She was a comely young woman,
and not without prospects.
Therefore it was heartbreaking
to her mother that she would
enter into marriage with
William Munny, a known thief
and murderer, a man of
notoriously vicious and
When she died, it was not at
his hands as her mother might
have expected, but of smallpox.
That was 1878.
“Unforgiven” tells the story of the widower William Munny, played by legendary film star Clint Eastwood. As we’re informed by the opening scroll (above), Munny was a former thief and murderer who lost his wife to smallpox in 1878. Now he is raising their two children by himself on a small farm out on the prairie.
Prior to her death, Munny’s wife reformed him. He makes an honest living for himself now, and no longer drinks, or kills, or even cusses.
So when Munny is told “You don’t look like no rootin’ tootin’ cold blooded assassin,” as we first see him, it’s true. He certainly no longer is those things. He’s now a pig farmer and a father. A reformed man who hasn’t drawn a gun on someone in over ten years.
When a prostitute is viciously cut up in the nearby town of Big Whiskey, the rest of her brothel raises a reward for the killing of the men who defaced her.
It’s this bounty that brings the “Scofield Kid” to seek Munny out. The kid is young and foolhardy. But he’s heard of Munny, and his prior deeds. He informs Munny of the reward and asks then asks him to join in.
It happens that Munny is facing hard times. While it’s not something he wants to do, he needs the money. Plus it seems as though they’d be serving justice. “The Kid” overstates how badly the men cut up the girl. And so, Munny sets off. He recruits an old friend along the way, Ned, played by Morgan Freeman, and together they ride off towards Big Whiskey to catch up with the “Scofield Kid” and then avenge the whore and collect the bounty.
Big Whiskey is run by a Sheriff called “Little Bill” Daggett played by Gene Hackman in an Academy Award winning role.
Bill is certainly an ambiguous character. On the one hand, he’s not the stereotypical evil sheriff, ruling the town with an iron fist, lording over a fearful citizenry. He’s jovial, he’s liked. He’s (poorly) building a house on the outskirts of town. It seems as though his heart is in the right place, and all the things he’s doing are to protect Big Whiskey. While he’s supposed to be the town’s lawman, his methods are reprehensible. He hands out vicious beatings, whippings and killings in order to warn off others.
“Little Bill” doesn’t allow firearms in Big Whiskey. And that’s a problem with a host of bounty hunters on their way to collect on the prostitute’s reward offer.
The trio of Munny, Ned and the Scofield Kid make their way cross the countryside, struggling against the elements and each other. After riding through the rain, Munny arrives at Big Whiskey ill. He encounters “Lil Bill” and his gang and winds up getting beaten within an inch of his life. He has to be taken out of town to be nursed back to health by the whores.
When he recovers, he makes a touching connection with the scarred girl he came to avenge. “You ain’t ugly like me,” he tells her, “It’s just that we’ve both have got scars.” They’re two wounded souls, connecting in touching manner. Munny ends the scene by telling her his wife is back in Kansas, looking over his kids. You know what he means, even if she doesn’t.
Beautifully shot in the snowy mountains of Alberta, Canada, this is one of my favorite scenes in the movie, easily.
All that’s left to be done is the killing of the Cowboys.
The three struggle to commit the murders however. Ned has lost his taste for it, and the kid struggles to get up the nerve. The movie does an excellent job of conveying the weight of killing someone.
The deeds get done, but not without their cost. The toll is steep indeed.
And the inevitable showdown between Munny and “Little Bill” still looms.
Between the numerous references to his old deeds, and the sizable regret that Munny is grappling with, the viewer has filled in a picture for themselves of Munny as the Antichrist, retired. A killer of such scope as to have no equal. So when he takes that swig off of the kid’s bottle, forsaking the reformation his departed wife, you know… you KNOW that all Hell is about to break loose.
And break loose it does.
When Munny rides into town, past the publicly displayed corpse, through the flickering torches and into the saloon, it feels as though he’s descending into Hell. The men awaiting him simply haven’t realized that they’re dead yet. When he growls his infamous “I’ve killed women and children” lines, we may as well be watching the Grim Reaper announcing his arrival.
This is a movie that challenges the Western movie character archetypes. This hero isn’t just reluctant, he’s remorseful. And when he reverts to form, it’s not heroic, it’s cold-blooded. The hotshot kid is full of shit, a little slow, nearsighted and actually full of fear. The evil Sheriff is well liked by the town, and seems like a nice guy when he’s not making misguided efforts to act in the town’s best interests.
To the viewer aware of Eastwood’s filmography, Munny feels self referential. It’s next to impossible to watch a man who has killed hundreds if not thousands onscreen playing a character who bemoans killing, and not feel he’s actually being personally remorseful. This is Eastwood’s “The Shootist”. Per the film’s Wikipedia page, “The concept for the film dated as far back as 1976 under the titles The Cut-Whore Killings and The William Munny Killings. Eastwood delayed the project, partly because he wanted to wait until he was old enough to play his character and to savor it as the last of his western films.”
The cinematography here is beautiful. The movie isn’t afraid to linger over the beautiful country the story is set in. The fields, the mountains, the woods and streams, they’re as much the stars as Eastwood, Freeman and Hackman. Surprisingly it didn’t capture the Academy Award that year, losing to “A River Runs Through It”, also a gorgeous movie. In many, many other years, this movie would have walked away with the Cinematography statuette with ease.
But there was no shortage of awards and accolades for this film. It won four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing and Best Supporting Actor (Hackman). It was also nominated for five others, including Best Actor for Eastwood. It appeared on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies list at number 98, and when the tenth anniversary list was released, it rose a full thirty spots to number 68. They currently have it as their number four western of all time.
I’m certain that the estimation of this film will only continue to increase with time as well.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See”.