>The great thing about Clint Eastwood is that he’s great.
Aside from some admittedly embarrassing films in the 70s and 80s when that odd woman Sandra Locke had her claws into him, he’s been pure gold. It says something about a man when people refer to other people as being a bit like you. ‘He’s a bit like Clint Eastwood’ you might say, because that way people get it immediately. They know that you mean a hardass, who’s not a show off, and is cool as you like.
Clint started this really back in the very early days of his acting career, on Rawhide. Yes, he was the fresh faced, and improbably named, Rowdy Yates, but he still had that look already. The Squint. No-one does the Clint Squint like Clint. No-one would dare to try. Charles Bronson had a good try, but he never really managed it. He just looks shortsighted.
Where Bruce Willis’ smirk seriously shortened his career prospects though, Clint’s own facial tic has made him the biggest man in movies. Bigger than John Wayne? Yes, I think so.
It’s a bold claim to make, but I believe that what Clint has done for movies overall is unsurpassable. And (drum roll) that includes the Western. Wayne may have been the greatest Western actor of all time, but that was before Clint.
Even before Unforgiven there were at least 6 great Clint Westerns that tore up the Cowboys n’ Indians template: The Dollars Trilogy, Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider and High Plains Drifter. Besides these are the slightly less revered, but still excellent, Hang ‘Em High, Joe Kidd, Two Mules for Sister Sarah and, of course, Paint your Wagon.
But the icon was born back in the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and The Man with No Name – an iconic reference of the Old West, but one Clint never played with bravado. Instead he played it with pathos and regret filling ever step.
Fast forward 7 years from his last Western, Pale Rider in 1985, and Eastwood pulled on the spurs for what would be, intentionally, his last ever Western. Unforgiven.
Unforgiven is the story of ageing gunfighter William Munny, and his decision to do a final killing for money, as his idyll of family life on the prairie starts to get too hard and affecting to his children.
Scripted way back in 1976, Eastwood decided to hold back on making the film until he was old enough to encapsulate the character and, with the back catalogue of cowboy legends he’d already created he was able to authoritatively put that persona into it’s place in history, stepping away with a resounding clap of the hands and a ‘job done’ on his snarling lips.
Munny is a cold-blooded ‘killer of women and children’ with a deservedly fearsome reputation. Unlike most contemporary men in this genre he has found old age however and is now wise of his misdeeds and keen to raise a young family far away from his past, and from other people.
Following the death of his wife he is left with the raising of his two young children and, knowing he is no farmer, starts to see the writing on the wall for his future. When a young shooter, the Schofield Kid, comes to him with a proposition to avenge an assault for a tidy payday he initially refuses but inevitably relents for his family.
The story then follows his travels to kill the assaulters of a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey, policed by the violent Little Bill, played to perfection by Gene Hackman. Little Bill is framed very quickly as a new wave of horrendous violence in the West through his treatment of another ageing gunfighter in town, English Bob, played by Richard Harris. Little Bill delivers the severest of beatings to Bob, establishing his mantra of disrespect for the gunfighters of old, and placing himself as the alpha male in town.
After one of the town’s prostitutes is badly cut by a group of young men passing through it becomes known that hired killers are on their way to avenge the assault, paid for by the prostitutes, and Little Bill makes clear his intentions to deal with them.
Munny is a relatively downbeat character throughout the film and the juxtaposition between his jaded countenance and that of the eager young Schofield Kid is a recurring theme. Ultimately Munny’s edge is that of a taker of lives, whereas the Kid is keen to ape his hero but, when it comes to it, the killing changes him and he gives away his guns and leaves, scared and sick.
After Munny, sick from cold and wet weather, himself takes a beating from Little Bill, he is laid up outside of town and tended by the cut prostitute. Ned and the Kid visit town often but, following the eventual killing of the young men, Ned decides he’s done with killing and leaves. As Munny and the Kid go to get the final man Ned is apprehended by Little Bill’s men and is whipped to death by Bill and placed in a coffin, with a sign around his neck on display in the town.
Incensed by this, Munny finally does what we know is coming all along and confronts Little Bill. Walking into the saloon his doesn’t hesitate. There are no speeches, drawn out stand-offs or anything else. He simply announces why he’s there and promptly shoots Bill and 7 other men, starting with the barman, for having Ned on display. When you spot, out of the corner of your eye, that Bill isn’t quite dead and is raising his pistol, there’s a moment of doubt about the ending, until Munny kicks his hand away and shoots him in the face.
It’s a relentless but definitive moment in the film and not without humour. Munny announces before he leaves the saloon, to the town that he knows must be watching –
“I’m coming out. Nobody better shoot at me, or I’ll kill him. Then I’ll kill his wife, and his friends, and burn his goddamn house down.”
Munny leaves town in full view of everyone, and they do nothing. These are people who think they’ve seen terror in Little Bill, but they now know they’ve just seen a bully. This man is terror.
Eastwood is able to play Munny as absolutely terrifying, but also absolutely unconcerned with his reputation. He sees Munny as man apart from his past, regretful but not overly concerned with reputation or legend. Not a million miles away from Eastwood himself.
What makes Unforgiven such an almighty film is that being a Western is almost incidental to the finished product. It’s the canvas that lends itself so well to the man, and he knows it. That he knows he doesn’t need to do it anymore is testament to his own character, as much as to the ones he’s created.