With the release of Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, the American Western has returned to the movies with a vengeance.
One might say that John Wayne's the Shootist marked the end of an era, as the mythic, larger-than-life Old West came to a close. Despite several attempts to "revitalize" the genre, from the disastrous Heaven's Gate to Pale Rider (in which Eastwood himself emulated Alan Ladd's Shane) to Silverado, the Western was effectively dead and buried in Hollywood. Young Guns and its sequel managed to make a quick buck off of the popularity of its "brat pack" cast, but those movies could hardly live up to the standards set by the likes of John Ford and Sergio Leone.
But seemingly from out of nowhere, Kevin Costner pulled off the coup of the decade with DANCES WITH WOLVES. This shamelessly politically- correct movie was entertaining in its own right, and it proved that even the Hollywood Western could be recreated in the era of the 1990s. More importantly, it was a smash box-office hit. Hollywood looked up and realized that yes, people do still watch Westerns.
Flash-forward to 1992. Ron Howard makes Far and Away,, and he also bows to the gods of Political Correctness. FAR AND AWAY was a light and fluffy folk tale that tried to be an "epic saga." It succeeded on the popcorn level, but failed to achieve anything higher than that.
Enter Clint Eastwood.
A Fistful of Dollars, the movie that made Eastwood a star, proved to be the death knell of the Classical Western of good-and- bad. The so-called "spaghetti Westerns" reflected the way America's tastes in movies were changing in the 1960s, as they sought to de-mythify the Western and bring it down to earth. Now, with Unforgiven, Eastwood once again makes a name for himself, and once again he brings the Western to another level.
Eastwood plays the role of Bill Munny, a grizzled old retired gunfighter who has settled down to raise hogs with his two children. Everything seems peaceful, though he doesn't seem very happy. What's more, he doesn't seem to be having much luck as a homesteader. His wife died three years ago, and the hogs are coming down with fever.
But then along comes a young man calling himself the "Schofield Kid." He's heard about a $1,000 reward being offered by a small-town brothel for killing two men, and he's looking for a partner to help him do it. Munny had quite a reputation as a gunfighter, and so he's offered the role. He accepts.
During the first half or so of the movie, Munny keeps repeating how he's no longer a killer the way he used to be - his wife changed all that. This is, in fact, only partially true: Munny has mellowed with age, but he was born to be a gunfighter, and we know that his attempts to convince everyone that he's not a killer are only half-hearted.
In fact, Munny's return to way of the gun marks more than his own return - it's symbolic of the way the Western genre itself has come back to claim its former place. The gunfighter has returned from retirement, but he's not the man he used to be. The old gunfighter with the white hat of the Golden Age of Hollywood is history; today's gunfighter is a complex, struggling figure who is anything but the good Paladin of old.
This story deliberately takes every Western cliche and turns it on its side. Notice the way the movie pokes fun at the classic scenes of target practice, where the gunfighter shoots at a can sitting on a log; or the ease with which the gunfighter can mount his horse and be off in a matter of microseconds; or the way a man can fall from his horse and suffer only a few scratches. Sometimes the revisions are so deliberate that they stand out from the rest of the movie, as in one scene where Eastwood reaches behind a bar to get a bottle of whiskey to smash his attacker's face; but this never detracts from the story as a whole. Every scene, every line has its purpose.
But despite these little in-jokes, Eastwood achieves far more than a mere parody of the Western. All of the characters in Unforgiven are richly developed, with their own sets of morals and their own ideals of right and wrong. The entire movie is set in the grey area of morals, so that we don't really know who is right and who is wrong.
The story begins when two cowboys participate in the shame of a prostitute, slashing her face so that she can no longer work. Her fellow ladies are outraged at the way her plight is heartlessly treated by the Sherriff, and so they offer a $1,000 reward to the people who can come into town and kill the two men. But it's not as simple as that. The question is raised: is the scarring of a woman worth the lives of two men? She was cruelly treated and the men deserved to be punished, but is killing them the right answer? In fact, when one of the two men tries to make amends above and beyond the payment he is forced to give (he tries to give the woman his best pony), his gesture of apology is literally thrown back into his face.
The morals question is also reflected in the Sherriff, Little Bill Daggett (played to perfection by Gene Hackman). He knows that in a frontier town such as this one (its name is "Big Whiskey, he must rule with an iron hand - and he honestly believes that he is keeping law and order in town. He enforces a code that requires all visitors to the town to turn their guns over to him - a rule that he hopes will keep any bounty hunters from trying to claim the reward. We see how he enacts his "justice" on one such hopeful, a gentlemanly chap named English Bob who turns out to be no gentleman. He beats and kicks Bob almost to death - but he does so as a warning to other potential trouble-makers. In the harsh times of the Western frontier, his cruel way of sending this "message" may actually be justified, because he's doing it to a would-be murderer who wants to kill a person he is sworn to protect.
In a similar fashion, Little Bill takes time out to explain the lack of morality on the Frontier to a traveling writer, W. W. Beauchamp. This man was formerly English Bob's companion, but he decides to hang around Little Bill because Bill wants to tell him "the truth" as opposed to Bob's wild stories. In Unforgiven, W. W. actually represents us, the viewing audience. For many a year, we've seen Westerns that portray the Wild Wild West as a fantasy land of justice and morals, where the Good Guys play fair and the Bad Guys always win in the end. W. W. is writing a silly book that romanticizes English Bill's exploits, describing them in a fashion that we've heard in the classic Westerns. But Little Bill tells W. W. what it's "really" like to be a gunfighter, and he blasts the myth of the Old West to pieces. As W. W. learns what a harsh and dangerous place the West can be, so to do we ourselves learn that there is no true "Right" and "Wrong" in the realistic world of the new Hollywood Western.
I haven't touched the main characters yet. There's the "Schofield Kid," who plays the role of the brash, boastful young wannabe gunfighter. He learns the harsh lesson that killing your first man is never what you think it will be, but in Unforgiven it affects him as it never did in the Westerns of old. He reminded me a lot of the sassy young kid in Ride The High Country even to the point where he's only interested in the reward money. But he learns that money isn't everything.
Morgan Freeman plays Ned Logan, Bill Munny's old partner who has also retired from gunfighting. While he's also willing to get back on the saddle and earn a piece of the reward, it seems that retirement has taken its toll on him. He's the only one in the movie who has a distinct, clear set of morals - but this is only more proof that Eastwood's purpose in this movie was to kill off the simplistic ideals of the Classic Western once and for all.
It's with Ned Logan's character that Eastwood makes his only bow towards political correctness: not once in the movie is the fact that Ned is black mentioned. On one hand, this is a good move on Hollywood's part, but on the other hand it subtracts slightly from the realistic feel of the movie - after all, the 19th Century was as racist a time as ever there was, here in America. The problem here is with the ultimate fate of Ned Logan: does this constitute the Hollywood cliche of once again killing off a major black character in the cast, while the white guys live on to the end of the movie? Ned's death is an important plot twist, and it's certainly essential to the story. But casting Morgan Freeman in this role called my attention once again to the way blacks are portrayed in Hollywood movies. Or am I merely overreacting?
Mention must be made of the movie's superb direction as well. Despite its length (2 hours and 10 minutes seems to be the new Hollywood "epic" standard - just longer than the length of a typical two-hour videotape), this movie will keep you mesmerized from beginning to end.
The Frontier of Unforgiven is a lonely place, where a cold wind blows day and night and the sky is often overcast. I remember seeing a sunny scene exactly three times in this movie: the very beginning and the very end (both of which are sunsets), and once during the middle of the movie where the scarred prostitute is talking to Bill Munny. Rain figures prominently in this movie, contrasting to the hot desert locations where most of the classic Westerns were filmed.
If you go to see Unforgiven expecting another action flick in the order of A Fistful of Dollars, you will be sorely disappointed. While the movie does end with a shootout (vastly different from the standard Hollywood Shootout Climax, however!), it's truly a drama of characters, where what a person says and how he acts is far more important than what he does and who he shoots.
This a thinking person's Western. If you hate Westerns, you will fall under the harsh spell of Unforgiven. If you love Westerns, you will never forget this one. This is truly a movie for the ages, and future movies will look back upon this one for inspiration and guidance.
Unforgiven is unforgettable.