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In the early 1990s, Clint Eastwood experienced a rare lull in his career so he elected to dust off a previously optioned Western script from years before and prepare it for what might be his last venture as both director and lead. Between its crisp narrative and willingness to subvert both the image of its star and the conventions of its genre, the resulting product not only re-energized Eastwood's marketability with a $100 million-plus domestic box-office take, it granted him validation as a serious filmmaker. The critical response to Unforgiven (1992) culminated with a string of awards, including the Oscars® for Best Picture and Best Director.
The narrative is set in the 1880s, and opens in a brothel in the dusty Wyoming cow town of Big Whiskey. One of the working girls has just had her face slashed by a cowpoke client, all for the transgression of giggling at the man's endowment. The slasher and his partner are dragged before the town's despotic sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), whose notion of sufficient punishment is to have the men make good on the whore-master's expenses in bringing his now "damaged goods" to town. The miscarriage of justice so inflames the prostitute Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher) that she pools her colleagues' savings, some $1000, and offers it up as a bounty on the offenders.
The story shifts to a ramshackle Kansas homestead, where aging widower William Munny (Eastwood) is struggling to care for his two young children. While tending to his hogs he is visited by a cocky youngster (Jaimz Woolvett) with visions of himself as a mythic gunslinger with the moniker "The Schofield Kid". News of the hookers' gold has spurred him to find a partner to help him collect, and he can barely conceal his disappointment in finding this broken-down pig farmer in the place of the legendary gunfighter he came to recruit. As it turns out, Munny's late wife had steered him into a honest, pious life; with his family's fortunes fading, however, the temptation provided by the bounty is irresistible. Over the Kid's objections, Munny rouses his old accomplice Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) from his similar domestic retirement for backup.
The legend of the bounty, however, has also reached an incensed Little Bill, who rouses his deputies to disarm any stranger entering Big Whisky. The brutal lawman makes a public example of the first such gunslinger who arrives to collect the prize, a big-hat, no-cattle British dandy known as English Bob (Richard Harris). The unfolding of the fates of the Munny party as they ride into certain disaster take Unforgiven to a jarringly violent conclusion.
Screenwriter David Webb Peoples had authored his script (originally titled The Cut-Whore Killings) on spec all the way back in 1976; Francis Ford Coppola picked up the option, and held onto it through the Zoetrope Studios' collapse in the early '80s. Soon afterwards, Eastwood was handed a copy as an example of Peoples' work, and immediately sought the rights. As recounted in Richard Schickel's Clint Eastwood, the star's rapt interest appalled his story editor, Sonia Chernius. "We would have been far better off not to have accepted trash like this piece of inferior work," she stated in a memo. "I can't think of one good thing to say about it. Except maybe, get rid of it FAST."
In a 1992 interview for Cahiers du Cinema, Eastwood expounded on what separated Unforgiven from his previous Westerns. "[T]he film deals with violence and its consequences a lot more than those I've done before," the star stated. "In the past, there were a lot of people killed gratuitously in my pictures, and what I liked about this story was that people aren't killed, and acts of violence aren't perpetrated, without there being certain consequences. That's a problem I thought was important to talk about today, it takes on proportions it didn't have in the past, even if it's always been present through the ages."
There's actually quite a bit that separates Unforgiven from the rest of Clint's sagebrush oeuvre. Consider the feminist subtext spurring the plot, his willingness to play a bounty hunter whose skills had eroded and his handing of the supporting roles to actors with the gravitas of Hackman, Freeman and Harris. As a result, these elements make the film seem fresh and elegiac at the same time. (Eastwood dedicated the film to the two directors that most profoundly affected his early career and own behind-the-camera aspirations, Sergio Leone and Don Siegel.) In August 1992, after the studios had rolled out their big-budget, special effects extravaganzas of that summer, Unforgiven made its way into theaters with relatively little fanfare, and audiences and critics that were hungry for more adult fare flocked to it eagerly.
The film received an aggregate eight Oscar® nominations, and ultimately also captured the prizes for Joel Cox's editing and Hackman's supporting performance. Hackman, whose characterization was at least partially inspired by former LAPD police chief Darryl Gates, gave his usual flavorful effort as the autocratic lawman with carpentry skills as suspect as his moral code. He had initially passed on the script as too violent, and ostensibly has no regrets about having reconsidered.
Producer: Clint Eastwood, Julian Ludwig, David Valdes
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: David Webb Peoples
Cinematography: Jack N. Green
Film Editing: Joel Cox
Art Direction: Adrian Gorton, Rick Roberts
Music: Lennie Niehaus
Cast: Clint Eastwood (William `Bill Munny), Gene Hackman (Little Bill Daggett), Morgan Freeman (Ned Logan), Richard Harris (English Bob), Jaimz Woolvett (the Schofield Kid), Saul Rubinek (W.W. Beauchamp).
by Jay S. Steinberg