Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Unforgiven: A cold-blooded killer of a movie

Part 6 of a 10-part series in which I examine my favorite films, and the reasons why I love them so.

If you take a look at my top 10 list of favorite movies, you'll notice that my taste very rarely coincides with the Academy awards voters or the critics at the American Film Institute (AFI). To put it bluntly, you won't see Conan the Barbarian or Excalibur cracking many reviewers' top 10 lists.

Unforgiven is an exception to that rule.The western to end all westerns, director and starring man Clint Eastwood in 1992 delivered what I consider to be the finest film ever made in this particular genre. It won Best Picture and Best Director honors that year, among other awards, and at last check it sits at no. 68 at the AFI's best "100 Years...100 Movies" list.

I can't say I've seen every western, or even the majority, but I have watched a lot of good ones--The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (along with just about every other Eastwood western), The Searchers, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Magnificent Seven, and others I've forgotten--and for my money Unforgiven is the best.

Unlike Europe, America is too young a country to have knights on horseback as its heroes, but in the westerns Americans had their own paragons of virtue, men like John Wayne or Shane. Prior to Unforgiven, these westerns were one of the last refuges of the myth of the white-hatted hero, where virtuous sheriffs battled black-hatted cow thieves or masked train-robbers. Morality is simple in these films--there are lawmen and bandits, and you know who to root for and who would win in the end.

While some cracks in this facade first appeared in the spaghetti westerns of the late 1960s and 70s (with their shades of grey characters and bloody gun battles), Unforgiven shattered the myth of the knight-as-cowboy completely and forevermore.

Eastwood portrays William Munny, an aging gunfighter who is living a sad, squalid life as a pig farmer trying to raise two young children. He's recently buried his wife and is living out his days trying to get by as best as he can. When some drunken powpokes rough up some whores and cut up one of the unfortunate woman's faces, and the other prostitutes put a modest bounty on the cowpokes' heads, Munny decides to take up his guns once more.

Watching Eastwood try to regain his old form with a gun or to ride a horse is borderline comical. But when it comes time to pull the trigger, we realize that it's not his skill with a gun that makes Munny a different breed--it's his cold-blooded approach to killing. Although he admits to being drunk on whiskey much of the time during his days as a killer, Munny holds no illusions about death. He is the meanest, most dangerous man walking because he is able to look death coldly in the face, recognizing it for what it is:

It's a hell of a thing, killin' a man. You take away all he's got, and all he's ever gonna have.

Just like Eastwood is no hero, neither are the men evil whom he and his companions seek to kill. Their leader, Little Bill Daggett (played by Gene Hackman in a remarkable role) isn't very likeable but is three-dimensional, a man who's trying his best to build a house in which he can retire. Another of the cowpokes asks for forgiveness and offers to give up his best horses to the women. Despite their deeds, it's hard to feel hate for these men. But Munny pulls the trigger with no remorse.

"Guess he had it coming, huh?" asks one of Munny's companions, a braggart who nicknames himself The Scofield Kid, but later drops his act and vows to leave gunfighting forever when he finds that killing isn't what the legends make it up to be. "We all have it coming, kid," Munny replies.

My favorite parts of this movie are watching the dark legend of Munny's past unfold itself from Eastwood's craggy, weathered features. Men and women, young and old, stand in awe of his legend. In disbelief they spill it out, using names and places that mean nothing to us, the viewer, but speak of murderous deeds:

My guess is you're call yourself Mr. William Munny...the same one who shot Charlie Pepper up in Lake County. You're the one who killed William Harvey and robbed that train up in Missouri.

He said how you was really William Munny out of Missouri ...and Little Bill said, 'the same William Munny that dynamited the rock island in Pacific in '69, killing women and children and all?' And Ned said you done a lot worse than that. He said that you were more cold-blooded than William Bonny, and how if he hurt Ned again that you was coming to kill him, like you killed a U.S. Marshall in '70.

One of my favorite scenes in all of cinema occurs at the end when Munny, vengeful and looking like the grim reaper himself, rides into town on a pale horse and enters Greeley's saloon to avenge his slain friend Ned (Morgan Freeman):

Who's the fellow owns this shithole? You, fat man. Speak up.

You'd be William Munny out of Missouri. Killer of women and children.

That's right. I've killed women and children. I've killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another. And I'm here to kill you, Little Bill, for what you did to Ned.

What comes next is killing. It's not prosaic, no guns are shot from hands, there's no accompanying glory and spectacle. It's bloody revenge, the real myth of the cowboy laid plain and bare.


Anonymous said...

Rock Island and Pacific

Anonymous said...

It's a great movie and very potent condemnation of guns and violence, which ultimately is what raises it over the top.