Unforgiven: The 20th Century's Final Film Masterpiece?

By Matt Edwards

“It’s a helluva thing killing a man. You take away all he’s got…all he’s ever gonna have.”

—William Munny

Out of the countless films I’ve watched more than once, this Western tale of revenge, redemption and rampage ranks among the greatest stories ever filmed. I know I’m not making some avant-garde claim that this mainstream Hollywood film is a masterpiece. Unforgiven won almost every Best Picture award of the season from film academies, film critic circles, guilds and magazine polls.

Clint Eastwood cleaned up in the director accolades. David Webb Peoples was singled out multiple times for his brilliant screenplay. Gene Hackman seemed to win every Best Supporting Actor award. (In my view he was simply the spokesman for accepting the awards for his entire supporting acting team of Richard Harris, Morgan Freeman and Frances Fisher.)

Clint’s longtime cinematographer, Jack N. Green, photographed the most beautiful of America’s Big Sky West. (Personally, the fact that Jack Green also DP’d Serenity completes me.) Oscar-winning editor Joel Cox has been with Eastwood every step of the way in Eastwood’s filmmaking career, and the mood he and his sound designers have created is unparalleled. Eastwood even wrote the theme for the score of the film, which quite hauntingly reverbs from every distant mountain, rain cloud and field of grass that graces the screen. In short, Eastwood’s team in front of and behind the camera deserves every bit of praise.

I want to single out the editing and sound design for a moment. Two things that rarely get their due recognition outside of those awkward moments when Scarlett Johansson hands some guy who’s been locked up in a sound booth for sixteen hours a day an Oscar. When a sound mix is done right, you don’t notice it one bit. It’s not until repeated viewings that you start to “look around” with your ears. The use of the thunderstorm in films can, has been and will always be overused in movies. However, if you ever want to know how to use it correctly, I can’t stress enough how perfectly it’s used in this film. It’s a theme that makes absolute sense. The thunderstorm is the Greek chorus of the story and is accompanied by chilled winds, creaking floorboards and…perfectly timed silence.

With all that Hollywood offers us today, this film from twenty-two years ago manages to do something that very few films do. In the context of the Hollywood Western film genre, Unforgiven is the grand finale of the first century of Hollywood filmmaking, if you will. From Charlie Chaplin to Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford to Steven Spielberg, Howard Hawks to John Hughes, American film of the twentieth century was the age of discovery in the art of storytelling with moving pictures. In a vacuum, Unforgiven is able to stand as a great film. But this film does not live in vacuum, and neither do we. Unforgiven was made at the perfect time—a time after so much film history had been laid out.

Let’s look at some of the events that had to occur in that history leading up to filming Unforgiven in order for this film to have as large an impact on audiences as it did and will continue to do so, if we preserve and revisit film history.

John Wayne starred in eighty-four Western films, setting the foundation for the Western film as we know it to become quintessentially American. (Apologies to Sergio Leone’s and Akira Kurosawa’s contributions.) No other film setting is more romantic and thrilling to movie audiences than that of the Old West—this includes audiences all over the world.

America’s folklore legends are incomplete without the Old West tales of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, “Wild Bill” Hickok, Annie Oakley, “Buffalo Bill” Cody and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—all real-life heroes and villains whose stories have been fictionalized countless times, over multiple generations, in film and on television.

Clint Eastwood starred in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns and created perhaps the most recognizable western film legend ever, The Man with No Name. Alongside John Wayne, Eastwood became the iconic Western movie actor.

Clint Eastwood is also “Dirty” Harry Callahan. Though not a Western, the film series has added to Eastwood’s image, and working with Dirty Harry director Don Siegel clearly had an impact, as Eastwood gave a nod to his own history with his onscreen dedication at the end of Unforgiven to both Leone and Siegel.

In the 1980s, Eastwood optioned David Webb Peoples’ original script with the title The Cut Whore Killings and held on to the screenplay until he was old enough to play the title role of William Munny. He later renamed it Unforgiven.

As the century progressed and the ’70s film revolution began, Westerns were not immune to the increase in graphic movie violence that occurred. Audiences began to see for themselves the bloody ruthlessness of the Old West. By the time Unforgiven hit theaters, Sam Peckinpah’s film The Wild Bunch (1969), in all its goriness, was the go-to Western for young audiences who were turned off by John Wayne’s old-timey cowboy movies. (They shouldn’t have been, however. Rio Bravo and The Searchers are two of the greatest Westerns ever.)

So by the time Unforgiven hit theaters, Westerns seemed long gone save for the occasional popcorn flick such as Silverado or Young Guns (both still fun as hell). Hollywood simply gave up on the genre as a serious one. (And some could argue that they gave up on all genres long before that, but that’s a topic for another time.)

The Western was banished into exile, never to be heard from again. That is, until we stumble upon William Munny, the “killer of women and children,” a “rootin’, tootin’, son-of-a-bitchin’, cold-blooded assassin” living in self-imposed exile on the outskirts of civilization. In this historical context, Unforgiven bears no equal.

The film gives us the story of three assassins on their way to collect a bounty, after they first kill two hotheaded cowboys who had cut up the face of a whore after she giggled at the size of one of their (ahem) pistols. Eastwood makes us privy to two stories that are rarely dramatized in other Westerns, the “before” life and “after” life of the ruthless gunfighter. The first is a look at a young man at the very beginning of the long, dark road filled with violence and drunkenness. The other is about two who have lived to escape that darkness, never wanting to return. The consequences are all different, yet the outcomes are all the same once the story concludes.

In taking into account the cinematic historical significance that I outlined above, viewing this film through that lens makes for a richer experience—one that clearly, and perhaps subconsciously, struck a chord with so many twenty-two years ago. On a smaller scale, it’s similar to when Robert De Niro and Al Pacino made their first onscreen appearance together a few years later in Heat. It’s a good moment in the film when the two adversaries meet, but it’s an ear-to-ear thrill for movie history when the two acting legends meet.

The dosage of that type of thrill is even bigger and sweeter in Unforgiven as you watch Clint Eastwood’s William Munny deal with demons that could very well have also been haunting the souls of Josey Wales, Harry Callahan and The Man with No Name. This impact on the audience is greater than if, say, Robert Duvall or Peter O’Toole had played the part. Both are great actors but possess nowhere near the character history of Clint Eastwood.

Though violent throughout, the film delivers an honest look at the way man uses violence and force to control—none of it at all admirable, whether it’s Gene Hackman as the town sheriff, Little Bill, dishing out a brutal beating to his old gunslinging nemesis, English Bob, in the center of town (the same town by the way, where he has enacted a gun-free policy, save for him and his deputies of course), or the insecure cowboy who cuts up the face of a prostitute who giggled at the sight of his less-than-impressive contribution to their tryst.

It feels like a natural human reaction when the prostitute’s “sisters” offer a revengeful bounty for the cowboy’s life. And who can blame retired gunfighter William Munny and his partners when they seek the economic windfall should they fulfill the task? But by the end of the film, we are witness to the final resolution that all these unforgivable acts ultimately lead to. Violence begets violence.

Unforgiven is twenty-two years old this year. It may as well be 122 years old. The film is timeless and as relevant as ever. It’s also a testament to storytelling, great film teamwork and the history of the American Western. Add to all that the fun movie history that led up to it, and for me there is nothing more disturbingly gratifying than William Munny’s final hunt through the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming.

“We all have it coming.” —William Munny