Although the western to end all westerns was released in the late sixties (one we’ll revisit later), Unforgiven is a dark, final nod to a genre. And the western is a classic genre to say good-bye to, because the themes of manifest destiny, outlaw romance, and honor are all arcane and/or mythical preludes to an industrial tomorrow. The iron horse rages in the distance as a stranger blows into town…
In one of Clint Eastwood’s finest directorial achievements (among many), and with the Oscar-winning script by David Webb Peoples, a high-concept can take shape and follow through in appropriately violent ways. A prostitute is cut up by a john, and so the town’s nightwalkers put a bounty on the guy’s head, to the consternation of a particularly vicious lawman. William Munny has put the game behind him, but heads back for a final job.
In the frontier of Unforgiven, the aforementioned outlaw violence was fuelled mostly by alcohol and stupidity, because killing ain’t like it is in the movies. And although Clint Eastwood can still take out a whole bar of guys, it doesn’t look cool when he does it — even revenge killing is not glorified.
To make the deconstruction theme explicit, we have a character who jots down the story as it unfolds, and is responsible for mythologizing these drunken murderers into the Samurai-esque gunslingers of Old West lore (for reference, we might check out the Japanese remake of this film, starring Ken Watanabe, or films like Sukiyaki Western Django [no] or A Fistful of Dollars for more on the east-west crossover — or perhaps The Good, the Bad, the Weird to simply confuse everything).
What makes it work as a drama, and not as a pure thought exercise, is the character of Munny, a killer who’s lived a long, long life. He’s the center of this high-concept story, which exists in support of his exploration. It’s a good interplay between those two elements, and although not every element of the movie works (English Bob’s plotwise non-sequitor, some of the pacing), the major elements are so good they can’t but not combine to create a perfectly moving whole.
This is one of at least two movies here to win Best Picture, although the other one is probably regrettable for the Academy in retrospect, and another film was the loser in a major upset, roundabouts 2006. A huge omission from this list, which will doubtlessly be rectified in future editions (this most likely won’t be an annual thing like the AFI, from which I divine all my life, and probably isn’t annual either), is Gladiator. I only remember now, thinking about Unforgiven and Best Picture. Gladiator is great — the reveal of Maximus to the Emperor, and the preceding set piece, is one of cinema’s great sequences, and one of the best things Ridley Scott has ever directed.
Its exclusion on this list is unforgivable.