Unforgiven was a landmark film for Clint Eastwood in many ways. It marked the shift in the critical reception of his films from indifferent to universally admired. It began the perception that every Eastwood film that followed was Oscar bait and it gave Eastwood his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor and his first win for Best Director. It was also his last western and arguably his greatest achievement in film.
The screenplay for Unforgiven had been circulating Hollywood for several years until Eastwood secured the rights in the mid 70’s. He saw the potential for a classic that explored all the themes he had relished in his previous westerns. He also recognised that the time was not right and decided to wait until he had grown into the role, a grizzled ex-outlaw and gunfighter being tempted into one last kill. By 1991, when filming took place, Eastwood was 61 and in need of a hit after a lacklustre period of several years.
He populated the cast with three solid character actors in Richard Harris, Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman which gave the film instant gravitas. Not since the heady days of Kelley’s Heroes and Where Eagles Dare had he shared the screen with such star power. Astute as always, Eastwood chose the actors perfectly, extracting an Oscar winning performance from Hackman in one of the roles of his illustrious career.
At first glance a simple story of redemption and revenge, Unforgiven explores our frailties and explodes the myth of the old west, for so long held up by Hollywood to be a time of heroism and idealism. It dares to present no obvious hero or villain, preferring instead to allow its audience to form their own opinion on flawed characters presented with brutal and frightening situations.
Never afraid to experiment with his own on-screen persona, Eastwood himself delivers a non showy and totally believable performance that lost out at the 1992 Oscars to Al Pacino’s over the top turn in Scent of a Woman. He did, however, secure the awards for Direction and Best Picture, finally getting the recognition from his American peers that European cinefiles had known all along. Eastwood was a filmmaker of note who deserved to be taken seriously.
The movie itself proved to be an elegiac coda to Eastwood’s western career that began on television in the 1950’s. Never again would he don a Stetson and climb onto a horse to dispense his own brand of justice, and while it signalled the end of an era, a new one as a cinema auteur beckoned.
Best scene: The final showdown in the bar. Shocking, brutal and electrifying.
Watch this if you liked: The Shootist, The Wild Bunch.