good and back to evil again. Sure, one would battle for the notion that Munny really is a decent man with nothing but good intentions when he takes the bounty but, and this is the key of the whole of UNFORGIVEN, he really is only reverting to what he was born to be and can only be in the end. I have no doubts that Munny did return home, money in hand, to rescue his family from poverty and a life of desperation. However, in the skilled hands of Eastwood, both as thespian and director, he makes damned sure we know of the darkness that resides in certain men and will never, EVER go away. UNFORGIVEN is a violent treatise about the plight for non-violence, but it’s also a dazzling examination of people recognizing what and who they are and were always meant to be.
For this alone, UNFORGIVEN is not only one of the greatest and most entertaining westerns in the entire genre, but one of the most important. UNFORGIVEN unequivocally deserves its high placement on this count, and as one of the ten-best westerns ever made.
I can understand, now, why Jacob and his classmates fawned over this film the first time they viewed it. If I were a film-maker, it’s just the kind of movie that I would be proud to say I made.
(USA 1992 131m) DVD/Blu-Ray
p/d Clint Eastwood w David Webb Peoples ph Jack N.Green ed Joel Cox m Lennie Niehaus art Henry Bumstead
Clint Eastwood (William Munny), Gene Hackman (Sheriff “Little Bill” Daggett), Morgan Freeman (Ned Logan), Richard Harris (English Bob), Saul Rubinek (W.W.Beauchamp), Jaimz Woolvett (The Schofield Kid), Frances Fisher (Strawberry Alice), Anna Thomson (Delilah Fitzgerald), David Mucci (Quick Mike),