Brilliant westerns, and there have been more than a few in the history of modern film making, have never really done well at the Academy Awards. ‘Cimarron’ won in 1931, but it is more an epic set in the west, and ‘Dances with Wolves’ is more a romance/war film than a proper western, in my eyes. Yes. ‘Unforgiven’ is the only western to win the most coveted award in film.
Like all westerns, the basic story is simple and but what is right and wrong is not straightforward. In Big Whiskey, Wyoming, a whore is cut up by a couple of drunken cowboys, and the sheriff, Little Bill (Gene Hackman) takes little action to punish the perpetrators. The prostitutes are unhappy and decide to take matters into their own hand by putting a bounty on the heads of these men. Three men are attracted to this: the retired widower Bill Munny (Clint Eastwood, who also directed), his former partner in crime, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), and the young opportunistic Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), and they set off to avenge the young girl.
I think that this is one of Eastwood’s greatest performances. He is restrained and commanding, but as always is never over the top: the role does not command that, and Eastwood has never been an over the top type of actor. Morgan Freeman is, as ever, reliable. He is one of those actors who is steady and secure, and whilst I am rarely blown away by his performance, I am always happy to have him on my screen. For me, the standout roles are from Woolvett, who is naïve and foolish and a total irritant for the older men, but is a great role for the audience, who displays all the excitement for the life of a gunslinger as a real fan of westerns does, and also from Hackman who is absolutely superb as the brutal sheriff: it is a wonderfully rich part and a performance that you can tell Hackman enjoyed playing as much as I enjoyed watching it.
The basic premise may be simple, but the issues are less so. The main issue of right and wrong is explored in great detail through the character of Munny. His wife made him give up his violent ways, but now he is returning for one last time: is it right to kill people who have committed awful crimes for the reason of receiving money to support his impoverished family, and can he justify it to himself?
‘Unforgiven’ is one of the greatest westerns ever made and also the last great true western that will be made. I have no doubt about that. For ‘Unforgiven’ whilst a great film in its own right, is also a tribute to the genre, closing the book on the making of westerns, and from the shots of the graves, to the idea of coming out of retirement one final time, Eastwood clearly knew that this would be the last western.
It is a brilliant film: wonderfully scripted, expertly directed, beautifully filmed and acted with understanding and obvious commitment, it can not only be described as the last western, but also one of the greatest, a film for those who love the west.