By Scott Ross
What are often, reflexively, referred to as “revisionist” Westerns — which is applied to almost anything that isn’t strictly white hat/black hat and would thus have to include everything from The Searchers (1956) and the James Stewart-Anthony Mann projects to the 1968 True Grit and Bite the Bullet (1976) — are, just as frequently, merely variations on a formula, or pictures that take a dirtier, more realistic view of what was, after all, a place and a period of physical filth, covetousness, racist land-grabbing, brutality and murder alternating with back-breaking toil and intense boredom. It was a surprise of no small dimensions, therefore, that the actor who embodied the worst impulses toward extra-legal civic fascism as “Dirty” Harry Callahan should be drawn to David Peoples’ examination of the mechanics of violence: It’s deliberate, mercenary planning, and the cost of it, both to the victims and the perpetrators. Clint Eastwood purchased People’s screenplay and labored quietly for years to get it made. When he eventually did, he won the first of his two Oscars™ for directing and respect from people who’d dismissed him with prejudice years before. But he was always a good filmmaker, sometimes even (as with the 1976 The Outlaw — Josey Wales) a great one.
An appalling act of sexual rage spirals downward, until very few of the participants are left standing, or living whole, and the only victor, if we can even call him that, is the youth (Jaimz Woolvett) who fancies himself a hardened killer and who, confronted by the actual effects of cold-blooded killing, is shattered by it. Along the way, Eastwood and Peoples give us a rich, almost novelistic, panoply of characters: The widowed farmer Will Munny (Eastwood), a reformed killer and ex-alcoholic who sees a contract murder as the way out of the grinding poverty he and his two small children endure; the puffed-up pulp-fiction gentleman killer English Bob (Richard Harris, in a marvelous portrayal) whose reputation is built on a lie; his literary amanuensis W. W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), ever eager for a new hero to gild; the seemingly benign sheriff “Little Bill” Daggett (Hackman) who reveals himself a petty sadist with a particular penchant for whipping miscreants and for beating up old men, especially when surrounded by armed deputies; the former hired gunman Ned (Morgan Freeman) who knows his best days are behind him and who joins Munny more for the sake of fellowship, and reviving his past, than for fiscal gain; Woolvett’s boastful Schofield Kid, living on a braggadocio that serves to camouflage his two related secrets — his extreme myopia and his total innocence; the young cowboy (Rob Campbell) who abets an atrocity and shyly attempts to atone for it; the whore Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher) whose refusal to back down on her need for vengeance reduces everything of vital importance to dollars and a warped sense of justice; and the sweet-faced, gentle young prostitute Delilah (Anna Levine) whose disfigurement at the hands of an enraged john sets the whole, grimy, hellish business in motion. When Unforgiven is over you feel you’ve been immersed in a complete way of life, from the meanest pig-farm to the lovely but lopsided dream-house of a man who, fatally, thinks he’s the brightest person around.
Peoples, who wrote the original script (then entitled The William Munny Killings) in 1976 and, as David Webb Peoples, later collaborated with his wife Jane on the Oppenheimer documentary The Day After Trinity (1980) and the brilliant dystopian fantasy 12 Monkeys (1995), has an enviable gift not merely for literacy — rare enough in American movies — but for the silence that speaks volumes. While there is much about Unforgiven that is unblinkingly stark, yet little sparks of humor break through, as when “Little Bill” deliberately misreads Beauchamp’s depiction of English Bob (“The Duke of Death”) as “The Duck of Death,” which so amuses him he never calls him anything else. Peoples gives his characters breathing room, and his screenplay is decorated with grace-notes, like the lovely scene between Delilah and Munny, in which two sad, lonely people attempt to reach each other, ultimately defeated by the width of the abyss between them, or the long sequence in which The Kid reveals himself to Munny as the older man stands watching the horizon, awaiting the arrival of his payment for the contracted killings which encompasses necessary action with character-defining dialogue in the most beautifully economic fashion imaginable. And the performances match, and often exceed, the rich material, as do Eastwood’s spare, supple direction, the beautifully weathered sets by the veteran Henry Bumstead — Munny’s one-room farmhouse looks as though it would fall over if you blew too hard on it, and when the doors are open there’s virtually nothing between them — and the astonishingly lyrical cinematography by Jack N. Green. Lennie Niehaus’ score is less impressive, but is at least is not obtrusive, and includes an achingly beautiful theme for Munny’s dead wife (“Claudia’s Theme”) which becomes a soft, plaintive elegy, not merely for a woman we never see, but for Munny’s troubled soul.
Unfortunately, many of his critics at the time saw Unforgiven as bifurcated, largely because of Eastwood’s response to Hackman’s assertion, just before he’s shot, that he “doesn’t deserve this,” which they took (foolishly, in my view) as a typical Eastwood audience applause line. They were obviously looking for a reason to dismiss what they’d just seen. Were they not listening to that other phrase of Munny’s, spoken to The Kid (“It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man. You take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have”) which sums up everything? Did they not see the way the process of meeting his obligations destroys all of Munny’s resolve and all he attempted to be for his beloved wife’s memory, and reverts him to his former cold, drunken, murderous self? Were they incapable of noticing that it is Bill’s self-righteous hubris that leads to Ned’s death, and his own? All they heard was, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” Aha! Dirty Harry speaks! For them, that line negated everything the movie was saying about violence, and about the cost to the human soul of perpetrating it.
Reactive critics are a large part of the reason almost no one in America attempts to make complex movies. What’s the point, when what you’re trying to say is going to be so idiotically misinterpreted?
Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross