Let’s start with the obvious: Unforgiven is a masterpiece. Clint Eastwood’s gritty deconstruction of the western genre easily stands as one of the best of its kind. From start to finish, we are captivated by this dangerous world populated by men and women who use violence as a means to an end.
Starring Eastwood (who also directed), Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris, the epic galloped into theaters in August 1992 and quickly gained acclaim from critics and moviegoers alike. all told Unforgiven grossed a whopping $159m. against a $14.4 million budget and went on to win Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Hackman) and Best Film Editing. One could argue that two more awards should have been paid – for Eastwood’s performance (he lost to Scent of a woman “hoo-ah” screaming Al Pacino) and Jack N. Green’s amazing cinematography (the Oscar went to Philippe Rousselot for A river runs through it).
Does not matter. Eastwood has no need for pint-sized Hollywood awards. The iconic director/actor is aiming for something bolder and bigger, and so I think Unforgiven stands as his masterpiece; the piece de resistance in a story that continues to this day. And for an artist with a CV packed with classics like The good, the bad and the ugly, The outlaw Josey Wales, Dirty Harry, High Plains Drifter, Kelly’s Heroes, Mystic River, and Million Dollar Baby … that says something.
I could go on and on Unforgiven and echo the sentiments of Peter Travers, who in his review in Rolling stones magazine, called it “the most provocative Western of Eastwood’s career” and noted, “Weighing Munny’s rise to prosperity against his fall from grace, Eastwood gives Unforgiven a tragic stature that puts his own filmmaking past in a critical and moral perspective. In three decades of climbing in the saddle, Eastwood has never ridden so high.”
You’ve probably read it all before.
Instead, I’ll focus on my favorite scene from Unforgiven. Well, it isn’t to scene, but rather a smaller, quieter moment that occurs midway through the film that serves as the turning point in the story.
Unforgiven functions mostly as a traditional Western throughout its first hour. We are thrown into a familiar tale of revenge, meet a colorful cast of characters and set off on a grand adventure filled with campfires and atypical sweeping landscapes. That all changes about 50 minutes into the production, when Gene Hackman’s Little Bill beats the ever-loving crap out of Richard Harris’ English Bob and hauls him off to jail. This is where Eastwood reveals the true purpose behind this tale. Here, the director deconstructs the myth of the cowboy, blurring the lines between good and bad and setting the tone for the rest of the film as it lays the groundwork for the dark finale.
He also gives us one of the most intense standoffs in modern cinema. Let’s rewind.
English Bob is a notorious gunslinger who rides into the town of Big Whiskey hoping to collect a bounty on a pair of cowboys who cut up a local brothel worker. Bob, we quickly learn, has a knack for throwing guns and a talent for embroidering the truth, but has clearly let fame go to his head, as evidenced by the biographer (Saul Rubinek) currently attached to his persona. The residents of Big Whiskey treat Bob as a sort of English Elvis; his legend precedes him at every turn. All it takes is a mild game of “shoot the pheasant,” which Bob easily wins, for the challengers to sheathe their sidearms and take a step back; so famous is the mythos of the Englishman.
Except, in truth, that English Bob is just a man who became famous largely thanks to a lucky moment. We learn as much when Little Bill gleefully recounts Bob’s “legendary” tale as it actually happened:
The conversation gives way to “my favorite scene” or the standoff between Little Bill and English Bob:
I’ve seen this scene a thousand times and every viewing makes my heart race. There’s a lot to unpack here, from the way Bill demystifies the gunfighter legend by demonstrating the difficulty of drawing a weapon, aiming and killing a moving target; to the way in which Mr. Beauchamp attempts to create his own “iconic scene” that he hopes to exploit through his books.
Note Eastwood’s use of sound in the clip above. There is no music. Rain and thunder characterize the soundtrack. Old Westerns often scored gunfights with dramatic orchestrations laced with uplifting themes for the good guys and darker tunes for the bad guys. Watch this clip from the classic Dinner where Gary Cooper takes on some sinister villains and listens as Dimitri Tiomkin’s bombastic score punctuates the action:
The difference between Dinner and Unforgiven is that the former has clearly drawn heroes and villains who operate on very different sides of the law, while Unforgiven dipping their toes in darker water. During Bill’s standoff with Bob, there’s no need for music because we’re not sure who to root for. Little Bill has a badge and certainly seems like he has good intentions, but isn’t much better than the killers he abuses. It is no coincidence that as tensions rise in the prison, Eastwood places Bill behind bars in several shots, giving the impression that he deserves to be locked up with the criminals he so despises:
I always saw Bill as a man desperate samples being the good guy who too often mistakes violence and abuse for justice. His treatment of English Bob, for example, is a misguided attempt to condemn a man who has done no wrong:
After Bill’s mistreatment of Bob, the film escalates into a series of violent showdowns and showdowns.
At one point, Bill comes face to face with a weak and sick William Munny and seizes the opportunity to knock out the old cowboy. His directive is to scare the bejesus out of bounty hunters who ride into town intent on killing for a handful of cash. I should point out that Bill’s violent actions have little impact. William and his partner, the Schofield Kid, eventually murder the two wanted cowboys and collect the bounty. Ironically, if Bill had acted like an actual lawman rather than a violent psychopath, he may have saved the two boys’ lives. Instead, his actions incite more unnecessary violence and eventually lead to his own death.
Ironically, Bill calls English Bob in the jailhouse a pathetic coward for shooting one of his victims in the back. He is not wrong. Bob is a fake and a coward. However, Bill spends half the movie beating defenseless people to death. He literally murders Ned (Morgan Freeman) – a character who flatly refuses to kill – after a violent interrogation goes wrong and later displays his body for all to see.
In the end, Bill is more ruthless, cowardly and cold-blooded than the men he tries to prevent from entering his town. No matter, Little Bill gets what he deserves in the end Unforgiven’s amazing final scene:
The amazing thing is that Bill’s death is foreshadowed during his extensive conversation with Mr. Beauchamp in prison: “Look son,” he says, “to be a good shot, to be quick with a gun, it does no harm, but it doesn’t mean much beyond being cool in the head. A man who will keep head and not be rattled under fire, just as he will kill you.”
We see two examples of this scheme. First when Bill fights English Bob, and second during his final confrontation with William Munny. In the first, Bill is calm and composed – he even smiles! That’s because Bill knows the truth about Bob. He does not buy into the lies surrounding his person and knows that the Englishman will withdraw from a fair fight or end up dead. Bob represents the faux legend whose myths quickly unravel when you peel back the layers and look just below the surface.
In the second example, Bill goes toe-to-toe with an actual gunslinger with a known reputation – after all, Munny has killed women and children – and panics. In contrast, William Munny keeps his cool and manages to take out half a dozen men (including Bill) with relative ease. Munny is the legend we all long to see, but the cold truth is that he is a miserable old man haunted by his past deeds. Sir. Beauchamp will probably embellish his story and paint Munny as some kind of mythical figure, but we know the truth.
Ultimately, I could have chosen any number of scenes from Eastwood’s classic to explore. However, the prison kick has always been the moment when Unforgiven changed from being a really good western to perhaps the best western ever made. In the end, this might not be the old-school Hollywood cowboy adventure we all wanted, but it’s the movie we deserved.