RogerBW's Blog

Unforgiven 23 March 2022

1992 western, dir. and starring Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman: IMDb / allmovie. William Munny was a bad man, until his wife reformed him. But she's dead.

I saw this when it was released, and it was called a "revisionist Western" as though that were a new sort of thing. In practice of course the films that made Eastwood a star, For a Fistful of Dollars and so on, were just as much revisionist compared with the Code-compliant White Hats and Black Hats. But this was a Western about getting old. (Indeed, about Eastwood getting old; in the previous film of his I'd seen, 1988's The Dead Pool, he was still playing the action hero, if a middle-aged version.)

And things start off making it clear that it really wasn't that great back in the good old days, casually murdering people for reasons you can't even remember, but now there's a Good Cause and that's enough to come out of retirement for when combined with the promise of a bounty to help the failing farm.

(The Good Cause, a prostitute who's had her face slashed, is very much a background character; to Eastwood, directing and producing as well as starring, the important things in this world are all men, mostly old men. There's even an abandoned subplot: Delilah the prostitute offers herself to Munny, he turns her down, she assumes it's because of her face, and he explains that no, it's because he's loyal to his wife. In a later scene, she learns that his wife is dead. And then… nothing. There's no resolution to it.)

So this is a story about getting old that ends in an orgy of violence, then the man on the horse rides away… and that's the film I watched, and wasn't very impressed by, thirty years ago. But now I see it much more as a consideration of manliness: the Kid has all the surface meanness but falls apart when it counts, Ned may have the skills but is no longer mean, English Bob even more so, and Little Bill has the skills and is mean… but not as much so as William Munny. Munny takes back up his skills, and his meanness, and his whiskey bottle, and it's only when he does so thoroughly that he sees any success in terms of the narrative. (And the violence that prospers is not vengeance for a slashed woman, but for a murdered friend.)

"Hardworkin' boys that was foolish" are the same old "boys will be boys" who have always had excuses made for them; I am inclined to feel that anyone who invokes that phrase deserves to spend some time as a target of one of those "boys" rather than being one of the people they don't dare attack.

It's a beautiful film, and it's nice to see that (unlike many classic Westerns) the cameras can get in among the rocks. The score, by Lennie Niehaus, comes over as the sort of thing Mark Knopfler would do, with little relevance to what's on screen. This won four Oscars (but not the Big Four, as Eastwood missed out on Best Actor), but although I think I understand it better than I did it's not a film I could ever love.

Once more if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

Tags: film reviews

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