Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan



CONTAINS SPOILERS. There’s a lot of actors who could have made this movie work fairly well, as a routine action western. But only Clint Eastwood could have elevated it to the status of a classic, and that’s simply because he’s the last credible mythic western movie star, from the tail end of the golden age. He was no John Wayne, and that was a good thing, because Wayne was always pretty much the good guy, and the hard-faced, emotionless men Eastwood portrayed in those now-distant Italian spaghetti-and-serape epics was morally ambiguous, at best. Nuanced they were not, but powerful in the same way Dirty Harry was powerful. Now, in the maturity of his career, Clint is into much more important things. In Unforgiven he stands most of the western movie clichés on their heads, to great effect, and only he could have made them all resonate as well as they do. He’s getting old, for one thing. He has a lot of trouble getting on his horse, which is good for a laugh every time. He’s out of place, for another. The era of the outlaw is pretty much over, and here is William Munny, doing battle with pigs, trying to raise two children, trying to live up to the promises he made to the good woman who reformed him and then died. But you know, looking at Clint there in the pigshit, that he wasn’t made for this, and there’s no use him trying to make a go of it. He’s a hard man, and a killer, and he knows this about himself and finally gives in, saying it’s because he needs the money, but deep down he’s just fed up with swine. I was enjoying this movie well enough until about a third of the way through, when it went up to a whole new level with the arrival of “English Bob,” wonderfully played by Richard Harris as one of those Brits so insufferable you just want to gobsmack him. He’s a whiz with his pistols, and we’re all set up for a showdown, in the last reel, between him, Eastwood, and Sheriff “Little Bill,” a wonderful performance (as usual) from Gene Hackman. That’s just the way it has to play out, right, by all the rules of western movies? Wrong! Little Bill disarms English Bob with the help of 5 deputies, sucker-punches him, then kicks the shit out of him while he’s on the ground. Exit English Bob, never to be seen again. Little Bill then kicks the shit out of Eastwood, who is half dead with the flu from spending a night out in the rain, something that never seems to affect tough cowboys, much less gunslingers. Oh, and don’t forget the wannabe all-mouth Schofield Kid, who is so nearsighted as to be almost blind, and most especially don’t forget Morgan Freeman as Clint’s old friend, who just gives up and tries to go home. The final bloodbath, when it comes, is shocking, over very quickly, and as brutal as anything I’ve ever seen. Then Eastwood, our hero, shouts out into the street that he’s coming out, and if anybody shoots at him, he will kill them … and all their family and all their friends … and, I assume, their little dog, too. Wow. This was a new West I hadn’t really seen before, long before the calculated in-your-face brutality and obscenity of Deadwood.