Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Unforgiven (1992)

Dir. Clint Eastwood
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris

I don’t know about you, but just reading the cast-list for Unforgiven got my mouth-watering. Clint Eastwood (directing again, as he directed The Bridges of Madison County and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) and Gene Hackman (only seen this year in Best Shot) facing off against each other? Supported by the Godlike Morgan Freeman and notorious Irish hellraiser Richard Harris? In a Western? Sign me up! 

The danger sometimes is that you can go into these things with expectations that are set too high. Some of the films I have enjoyed most this year completely blindsided me – like In Cold Blood or October Sky. Some I was looking forward to – like High Noon or The Shining – left me a little disappointed. I am happy to say that Unforgiven is a beautiful film with an intelligent script and a good meaty story. Oh yeah – and the cast ain’t too shabby either 

Like Shane, Unforgiven is a story about not being able to escape ones past. William Munny (Clint) is a widower struggling to raise two children on a farm that is failing. But once he was the most feared cold-blooded killer in the West. The love of a woman turned him away from violence and away from booze. But one day a youngster calling himself the Smithfield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) arrives on his doorstep. He knows of Munny’s reputation and wants him in on a job. In Big Whiskey, Wyoming, a prostitute was attacked by a cowboy. She lived but is terribly scarred. Her fellow whores are offering $1000 for whoever kills the two cowboys involved. Munny is in, but only for the money. He recruits his old partner Ned (Morgan Freeman). He tells Ned that he has changed, that he is no longer the killer he once was – unpredictable, violent, drunken.”I ain’t like that no more.I ain’t the same Ned. Claudia, she straightened me up, cleared me of drinkin’ whiskey and all. Just ‘cause we’re goin’ on this killin’, that don’t mean I’m gonna go bck to bein’ the way I was. I just need the money, get a new start for those youngsters.” As if that changes anything. 

And so the three head off across country. Munny is trying hard to cling on to the better man he became through his dead wife’s love. Ned realises that he no longer has it in him to kill a man. And the Kid is not the man he claims to be either; he is no five-time killer – and he is chronically short-sighted to boot. All of them come to appreciate that “It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.”

But Munny and Ned are not the only relics of the Old West. Little Bill Daggett (Hackman) is now Sheriff of Big Whiskey. It’s a quiet place and that’s the way he’d like it to stay. He has an ordinance that no guns are allowed in town. He wants to spend his time building his house on the outskirts of town with a porch upon which he can sit and watch the sun go down. The reward put up by the whores complicates the matter. He preferred to deal with the attack his own way. As Delilah (Anna Levine) had a contract with Skinny (Anthony James) it is a matter of damage to property – the cowboys have to compensate Skinny, Delilah’s ‘owner’. Now he has to prevent Big Wiskey becoming one big gunfight. He hopes that when he sends the first would-be bounty-hunter, Richard Harris’s ‘English Bob’ packing that would be an end of it. The arrival of Munny and Co threatens his authority. 

The flasher was caught red-handed

The problem is that the glamour and mystique of the West remains. Just as Little Joey in Shane idolises gunslingers there is still a fascination with the law of the West. Enter writer W. W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek). He arrives towed in the wake of one glamorous legend, English Bob, the ‘Duke (or “Duck” as Little Bill calls him) of Death’. When Little Bill takes glee in rubbishing his stories Beauchamp turns his attention to the sheriff. At the end of the film we can see him, clearly petrified, but still pumping Munny for information. He gazes after him in awe. Munny dreamt of the Angel of Death. Munny is that Angel. There is no romance in farming pigs or building a house; sadly, there is romance in shooting people dead. Even if the truth is never the same as the myth. Daggett tells Beauchamp the true story behind one of English Bob’s exploits. The actual killings of the two cowboys are not glamorous – one is shot in the belly and bleeds to death in a gulch, the other is shot on the crapper.

Like Shane, the moral is that you cannot change your past. In Shane the symbolic moment when the hero accepts his role is when Shane puts his buckskins back on again. In Unforgiven that moment is when Munny takes a swig of whiskey. Automatically that improves his aim. In vino veritas. What are we to make of the Munny we see at the end? He is badass, standing up for his friend. He unleashes an Old West hell on Big Whiskey – the sort of hell that Little Bill wanted to keep the town safe from. Little Bill’s aims are laudable; unfortunately, his methods are those of the Old West. He displays Ned’s body as a warning to others – this just serves to get Munny riled. Little Bill wants a clean village free of the wrath and violence he has lived through, but his reactions breed them. Like Little Bill Munny commits an act for the right reasons - protecting his friend - but the only way he knows how to do that is all guns blazing. Who is the hero: the stone-cold killer or the gentle pig-farmer? 

The film is beautifully acted and shot. It deserves its four Oscars (Best Film, Director, Editing and Supporting Actor for Hackman). Harris and Rubinek provide comic relief, Eastwood and Freeman encapsulate the old timers back for one last job. I probably found Hackman’s Daggett the most fascinating character, a lawman prepared to act outide the law to keep the peace. All of the latter characters are struggling to correlate the two aspects of their natures – the side that wants peace and the side that is prepared to kill to get it. Altogether it is a thought-provoking companionpiece to Shane. It is the story of the men that made the West struggling to shape it in line with their own ideals. And its moral is that you cannot hide from your past no matter how hard you try. 

What have I learnt about Wyoming?
Much like Shane Unforgiven is set on the cusp of great changes in the West. The frontier was being tamed – unlike Shane Big Whiskey has a Sheriff (with many deputies) and is reachable by train. Yet elements of the Old West remain. Sheriffs can give people extra-legal beatings. Taverns are stocked with whores who are treated as property. A man can earn a living “shooting Chinese for the Railroad”; the mystery is not that Chinese labourers can be shot without repurcussions but that the Railroad would hire someone to do it for them. Trying to forge one’s own path seems fraught with troubles – Munny’s pig farm seems very marginal. Taking orders as a hired cowhand seems to be much more profitable. 

Can we go there?
Unlike Shane this film was not shot on location in Wyoming. Instead, like so may other Westerns we have seen this year it was shot up in Alberta near Calgary. The town of Big Whiskey and Little Bill’s cabin was constructed specifically for the movie around Longview; the buildings were demolished after use. Spoil sports. Likewise the Munny pigfarm around Brooks and Ned’s farm in the vicinity of Drumheller (somewhat appropriately ‘The Dinosaur Capital of the World’). The only sequence shot in the U.S. was English Bob’s train journey – this was filmed at the Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown, California. 

Overall Rating: 4/5

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