As we progress into this last stretch of my Cinematic Century project, I’ve found something a little strange. More and more I’m coming across years that give me an insane amount of difficulty, tossing out two or three movies that normally could easily be highlighted, leading to a pretty tough competition. I suppose it may be because we’re now within my actual lifespan, so these are movies that I’ve actually had more of a connection with, but I don’t think that necessarily tracks, since the movies that I had to deal with today are ones that I really only came to in the last few years. But, whatever the reason, 1992 proved to be an incredibly difficult year to make a decision on. Because it’s a pretty solid year for movies. Even the ones that didn’t really have a solid chance at becoming the film I chose to highlight are a lot of fun. We could have taken a second stab at Tim Burton’s take on Batman with the delightfully insane Batman Returns, a movie that I know a lot of people hate, but that I really enjoy quite a bit. Or we could have played around with the sheer absurd excess of Army of Darkness, easily my favorite of the Evil Dead movies. There’s also one of the few good SNL films with Wayne’s World, a movie that probably doesn’t deserve to be as good as it is, quite a bit of which is thanks to director Penelope Spheeris. And, hey, while it’s maybe not the best film there’s certainly a lot one could talk about in regards to Francis Ford Coppola’s insane Dracula movie. But, the real battle for me came down to Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, James Foley’s Glengarry Glen Ross, and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. And, perhaps strangely, Reservoir Dogs was the first film that I crossed off that list. I really adore Tarantino’s films, despite what a troubling and problematic person he himself is, but Reservoir Dogs has never really been my favorite work of his. It certainly has a lot of elements that I like, but I feel like they almost all are done better in later films, leaving me with a movie that I respect more than I like. Which then put me in the impossible place of choosing between Glengarry Glen Ross and Unforgiven. I really adore both of these movies, and after revisiting them both I really didn’t get much help deciding. They’re both incredibly captivating and fascinating movies, for very different reasons. I highly recommend revisiting both of them if it’s been a while, or even better if you haven’t seen one of them yet, but at the end of the day I decided to go with Clint Eastwood’s incredibly bleak and sad deconstructionist Western masterpiece.
Unforgiven actually began life in the late seventies, the creation of screenwriter and film editor David Peoples. Peoples wrote the script shortly after breaking into the screenwriting game after working with Ridley Scott on the Blade Runner script, but was unable to churn up much interest in it at the time. Which, may be because it was at one time using the title the Cut-Whore Killings, which maybe wasn’t exactly a great selling point. The violence inside the script was also an issue, even though Peoples decided to push the script as dark and violent as he could after seeing what they got away with in Taxi Driver. The script bounced around Hollywood for a while, ending up in the hands of Francis Ford Coppola for a while, but it just never gained much traction until it made its way to Clint Eastwood. Which, was itself a feat, because several people close to Eastwood advised against him making the project, due to its violent nature. But, Eastwood saw something in the script, and held onto it for close to ten years, finishing up some other projects, and theoretically letting himself age to the point where he could conceivably play the lead character. And, when the time came, Eastwood prepared to create a very different sort of Western than those that made him famous, building an entire Western town in Alberta, Canada in order to play around with this bleak Western. And, it paid off. While the script had been ignored when it was first written, the actual movie it helped create was enormously popular, becoming a massive success both critically and commercially, to the point that it ended up winning Best Picture and Best Director at the Academy Awards, among others. All culminating in a modern classic of the Western genre, while remaining one of the more unique entries to that genre.
Unforgiven begins in a small Wyoming town known as Big Whiskey on a night where two visiting cowboys, Quick Mike and Davey-Boy Bunting, attack a prostitute after she makes fun of Quick Mike’s small penis. They slash her face and are subdued by the owner of the brothel and brought before the sheriff, a man named Little Bill Daggett. However, Daggett lets the men off without much punishment other than having the cowboys compensate the brothel keeper for any lost wages he gets from no one wanting to be with the prostitute, Delilah. The rest of the prostitutes are furious at Daggett’s decision, and they decide to take matters into their own hands, scrounging up $1,000 for a reward to anyone willing to kill the cowboys. And, that bounty draws the attention of several would-be killers throughout the region, including a young man who is calling himself the Schofield Kid. The Kid is convinced that he can kill these two cowboys, but will need a second man to help him. So, he tracks down an infamous outlaw known as William Munny who used to know his father in order to get his aid. However, when he finds Munny he sees that the man has retired from his life of crime, and now leads a solemn life as a widower pig farmer, raising two young children. Munny refuses the Kid’s offer, saying he’s ontent with his new life.
But, fairly shortly after the Kid leaves Munny starts to reconsider. He wants to give his children a better life, and thinks that this money will accomplish this. So, Munny gets his guns, leaves the kids to fend for themselves, and goes to find his old friend and partner Ned Logan to see if he’d be interested helping him and the Kid take down these cowboys. They catch up with the Kid, and after some initial hostility agree to start working together. They travel toward Big Whiskey, hoping to speak to the prostitutes before tracking down the cowboys, and end up arriving in the middle of a rainstorm, and a very tense atmosphere. Because another potential bounty hunter, a famous gunslinger called English Bob has already arrived in town, and found Little Bill Daggett unwilling to allow people to meet with the prostitutes. Daggett savagely beat Bob and scared him off, while keeping his biographer W.W. Beauchamp in the town to write about him instead. So, when three new men arrive in town inquiring about the cowboys, Daggett has them beat up. Ned and the Kid manage to escape, but Munny is beat rather savagely, forcing the other men and the prostitutes to help nurse him back to health outside the town.
When Munny is better though, they head out to find the cowboys. They’re pretty easily able to come across Davey-Boy Bunting, and end up killing him in front of his friends, but in the process learn that Ned has maybe never actually killed anyone before, and is unwilling to continue. He heads home while Munny and the Kid move onto the next location, where they find Quick Mike holed up with several of Daggett’s men, and murder him in his outhouse before fleeing. Munny and the Kid then get ready to return to Big Whiskey to get their reward, and in the process learn something horrible. Ned was captured by Daggett and his men on his way home, and they tortured him to death to send a message. The Kid offers to take Ned’s share of the reward back to his home for his widow, and Munny decides he’s going to go get revenge. He makes his way back to Munny, and locates Daggett and an entire posse assembled to track him down and kill him. Munny saves them some time, and initiates a shoot-out that ends up killing Dagget and enough of the other posse members that the rest give up and flee. Munny then warns the rest of the small town that they need to treat the prostitutes better, or he’d be back, and rides off into the night. We then learn that he and his children left the West, and moved to San Francisco, opening a dry goods store and living out their days.
It’s is somehow easy to understand why this film swept all manner of awards at the time, and shocking that it did. On the one hand, it’s a hell of a prestige picture, wonderfully directed by Clint Eastwood and featuring an absolute murderer’s row of fantastic performances, which help bring these repugnant characters to life, juxtaposing perfectly with the gorgeous scenery. But, at the same time, Westerns traditionally don’t typically get the sort of accolades that this film got, usually relegated to one of the “genres” that are historically looked down upon. And, this film is certainly a Western. And a grim one at that. There’s plenty of gruesome violence, depictions of hatred and ignorance emblematic of the times, and just generally becomes one of the darker and more upsetting Westerns ever made. Which, you’d think would probably work against it, at least on a wide audience. And yet, the film is just so wonderfully crafted that it become impossible to deny what a very special film it is. This entire project has really helped cement a love of Westerns in me that really hadn’t been in my life before, or at least that hadn’t been as realized before, and Unforgiven really does rank rather highly in my own personal ranking of favorite Westerns. It’s a beautifully bleak film, a hell of a Western, and it even has something pretty unexpected on its mind.
Clint Eastwood has a pretty big legacy. He’s been involved in a lot of varying things in his life, but I think it’s hard to deny that one of the most defining things about him as a person is his role in the world of Westerns. On both sides of the camera Clint Eastwood has become one of the most famous and important figures in the genre of Westerns, and he uses that stature to completely shatter any sort of mythology and aggrandizement of the Wild West with this film. The entire movie seems focused on creating a portrait of what the Wild West would have actually been like, not the glossy and larger than life tales that people like Clint Eastwood had been telling for decades. This is a story where basically everyone involved is a morally reprehensible monster who is either building up a smokescreen of a legend, or actively destroying it. Little Bill Daggett spends much of the film hanging out with the biographer, telling him the truth about the Wild West, and that every one of the legends and stories he’d heard are complete bullshit. William Munny is practically a tall-tale figure, some infamously wild outlaw, when in reality he was apparently so drunk he barely remembers anything. English Bob is so frightening that people on the train hear his name and get scared, but it turns out he just had a habit of shooting people in the back. This entire film looks at the genre of the Western, and knowingly takes the air out of it, recognizing it as a bunch of mythology and fiction, while giving us a glimpse into the true nature of that time period, which seems to have been full of a bunch of drunken, surly people doing their best to get by while fighting against the innumerable ways that they could die at any moment.
Unforgiven was written by David Webb Peoples, directed by Clint Eastwood, and released by Warner Bros., 1992.
Categories: Cinematic Century