'Unforgiven', the Ultimate Revisionist Western, Turns 30 | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

‘Unforgiven’, the Ultimate Revisionist Western, Turns 30 

Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood‘s classic Western from 1992, is seen as a crowing achievement in Eastwood’s career, and not only because it won Best Picture and three other Oscars, making it the last Western to win Best Picture. 

'Unforgiven', the Ultimate Revisionist Western, Turns 30 | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

But, because it was widely viewed as a valedictory moment for Eastwood, delivering a revisionist, counterintuitive commentary on a genre with which he had long been associated. And that it is in no way diminished by Eastwood continuing to make more movies for the ensuing three decades. 

The film arrived in August of 1992, 30 years ago this week. Directed by Eastwood and starring David Webb Peoples, Unforgiven was structured like a traditional Western, but went against many of the key assumptions of the genre, seeing destruction and misery in most of the traditional trappings of Westerns, starting with killing. 

Eastwood stars in the film as Will Munny, a retired, widowed outlaw who cares for his two young children while working as a farmer. It’s established that Munny, in addition to his outlaw past, was also an alcoholic in this former life, and the film establishes that the killing, much like the drinking, was a destructive addiction. 

The Plot

The plot is set in motion in Wyoming when a pair of cowboys slash the face of a sex worker after she laughs at the small penis of one of them. Local sheriff “Little Bill” Daggett (Gene Hackman, in one of his greatest roles) reacts by taking horses from the cowboys but doesn’t punish them in any other way. 

The prostitutes respond by putting a bounty on the heads of the cowboys, and Will reluctantly agrees to come out of retirement and go after it, along with his old running buddy Ned (Morgan Freeman) and “The Schofield Kid” (Jaimz Woolvett), an upstart young outlaw who boasts of his past killing conquests. 

The plot mostly proceeds as Westerns typically do, but there’s something else going on here: Namely, Will Munny clearly sees killing and bounty-chasing as corrosive to the soul, and his return to the game as a sort of relapse (he starts drinking again, too).

The bounty plot wraps itself up about a half hour from the end of the movie, because it’s not ultimately what Unforgiven is about. This is also crystalized in the character of W.W. Beauchamp, a journalist who’s there to write a book romanticizing the Old West, only to get there and realize it’s actually nihilistic and brutal. 

This leads to the film’s most important emotional moment, when the Scofield Kid, after successfully shooting one of the cowboys, goes in just two minutes from drunken boasting to regretful crying to renouncing violence altogether. Woolvett, who never really had much of a career of note besides this movie, absolutely nails the scene, while holding his own alongside such heavyweights as Eastwood, Hackman, and Freeman. 

Eastwood Still At It

And if Eastwood seemed like an old man when he made Unforgiven, when he was around 60. In last year’s pseudo-Western Cry Macho, which he starred in and directed at age 91, Eastwood played a ranch hand who is sent to Mexico on a dangerous mission, and his advanced age was somewhat mitigated by him having a rooster to save him from peril multiple times, sort of like an animal from a Pixar movie. And even though, Clint was still being revisionist, declaring at one point “that macho stuff is overrated.”

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