FILMS

Back in the saddle

A master has the last word on westerns

Brian D. Johnson August 17 1992
FILMS

Back in the saddle

A master has the last word on westerns

Brian D. Johnson August 17 1992

Back in the saddle

FILMS

A master has the last word on westerns

UNFORGIVEN

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood has remade the myth of the American cowboy. He began his career in the saddle, playing the inscrutable Rowdy Yates in the 1960s TV series Rawhide. He then rode to cult status as the Man with No Name in the ironic, and iconic, spaghetti Westerns of Italian director Sergio Leone. And by the early 1970s, when he reemerged as the contemporary cowboy Dirty Harry, he was Hollywood’s biggest box-office star.

Eastwood is still best known as the squinting avenger who speaks softly and carries a big gun.

But after starring in 36 movies and directing 16, he has created a diverse body of work rivalled by no other actor-director, with the possible exception of Woody Allen. And like Allen, he has alternated movies that exploit his popular image with more personal films—notably Bird(1988), his brilliant portrait of jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker.

With Unforgiven,

Eastwood finally reconciles his directorial sensitivity with his gunslinger image. His new movie is a revisionist western that beautifully debunks the glory of gunplay—a western to end all westerns.

Unforgiven is essentially a tragicomedy about killing. Eastwood magnifies the myth of the Old West only to eviscerate it—while mocking his own image as an outlaw legend. Directing himself, he plays the straight man, deferring to a superb posse of co-stars: Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris. The director, who filmed in Alberta, also cast two Canadians in juicy supporting roles: Saul Rubinek and newcomer Jaimz Woolvett.

Eastwood, looking more photogenic than ever at the age of 62, portrays William Munny,

ex-outlaw and reformed alcoholic. He was once a cold-blooded killer. But 11 years have passed since Munny put down his gun and swore of! the bottle. He is now a chaste widower, a hog farmer raising two children on the Kansas prairie. But one day, a brash young punk who calls himself the Schofield Kid (Woolvett) pays him a visit. Hoping to make a name for himself as a killer, the Kid lures Munny out of retirement for a bounty hunt. Their quarry: a quick-tempered cowboy who took his knife to a prostitute’s face in a Wyoming town called Big Whiskey, for no good reason.

The town’s fascistic sheriff, an ex-gunman named Little Bill Daggett (Hackman), is determined to stop the bounty hunt. He makes a brutal example of a pompous gunman named English Bob (Harris), the first assassin drawn by the smell of blood money. He is accompanied by his biographer, W.W. Beauchamp, an unctuous dime-store novelist played with comic zest by Rubinek.

Meanwhile, Munny and the Kid follow the trail to Big Whiskey with Munny’s neighbor and former partner, a farmer named Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman). It soon becomes clear that each member of the trio has serious shortcomings. Munny has trouble climbing onto his horse and can barely remember how to use a gun. The Kid turns out to be half-blind. And although Logan can still fire a bullet through the eye of a flying bird, he gets gun-shy when hunting humans.

The result, as the drama canters towards violent confrontation, is a disarming sense of futility. Shootouts are interrupted by wonderfully off-kilter bits of dialogue, as if all the participants are confused about the rules of the killing game. Eastwood has starred in nine earlier westerns, but Unforgiven is the first in which the killers are overwhelmed by remorse.

It is a tale of vengeance in which no one really deserves to die. Ultimately, it is about the fear and cowardice that hide behind the bravado of one man shooting another. “It’s a helluva thing killing a man,” Munny reflects, “to take away all he’s got and all he’s going to have.”

Under Eastwood’s assured and graceful direction, the film moseys between elegy and satire. And the unhurried pace allows the script’s humor to poke through even in scenes of high drama, which strangely heightens the sense of realism. As an actor, Eastwood holds himself back, teasing out that inevitable moment when anger will finally transform him into the ruthless killer of old. By then, Eastwood the film-maker has already delivered what amounts to a moral essay on violence. And when he finally steps back into the role of Dirty Clint, it seems a black-humored homage to his roots.

With Unforgiven, Eastwood has taken the best of Sergio Leone’s operatic style and merged it with a contemporary moral vision. Shooting up the classic western, Eastwood picks off the heroic clichés one by one: the gunfight in the boulders, the campfire at night, the showdown in the saloon. But he resurrects the visual romance, with magnificent images that cut from shadow-rich interiors to bright, breathtaking Alberta skies. Eloquent and expansive, Unforgiven is arguably the best film of Eastwood’s career—a movie that could well serve as the last word on the western.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON