Unforgiven — 20 Years Later


When the Los Angeles Film Critics Association gathered in December to announce their annual awards, it began an extraordinary movement that would see the film they honored go all the way to the Oscars. Their film of choice was Clint Eastwood’s powerful western Unforgiven (1992), a summer release, which took awards for Best Film, Best Director (Eastwood), Best Actor (Eastwood), Best Supporting Actor (Gene Hackman), and Best Screenplay. Though the film had been highly praised by critics upon release, there was genuine surprise when the picture grabbed top honors from the LA scribes. Their choice would begin a movement that would sweep the film into the Oscar circle, earning awards for Best Picture and Best Director for Eastwood. In many ways critics played a huge part in allowing audiences to discover the film, and with these early season awards played a huge part in the Academy Awards campaign, something Eastwood mentioned in his Oscar acceptance speech. The wins from the LA critics would cause Warner Brothers to throw all their support behind Unforgiven (1992) seemingly forgetting they also had Spike Lee’s superb Malcolm X (1992) in the race, something that did not please the film’s director and producers (rightly so).

On nomination day, Unforgiven (1992) received nine nominations, including Best Film, Best Actor (Eastwood), Best Director (Eastwood), Best Supporting Actor (Hackman), and Best Original Screenplay to name a few. Through the course of the early critics’ awards and the Globes, the film was now the odds on favorite to win the Oscar as Best Picture and Director. Hackman had burned his way through all of of the early awards for Best Supporting Actor and looked impossible to beat. When the National Society of Film Critics voted the film Best Picture and Best Director, with Hackman winning again, it simply furthered the film’s chances, with the final blow to the other nominees being Eastwood winning the Directors Guild of America as Best Director.

Come awards night, Unforgiven (1992) would indeed win Eastwood his Academy Award for Best Director, as well as Best Picture, and Best Film Editing, while as expected Hackman won his second Oscar, this time for Best Supporting Actor.

Was it really twenty years ago that Unforgiven (1992) first came to movie theatres? I remember the night my wife and I saw it well because it was our first “date” night after the birth of our daughter in June. Our initial reaction was negative, but through the week neither of us could get the film out of our heads and we kept discussing it over and over. The following weekend, we went again, less nervous this time about being out of the house, with our newborn being with a sitter (Granny this time) and were able to sit back and let the films dark power wash over us. Emerging, we knew the film was something very special, but never did I believe the Academy would discover or remember the film at year’s end! It topped my list as best film of the year and many others, but still it was the winning of the LA Film Critics’ Awards that began the journey to the Oscar circle.

The little western released in the summer had conquered Hollywood and the film award, a critical hit as well as having found an audience. Eastwood would never again be thought of as just an action star, as Dirty Harry Callahan, he was now an artist evolving as a filmmaker, taking risks in his work with subject matter, finding success where it looked doubtful (The Bridges of Madison County; 1995), and would win a second Oscar for Best Director in 2004 for Million Dollar Baby. His sets are run like a well oiled machine; voices are never raised, the crew knowing him so well they anticipate his every move. Often rehearsals are shot, and he rarely goes for more than two takes. What he seems to do as well as anyone in movies, is make his actors comfortable, setting them free with the knowledge he trusts them, entirely, and expects them to create a character for his story. Great actors, who have struggled with other directors such as Gene Hackman, Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Ed Harris, Marcia Gay Harden, and Morgan Freeman, loved their experiences with Eastwood, with Penn calling him, “The least disappointing American icon.”

He built a career as a director with a smart series of tradeoffs with the studios, which simply told, was one for them, one for him. Sure he would make a third or fourth Dirty Harry film, if they would fund Bronco Billy (1980) or Honky Tonk Man (1982), low-budget films directed by Eastwood. HIs reputation as a filmmaker grew through the late seventies and early eighties, so much so that Orson Welles no less, creator of Citizen Kane (1941) called him the most exciting director working in American film. High praise indeed. It was not until Bird (1988), his critically acclaimed box office failure, that both audiences and critics began to take him seriously as a director. The story of jazz great Charlie Parker, this dark biography was brilliant, though demanding on audiences, with a stunning performance from a very young Forest Whitaker.

As a film, Unforgiven (1992) is a dark masterpiece, a western unlike anything we had seen before. The film explores the impact of killing, the staggering loss of a little bit of one’s’ soul moving from murder to murder, until the ghosts of those you have killed call to you from the past, reaching forward to haunt you forevermore. There is no escape from the taking of a life, be it in war-time, or in cold blood, something Unforgiven (1992) explores with shocking clarity. Eastwood’s William Munney was a fearsome, vicious character, a man to whom killing came easily, and though now a father and widow, running a sparse down pig farm, when he picks up a weapon and finds men who wish to kill him, he slides easily back into his past. Perhaps it is the absolute fearlessness, perhaps he is not afraid to die, and perhaps he is so filled with self loathing he begs for death, his punishment being he continues to live after killing yet again. I think the finest acted scene of Eastwood’s career is the one with the Schofield Kid (Jamz Woolvet) after the half blind kid has shot a man in the outhouse, and cannot come to terms with what he has done, weeping in front of Munney in a meadow. The older outlaw explains the Kid has taken everything from the dead man, everything he had or ever will have, with the Kids responding, “I guess he had it comin’”.

“We all got it comin’”, responds Munney, knowing that no matter how many men he may kill, one day death will come for him, there is no escape. But on a deeper level, he understands what the Kid is talking about, because the regret he experiences follows him wherever he goes, into his sleep, haunting him like a plague. Never before had Eastwood demonstrated this sort of depth on-screen before, though in fairness to him, he had been very good before. As Munney he was lived in, his eyes dead except when speaking of his late wife and children, moving with difficulty back into killing, until they harm his friend.

Gene Hackman is terrifying a Little Bill Daggett, a Marshall who delights in inflicting pain. Leaning in and whispering over Munney’s best friend Ned’s (Morgan Freeman) shoulder, after he has horse whipped the man, he indicates he will escalate the torture, and not be “gentle” as he has been. Of course he beats the man to death. This sequence was frighteningly reminiscent of the infamous Rodney King tapes of the late eighties early nineties, in which a group of white cops beat a black man and are caught on camera doing so. Eastwood seemed to be commenting, and not just with this scene but the whole film, things had not really changed all that much at all, had they? Little Bill is feared by the towns people, who obey with terror his brand of corrupt justice, but in Munney he encounters someone not the least bit afraid of him. They are linked together by the past, and seemed destined for the meeting that takes place in bar at the end of the film.

There is no glory in death in this film; it comes quickly for some, slowly, with agony for others. Bullets tear through flesh, opening up the human body, turning victims into a bloody mess. Seeing a man hit in the leg, left to bleed out, one would pray for a head shot, but one thing is very clear, dead is dead. What was once a living breathing entity, when gunned down is gone, forever gone, almost as though they were never here.

Hackman had initially no interest in the film, having deciding he did not wish to make any more violent films, walking away from The Silence of the Lambs (1991) which at one time he was slated to direct and portray Hannibal. After a conversation with Eastwood, he signed on and brings to the film a dark and frightening character that delights in inflicting pain. What is truly horrifying about the character is that he does it all so casually, with a smile, and a goading that is both confident and wishful. He knows he can beat the man down, and hopes, oh how he hopes the other person challenges him and throws down. However in William Munney he encounters someone darker than himself.

Unforgiven (1992) remains the finest film of Eastwood’s career, a dark and powerful film that portrays the Old West, often romanticized on film as a harsh and unforgiving place, where death could be lurking around any corner. The film is about angry men, some with nothing to lose, though Wiliam Munney has much to lose. He needs to get home to his children, he needs the money the prostitutes have offered for the killing of the man who cut the girl at the beginning of the film, and he needs not to be a part of what he was before. He had earned his wife’s forgiveness before her death, as she accepted and loved him for what he had been. For himself however, he is always haunted by the ghosts of the men is killed, and will remain unforgiven.

  • Bill Dale

    You are on form, Mr Foote!

    When I saw it in London shortly after release, I knew little about it… and was blown away. And, as with many such seminal cinematic experiences, for reasons I found it difficult to pin-point at the time.

    I thought it might be, it appealed to my working knowledge of American history – there WERE no white hats nor black hats in the West, only shades of (dark) grey. I thought it might be Gene Hackman – I was already a fan, but has anyone ever been finer on film? Supporting or lead… I thought it might be the asides – Richard Harris on screen again, suddenly old but more watchable than ever; Hackman’s badly built house; the spare title music and end-title coda; Morgan Freeman doing what he can do.

    But ultimately I decided it was the boldness of the statement – presumptious from anyone other than Eastwood – in declaring that this is REALLY how it was. And thereby single-handedly resurrecting the Western and bringing its curtain down (as I saw it then) in the space of 2 or so hours.

    Or maybe it was just a good idea for a film which, somehow, worked spectacularly well?

    Whatever… it remains probably my favourite film of these past 20 years.

  • Garrett

    Unforgiven is one of the best westerns ever, and Clint Eastwood can still be an Oscar favorite this year. As a side note, early word is that Sally Field’s performance will blow critics and audiences away. Her scenes with Daniel Day Lewis are outstanding and people are saying he is blown away by her. With all that “buzz” Ms. Field should be riding the number 1 spot on Clayton’s list all the way to the end of the year. I can’t wait for this one.