“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.
“All right, I’m coming out. Any man I see out there, I’m gonna shoot him. Any sumbitch takes a shot at me, I’m not only gonna kill him, but I’m gonna kill his wife, all his friends, and burn his damn house down.”
The Western might just be the most American of all movie genres. It might be decades since its heyday, but we still get westerns every few years, and every few years, we get pretty good ones. There are arguments to be made for things like The Searchers or The Wild Bunch to take the title of greatest western of all time, and they’re good arguments. While I’d never say The Unforgiven is the greatest of all time, I can’t think of a single western that’s come since that would rival it. So having said that, what makes The Unforgiven the last great American Western?
In the slightly more than one horse town of Big Whiskey, a drunken cowboy doesn’t just get too handsy with a local whore, he gets too knifey. With the girl scarred for life, the local sheriff (Gene Hackman as Little Bill) demands the cowboy and his mate deliver a few horses to the whorehouse owner as reparations. When they decide that a few ponies don’t quite cut the mustard as far as punishments, the whores pool their money and put the word out, they’ll pay $1,000 to anyone who kills the blade happy cowboys.
Meanwhile, Bill Munny (Clint Eastwood) is trying to separate some sick hogs from healthy ones with the help of his two young children. But his quiet farm life is soon disrupted by the arrival of The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvelt). A nephew of one of Munny’s old colleagues, the Kid dredges up Munny’s past as a cold hearted killer for hire in an attempt recruit Munny in his mission to earn the whore’s bounty. Reformed by the dead mother of his children, Munny hasn’t fired a gun in anger in years, but it’s those same children, and wanting the best for them, that makes this one last job a necessity.
On the road to Big Whiskey, Munny insists on picking up his old killn’ partner, Ned (Morgan Freeman). With the bounty public knowledge, Little Bill does his best to ready Big Whiskey for an influx of killers, wannabe killers and fame whores, like Richard Harris as English Bob.
For a movie about hired killers, The Unforgiven holds back on the killing for an amazingly long time, and that’s the key to what is so amazing about this movie. This isn’t some classic Hollywood version of the west where guns never ran out of bullets and killing was something that came easy to everyone with a six shooter on their belt. Killing matters in the world of The Unforgiven. The person pulling the trigger is hurt just as much as the dude catching the bullet, the gunman just dies on the inside.
The Unfiorgiven wants to make sure you know killing matters. Killing takes its toll and killing isn’t something you ever get used to. Which is why Clint Eastwood was the perfect person to direct and star in it. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone now, or even in 1992 when it was made, who understands the genre on both sides of the camera as well as Eastwood. And it’s that understanding that means he can make this movie that puts classic Westerns in their place, while never disrespecting them. He just kind of draws a line between then and now (well, the now off 1992), and puts that era to rest.
Best Supporting Actor – Hackman
Best Original Screenplay (nominated, lost to Neil Jordon for The Crying Game)