Review: Unforgiven (1992)


It was in his twenty-second year of film direction that Clint Eastwood finally fully realized the incredible potential he had for decades demonstrated in his work both before and behind the camera. A filmmaker famed for taking the western and repeatedly reviving it with the cinematic mainstream, Eastwood took to the genre a fourth and final time with Unforgiven. The film earned four Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director, was nominated for five more including Best Actor for Eastwood, and is regularly cited as one of the greatest westerns of all time.

A murdering and thieving outlaw turned honest farmer, William Munny honours his marriage to the recently deceased Claudia by diligently raising their two young children and eking out a frugal but noble existence. Struggling to keep food on his table, Munny is brought back to his wicked ways by the prospect of a hefty bounty, setting out with two others to kill the men responsible for the mutilation of a prostitute.

Having scored Eastwood’s films since his debut Play Misty for Me, Lennie Niehaus provides the theme tune for Unforgiven, a deceptively simple and devastatingly effective lament entitled “Claudia’s Theme”. The heartfelt sounds compliment the silhouetted form of Munny as he trudges across a sunset landscape from his house to the grave of his wife; before we even see this character, we begin to understand the genuineness of his turning his back on his previous life. Playing on his own reputation as a genre icon, Eastwood uses his established character from the beginning to demolish the traditional image of western masculinity, this former gunslinger reformed by the purifying influence of his angelic wife to the extent that he even refuses whiskey, the key ingredient of any cowboy’s diet. The ideals which run clear within the film are those instilled in Munny by his wife, the regular repetition of Niehaus’ theme reminding us again and again of just how difficult it is for Munny to depart from his life of peace. He is a hopelessly torn character, divided between upholding the essence of betterment instilled by this influential woman and revisiting the buried killer inside to allow the completion of his inevitably violent task. The burden of this upon him is agonizingly believable— Eastwood giving what will be remembered as the greatest performance of his career— and his sagacious lines and rueful phraseology serve to remind us of his inner torment. “It’s a helluva thing, killing a man,” he informs an aspiring young gunslinger who idolizes that within Munny which he himself despises, “you take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.” Aided by the frail performance of Jaimz Woolvett as the aforesaid gunslinger and a notably aged and emotionally wearied Eastwood, the quiet tragedy of this scene may constitute the finest work the director has ever produced. Eastwood may be recognized as a definitive icon of the American west, but with Unforgiven he proves himself rather as its starkest iconoclast, deconstructing and re-evaluating much of the gunslinging stoic masculinity postulated by his forebears. There is no heroism in this landscape, the film informs us, just amorality and emptiness. There is no glory in callous murder; no gallantry in a life of hideous violence. Eastwood reinforces this with his camera, shying away from the panoramic views of a brightly lit Monument Valley and instead showing us lifeless vales of decaying growth hidden from the rays of the sun by an almost constant covering of dark cloud.

More directly than these visual cues, the film’s narrative addresses the vast gulf of contrast between the portrayal of the west and its brutal reality, employing the character of English Bob to comment upon the romantic fictionalization inherent within almost every incarnation of the western. English Bob, infused with an energetic alacrity by the late Richard Harris, drew criticism from journalists upon the film’s initial release; why, they asked, is such an ultimately insignificant character given such significant screen time? Bob, even more so his biographer, serves the crucial purpose of highlighting the manner in which the misguided aestheticism of western lore has been propagated through its telling in fiction. Unforgiven does away with the conceits of this fiction, disposing of the black and white concepts of good and evil which so often dictate the genre’s characters. One of the film’s four Oscars went to Gene Hackman for his supporting role as sheriff Little Bill Daggett, whose efforts to ward off all those seeking the same bounty Munny pursues disrupt his attempts to build himself a home on the fringes of the town. Like Munny, Daggett’s sole solace lies in the very idea of home: a place of refuge from the dark world in which he, a former gunfighter, has spent the majority of his life. Neither Munny nor Daggett is the good guy in this equation, each of them sacrificing their scruples and abandoning their morals at various points. One is not, as was the case in the westerns of old, the antithesis of the other; rather, they are essentially the same character: a man who seeks nothing more than to settle down, but who is inescapably and invariably tied to his prior life of gruesome violence. The climactic scene wherein the two inevitably face off is, in essence, Munny facing his own dark past and the darkness within him. Either he will destroy it, or it him. As the final scene repeats the first, and the orchestral accompaniment to “Claudia’s Theme” swells, the credits roll on one of the great masterpieces of American cinema.

Unforgiven is deeply intelligent and quietly ruminative, abound with issues of morality: the questioning thereof; the ambiguity of its implementation; the justification of its subjugation. Its richly philosophical screenplay finds its match in the hands of Eastwood, whose distinct visual style compliments the thematic and tonal blackness of the material. Redressing a century of mainstream cinematic misapprehensions and misgivings about the heroism and glory of violence, Unforgiven boldly exposes the reality behind the mythology. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance instructed us that “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. With Unforgiven, Eastwood demolishes the legend, pushing it aside and giving us the hideous reality of the facts from which romanticized storytelling has distracted us. As Munny faces his demons in the showdown scene with Daggett, so too does Eastwood finally pin down and grapple one last time with the themes he has struggled with throughout all his films, but particularly his westerns. Closing a key chapter of the director’s life, Unforgiven is a farewell to the American west, an iconoclastic yet elegiac re-evaluation of the false mythology Eastwood himself helped built, and perhaps the single greatest entry in the history of the western genre.

100/100 - Redressing a century of mainstream cinematic misapprehensions and misgivings about the heroism and glory of violence, Unforgiven boldly exposes the reality behind the mythology.

Ronan Doyle

Having spent the vast majority of my life sharing in the all too prevalent belief than cinema is merely dumbed-down weekend escapism for the masses, I was lucky enough to turn on a television at the exact right moment to have my perspectives on the medium completely transformed. Those first two and a half hours marked the beginning of a new life revolving around—maybe even depending upon—the screen and the depth of artistry, intellectual stimulation, and emotional exhilaration it can provide.
  • Christopher Misch

    There are two masterpieces of the western genre, The Searchers and Unforgiven. And oh what films they are.