At one time, Unforgiven was my favorite film ever. This was probably sometime around 1995. It’s since been long surpassed. After having not watched Unforgiven in probably 7 or so years, I figured it was time.
After such a long time, I’d say the movie is pretty good. Flawed. But pretty good. The dialogue often falls into cliche. And all 4 main characters–Eastwood, Freeman, Hackman, and Harris–are 20 years too old. It makes no sense to have a bunch of guys in their 50s and 60s roaming around the West of 1880 talking about the old days. Because in 1880, those guys talking about the old days were 35 or 40, tops. It was still a young man’s country, not a land of geezers. There’s also the issue of whipping Morgan Freeman. It’s interesting that his character is so racially neutral. I guess that’s good? The only racially marked character is Sally Two Trees, Ned’s (Freeman’s) wife. So OK. But when Hackman whips Freeman, it’s impossible for the modern viewer to not think of this in a racial context. I’m not saying the character should have been white. In fact, African-Americans made up about 1/4 of cowboys during these years and it’s entirely possible that Eastwood’s partner would be black. But when he is whipped, you know that Republican Gilded Age hack played by Gene Hackman knows the race and it’s not a non-issue. Not a huge deal, but a bit of blindness.
At what point did long shots of the Great Plains become standard in westerns? In the real world, most people don’t see the Plains as a beautiful place. It’s flyover country, cheap land for cheap homes, fracking zones, wheat fields, wind farms, redneck land. It’s only iconic in 1880 when men are wearing cowboy hats and shooting each other. Now, I actually do have a soft spot for the Plains, as I do for most of this beautiful and messed up land. But as Clint and Company are riding through wheat fields that did not exist on the western Plains in the 1880s, I wonder about this disconnect between the Plains of myth and the Plains of today. Both are prone to big spaces, few trees, massive thunderstorms, loneliness. But one is to be avoided, the other mythologized. Splitting the difference might be good.
It’s also interesting the difference between portrayals of the Gilded Age between today and 20 years ago. Today, the issue of authenticity in costume and language is a bigger deal. The great, if also flawed, HBO show “Deadwood” is an interesting counter to Unforgiven. Both are excellent projects, but “Deadwood” took things like facial hair, clothing, and historical accuracy (not that I need historical accuracy in my period pieces but still the little things matter more than the big things and David Milch got the little things right) seriously. Unforgiven did not. A film in 1880 where everyone is clean shaven makes no sense. Does this matter? No, not really. But it’s worth a note.
So I guess I have some critiques now. My favorite film, no. And Eastwood is pretty overrated as a director. Still, who does not like watching an incredibly angry Clint Eastwood kill a lot of people? If they’ve cut up some women or killed his friend, all the better. We know he’s not a great guy, but he’s still awesome. And the last 30 minutes of Unforgiven are really first rate and make up for the cliches earlier in the film.