What do we really know about the Old West? Most of us, regardless of age, probably have images in our memories of myriad Hollywood films with the Good Guys and the Bad Guys, as well as the hardworking farmers and store keepers, schoolmarms and pale women, saloonkeepers and dancehall queens. We can easily see dusty streets with horses and hitching posts, or the famous Monument Valley with tumbleweeds rolling around and beautiful sunsets framing everything. The plots are similar, the heroes larger-than-life and the Bad Guys never really win in the end. This is the Old West of directors like John Ford and William Wyler. No real controversies and we don’t usually see too far into anyone’s past or future for that matter. What do we ever really learn about Shane or Wild Bill Hickock or Wyatt Earp? During the 1950’s television spawned a plethora of “TV Westerns” that pretty much mirrored what the movies had been sending us for forty-odd years. There were some forays into deeper characterizations and relationships but essentially nothing had changed.
One Western movie in 1943 broke the mold and tried to explore what made people do things under certain circumstances. The Ox-Bow Incident dramatically tackled the story of men taking the law into their own hands, the problems and the aftermath of illegal actions. It was a ground-breaking film and certainly did not look like the typical western film of its day. In 1959 The Searchers, starring John Wayne, also breaks the western mold by following a small band of men on the trail of renegade Indians who’ve kidnapped a young girl (Natalie Wood). The problems of a difficult family-life in the Old West, arguments and confrontations as the searchers try and fail many times and the ultimate finale to save the girl, all presented a picture not seen before in the western vein. True, John Wayne played the typical John Wayne character but there were subtle differences as he displayed acting talents not always seen before. There is another actor, who’s been around for a while, that we’ve associated with strong silent types, who brought to life the Spaghetti Western in the 1970’s as well as other memorable one-of-a-kind characters: Clint Eastwood, who has made over seventy movies as an actor and directed thirty-two of them, including Unforgiven .
The plot of Unforgiven is relatively simple: some nasty cowboys cut up prostitutes and the prostitutes put up a $1000 reward to catch them. The town’s sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), who runs the town like a tyrant, discourages this behavior; he’d let the cowboys go free. Word travels into the countryside and reaches William Munny (Clint Eastwood), a retired killer who lives on a farm as a widower with two young children. He has apparently renounced his evil ways and wants nothing to do with it. His reputation as a totally ruthless person will, however, not let him live a quiet existence. But he badly needs money and accepts the job. He recruits a former colleague, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), also a retired gunfighter. As he is introduced we are meant to realize that there were African-American cowboys, farmers, ranchers and gunslingers back then. Together, along with a young wannabe gunfighter, they ride towards the town of Big Whiskey. Meanwhile, another famous gunfighter, English Bob (Richard Harris) has come into Big Whiskey to take up the challenge. Hackman makes an example of him and beats him nearly to death to show how powerful Little Bill is and shouldn’t be challenged.
The trio eventually catches up with the cowboys who had disfigured the prostitutes and kill them. They ride into town to collect the reward, Munny is beaten up and Morgan Freeman is killed by Little Bill. Munny seeks revenge after being nursed back to health by the prostitutes. The final confrontation in the saloon shows Munny, as he always was, violent, exhibiting little feelings about murdering the men there in cold blood, completely removed from the scene. He saves the final coup de grace for the sheriff. The audience is rooting for William Munny, even though he’s not a true “good guy.” Hackman’s performance is as always solid and we have no trouble interpreting Little Bill’s obvious cruelties and lust for power – albeit in a small, non-descript Western town.
Eastwood wanted the film to be a sort of epilogue for all the Western characters he had ever portrayed in his long career. How the loner sooner or later must make a choice between getting involved or not; taking sides and renouncing a past life. Bringing such stark reality to the western genre has been tried over the years by many directors. Eastwood’s own experiences playing so many characters made him more capable of this treatment.
Unforgiven garnered four Academy Awards out of nine nominations; nominated in 2008 as the fourth best Western film ever made; it’s on six of the AFI’s best lists; and registered with the National Film Registry. Not too shabby. Mr. Eastwood will continue making movies and garnering awards and accolades. He isn’t afraid to tackle controversy or express what others dare not. Like his many movies he too is a national treasure.
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