I think the last “traditional” western that Clint Eastwood starred in was the television show Rawhide. Even his own The Outlaw Josey Wales, while as close as he has come to what people normally think of as a western, had enough of Eastwood’s character-based humor to make it stand apart from the crowd.
Unforgiven is not going to change that, either. Eastwood’s first Best Picture winner is less of a western than a clear-eyed rumination on the subject of violence. Some have labeled the film “anti-violence” but even that is an over-simplification that denies the film’s depth.
In the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, a couple of rowdy comboys slice up the face of a local prostitute. When the guilty parties are only forced to pay the owner of the brothel for “damages,” the other girls take matters into their own hands, pooling their money to put a bounty on the heads of the cowboys.
Meanwhile, Will Munny (Eastwood) is a widowed pig farmer raising two children. In another life, he was a notorious outlaw and gunslinger and far better at that than he is at pig farming. He is visited by a young wannabe gunslinger calling himself the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), who brings news of the bounty in Big Whiskey. He wants the infamous Will Munny to help him collect it, but Will isn’t interested at first. He doesn’t do that kind of thing any more. Unfortunately, the farm isn’t making any money and Will has to feed his children. On the way to Big Whiskey, they stop and talk Will’s friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) into joining them.
Back in town, the prostitute’s bounty is causing headaches for the town’s sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), who’s known around town for his brutal methods of keeping the peace, as well as his incompetence as a carpenter. The first to attempt to collect the bounty is a flashy, self-promoting gunslinger named English Bob (Richard Harris), complete with his own biographer (Saul Rubinek) in tow. Little Bill is on him almost the second he steps off the stagecoach and the next day he puts a battered and bloodied English Bob back on the stage out of town. The biographer, Beauchamp, an easterner with romanticized ideas about the west, stays behind to profile the man who bested the “legendary” English Bob.
Will Munny and his group arrive quietly soon after, but Little Bill is naturally suspicious. He assumes (probably correctly), that any new arrival is there to collect the bounty. It quickly becomes clear that Will is not quite the formidable killer he was in the old days. As he confesses to Ned Logan, he was drunk most of the time back then and that had a lot to do with him being so mean. The Schofield Kid is also not quite as advertised, either. If he could shoot as well as he could talk, he wouldn’t need these two old men.
True to its intent, Unforgiven treats its violence realistically. Shootings are quick and brutal while death is often slow and painful. No one bloodlessly slays a dozen bad guys from a bottomless six-gun.
The individuals who populate Big Whiskey are not divided into white hats and black hats, either. No one escapes without blood on their hands or without facing some consequence for their actions. Will Munny is an interesting choice for a protagonist. He is neither the smartest nor most capable person in the story. He’s a fairly simple and uncomplicated man who’s genuinely sorry for what he’s done in his life but who also seems to know no other way, now that the civilizing influence of his wife is gone. It’s also clear that Ned Logan has most of the brains and common sense of the pair. He doesn’t seem to have much reason to go along with Will, other than the fact that Will needs him around. In Ned’s case, loyalty overrides that common sense.
Little Bill is easily the most sharply drawn and interesting character here. As the face of law and civilization in Big Whiskey, he’s both gregarious and ruthless. He’s also probably not far from the truth of the real western lawman. Keeping order in these lawless towns often required that you keep a foot on each side of the law. Hackman does a masterful job of balancing Bill’s humor and his flinty brutality.
Unforgiven‘s great strength is the way it shows the reality of violence and its consequences without commentary. Virtually every plot point hinges on an act of violence and those that perpetrate them are neither angels or devils. The two cowboys who cut up the prostitute are drunk and stupid, not evil. In offering a bounty for the cowboys’ deaths, the women are sticking up for themselves when the law won’t. Little Bill genuinely wants to bring law, order and civilization to Big Whiskey, by any means necessary, and Will Munny only wants to feed his two kids.
In short, Unforgiven is the work of a great filmmaker playing at the top of his game.