It is hard to believe it has been 20 years since Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven was released. The film now arrives on Blu-ray in a 20th Anniversary Blu-ray Book Edition and is just as powerful as when I saw it on the big screen.
Arguably Eastwood’s best film and one of the greatest westerns ever made, this new edition comes loaded with features including four documentaries, the classic Maverick episode “Duel at Sundown” (which featured a 29-year-old Eastwood), the theatrical trailer, and commentary from Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel. The real prize to the new edition is the 54-page book that is filled with production notes, behind the scenes photos, profiles on the cast and crew, and looks at the script.
There is also a letter from Eastwood about how the film (originally called The William Munny Killings in 1980) was passed over by one of his script readers because it was too violent and then found its way back to him. The quality of the picture and sound make the Blu-ray worth the double dip, but the book makes it a needed addition to the collection of any fan of the western genre, Eastwood or movies.
Released in 1992, Unforgiven took home four Academy Awards – including Best Picture (only the third western to ever win the award), Best Director, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (for Gene Hackman), and Best Film Editing. Eastwood was also nominated for Best Actor for his performance in the film, but lost to Al Pacino – who was nominated for Scent of a Woman.
Directed by Eastwood from a script by David Webb Peoples (who penned the screenplay for Blade Runner), the film starred Eastwood, Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris, Jaimz Woolvett, Saul Rubinek, Frances Fisher, and Anna Levine.
The film features a realistic feel to its western setting with every character seeming to be weighted down by the hard life of the time. It opens with violence as local prostitute Delilah Fitzgerald (Levine) is assaulted by two cattle hands after she gave a giggle at seeing one of them nude. The men cut up her face before being pulled off her by the bar’s owner Skinny Dubois (Anthony James).
Although the women, led by Strawberry Alice (Fisher), want the men hung, Big Whiskey Marshall Little Bill Daggett (Hackman) first threatens to whip them and eventually just issues a fine to the men. They are ordered to bring Skinny some horses to cover his cost for shipping Delilah to Big Whiskey and the money he is going to lose now that her face is cut up.
Outraged, the prostitutes come up with a plan to put out a bounty on the two men promising money for their deaths. This leads the ‘Schofield Kid’ (Woolvett) to look up the famous killer Will Munny on the advice of a relative. The relative told him if he needed to go on a killing Munny was the gun to have go with him. Munny assures him that was a lifetime ago and that his dead wife cured him of his drinking and killing ways.
After the Kid leaves, Munny reconsiders the offer and the need he has for the money to give his two kids a chance. He says his goodbyes to the kids, visits his wife’s grave and heads out to find his old killing partner Ned Logan (Freeman) – who is now a farmer. The men hook up with the Kid (who happens to be blind as a bat), and head to Big Whiskey as Munny is haunted by his past and the evil things he did.
While the killers are heading to Big Whiskey, Eastwood and company introduces the audience more to Hackman’s Little Bill Daggett and his somewhat questionable ways of enforcing the law. Despite the fact that he is building a house and seems to be a somewhat good man, it is clear that Daggett can be very cruel – as seen in his beating of English Bob (Harris) and his pistol whipping of an ill Munny (who Daggett suspects might be in town to collect the bounty). This cruelty is due to the life he has led, the times he lives in, and the kind of outlaws he has spent a career fighting.
The film takes its time getting the killers to Big Whiskey and then slowly builds the tension as they begin their killing work. The first killing sees Munny and Ned having to come to grip with their old life as they ambush one of the cowboys. The encounter proves to be more than Ned can take and he leaves promising to look in on Munny’s children. The second killing rips at the soul of the Kid as he guns down the cowboy in an outhouse.
Ned doesn’t get far and is captured by cowboys from the ranch and turned over to Daggett for questioning. Daggett tortures Ned and eventually kills him. Ned’s death and the fact he is put on display in front of Skinny’s bar pushes Munny fully into his old life and sends the character to a final showdown with Daggett and Ned’s killers.
Unforgiven is a powerful movie that works on a variety of levels. The film truly has no truly redeemable characters and there is no clear-cut good guy/bad guy. Eastwood’s Munny is a man haunted by his past and the evil he did. His wife changed his ways, but the time and need for money forces him into going back to the lifestyle. After Ned’s death, Munny comes full circle and seems to embrace his old life of killing.
Hackman’s Daggett should be the man in the white hat with the gold star, but his violence and cruelty makes his character vile. You see signs of a good man when he talks about building his house, but he follows up those glimpses with the beating of Ned, or tormenting of English Bob. By the time the final showdown happens, there is little to distinguish Munny from Dagget and as Eastwood states they all have it coming.
There is some redemption in the ending which sees Munny returning to his wife’s grave and a title card stating that it was rumored he left with his family and moved to San Francisco for a new life.
The film shows Eastwood at his finest. The actor/director creates a character that feels like a continuation and aging of some of his early western creations (such as The Man with No Name) and how the genre itself had grown from the classic black/white hat characters to something grounded in reality and weighing the effects of the violence that surround its world.
This Blu-ray edition celebrates the film (which only seems to be getting better with age) and offers fans a detailed look into the making of it and its impact. It is well worth the price of the upgrade and easy to recommend.
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