“We all have it coming kid” – Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven)
Once the dominant genre in Hollywood cinema, the western genre abides by a strict set of rules and iconography. Cowboys, sheriffs, outlaws, revolvers and tumbleweed make up the dusty towns of True Grit, High Noon and A Fistfull of Dollars, among hundreds of other films in cinema’s oldest genre. In a contemporary world, things have, of course, changed, with the western genre having experienced severe sunstroke from years in the industry limelight, now reduced to a dry carcass. To revisit ‘The Western’ in modern cinema is to revisit a time long lost, a nostalgic idea of the mythic west, tarnished by violence and sin.
This cynical modern treatment is explored through the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece No Country for Old Men, in which a bafflingly evil killer stalks the Texas outback, as well as in There Will be Blood of the same year, which examines the fostering of capitalist values across the country. Though, for a true re-evaluation of, not only the themes of such interesting American times but also for the archetypes and ingredients of the genre itself, there are few films as seminal as Clint Eastwood’s 1992 film, Unforgiven.
In the fading dusk of the American west during the 1880s, men, who once stalked the dust of the mythical land, lie in the subtle song of crickets, dreaming of a frenetic life long since passed. The glory of the open frontier was evolving into an unrecognisable world. It’s a land where the heroes who once ruled, and even the villains who went against them, were past their heyday. This is the case for Eastwood’s Bill Munny, at least, a hog farmer with little appetite to return to his life of crime, having not killed a man or drank in many years.
Arriving on horseback, a bright-eyed young man who calls himself the “Schofield Kid” arrives on Munny’s doorstep, seeking his help to hunt down an outlaw and claim the reward. As a former notorious killer, Munny is initially reluctant to return to a life of crime, though he soon joins the quest tempted by the cash reward. Recruiting old friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), Munny embarks on a quest across the west, revisiting the tormenting moral decisions of his past, questioning his blood-splattered history as a killer.
The self-proclaimed ‘hero’ of the old west is stripped and exposed as a coward, and a liar, oblivious to their true cruelty, particularly when old stories telling of their legacy are laced with triumph and honour. The withered, wrinkled shell of the hero that they once represented shows their decline, as Munny now traverses through a complicated labyrinth of moralistic dilemmas.
The film assesses and analyses the classic stories of the old west and questions whether these heroes and tales should be celebrated at all, crucially providing a human perspective on the genre film that has for so long ridden off the grandeur of its own spectacle. Unforgiven would go on to win four major Oscars at the 65th Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Gene Hackman, with the film’s success even catching Eastwood by surprise. “I was shocked, because I never try and romance the audience. You’ve got to forget that there’s somebody out there eating popcorn and Milk Duds,” he commented to Premiere in 1993.
What Eastwood has made, whether by intention or not, was one of the great modern revisionist Westerns, questioning the place of such stories in contemporary mythos whilst gesturing toward how such tales could mould the genre in the future.