“Deserve doesn’t come into it.”
The best westerns are myths that tell a story about the time that they were written. The certainties that were present in the genre during the hey-day of the 1930s start to erode during the 1950s and the popularity was diminishing during the 1980s. The best picture Oscar went to DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990), Kevin Costner’s revisionist, post-colonial take on the despoiling of native America, and seemed to mark a resurgence of interest in the capabilities of the western. UNFORGIVEN is as much about Hollywood and the moribund state of the star system in the later end of the 20th Century than it is about the historical west. The film is bookended by a log shot of a homestead in the shadow of a glorious sunset. There’s a sense that the sun is setting on the western too.
UNFORGIVEN is an almost perfect piece of film writing by David Webb Peoples, who also co-wrote Blade Runner, brought to life by assured direction of a brilliant cast and superb, dark cinematography to tell a relatively simple story concerning the desire of revenge by a group of prostitutes who raise the bounty to kill a cowboy who has cut the face of one of their number. William Munny is a killer turned farmer who is brought out of retirement for ‘one last job’ by the effusive Schofield Kid. He is a reformed character thanks to his now dead wife and the film doesn’t make clear what actually convinces him to leave his children and his idyllic life on the farmstead to search for the gang who harmed the woman. The children’s names, Will and Penny, may give a clue, but it is more about demonstrating an old-fashioned masculine sense of duty to avenge the harming of a woman. Munny is a sensitive soul who agrees to the mission on condition that Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) joins them and has a cut of the bounty.
There’s a key scene where the three of them ambush the cowboys. Freeman is unable to make the killing shot, the young Schofield kid is unable to see what’s happening due to being short-sighted and the wise, taciturn Munny calmly takes control of the situation – his skills with a gun maybe rusty – but he is a professional (like a hero from a Ford western).
Little Bill (Gene Hackman) is a ruthless lawman who is concerned with upholding the peace at any cost, certainly at the expense of justice, he shows a brutality that recalls an attitude like Harry Callaghan. He is concerned with the creation of his own myth, when he humiliates English Bob (Richard Harris) and runs him out of town, he retains the writer who Bob has employed to produce popular pamphlets of his memoir (The Duke of Death, or “Duck of Death” as Little Bill playfully suggests) he wants his story to be told. He captures Logan and brutally torturers him to reveal the whereabouts of his companions.
Something changes in Munny. He begins to drink and finds his killer instinct, recalling his roles as the avenging angel in HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973), HANG ‘EM HIGH (1968) and PALE RIDER (1985). He becomes more like the spit and saw dust hero from a Howard Hawks western. The final showdown is brilliantly paced and is a hallmark Webb People’s confrontation that deals with the ethics of killing at the same time as creating a sense of tension in the darkness and crashing thunder.
As Clint makes his final shot and returns to the Homestead, its clear that he is never going to be a gunslinger again, that time has gone.