The Western movie genre was for decades the mainstay of Hollywood production. Over 2,000 silent westerns were made prior to 1929 and around 4,000-plus were released between 1930-1970. The majority were more myth than the reality of America‘s “Wild West“ but nevertheless the genre proved extremely popular with movie audiences worldwide.
Although westerns never totally disappeared over the following twenty years, the number being produced dropped off precipitously and the few that were made were rarely critically considered. Then in 1990, Kevin Costner‘s Dances with Wolves – his epic western which attempted to correct the genre‘s predominantly negative representation of Native Americans – became a substantial commercial success, taking over $185 million at the American box-office alone. The movie‘s totally unexpected success was further compounded when it won Academy Awards in multiple categories, being the first Western since Cimarron (1931) – and only the second ever – to win the Best Picture Oscar. Film critics, who for two decades had been writing about the demise of the western, reacted accordingly by referring to Costner‘s film as a one-off fluke. However, a mere two years later the coup was repeated by Clint Eastwood with his revisionist western masterpiece, Unforgiven.
The script had been developed by David Webb Peoples way back in 1976 under the title ‘The Cut-Whore Killings’, changed later to ‘The William Munny Killings’. Purchasing the rights in the early 1980s, legend has it that Eastwood sat on it until he was old enough to take on the role of William Munny. However, Eastwood had not made a western for seven years as the genre was no longer in vogue, which is probably why he originally shelved the script. The success of Costner‘s film no doubt prompted him to resurrect the project.
Heading an outstanding cast, Eastwood portrays the once-notorious gunslinger/killer Bill Munny, gone straight for the love of a good woman. Now widowed and caring for his two young children, he finds himself too old to scratch out sustenance as a dirt-poor hog farmer. A young myopic gunman calling himself the Schofield Kid tempts Munny out of retirement by the lure of a $1,000 bounty offered by the prostitutes of the Wyoming town Big Whiskey. The money will be paid to anyone who will kill the two cowboys who have brutally mutilated the face of one of the women.
Munny leaves his children with the wife of his old gunslinger friend, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman). Ned, who is equally bored, makes up the trio who set out for Big Whiskey after agreeing to share the bounty. There they run into another bad man gone straight – Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman). Daggett is the despicable and wretched sheriff of the town who is unafraid to use rough justice on any vigilante intent on collecting the bounty, such as English Bob (Richard Harris), whom Daggett kicks and beats to a pulp.
Meanwhile, Ned realises he has lost his stomach for killing and heads for home. But when Munny discovers that Ned has been captured and tortured to death by Daggett and his deputies, he fully embraces his killer identity that for years he had endeavoured to transcend and rides into town seeking brutal revenge for the death of his friend.
Unforgiven was an immediate worldwide box-office hit and the following year garnered nine Academy Award nominations, winning four including Best Picture and Best Director for Eastwood and Best Supporting Actor for Hackman.
Eastwood‘s fame and fortune began with the “man with no name“ character in Sergio Leone‘s Dollars films and he continued the skilled gunfighter/killer characterisation with The Outlaw Josey Wales. Subsequently, Unforgiven can be viewed as the final chapter of either of these two characters, created so many years earlier. Furthermore, it has now been 28 years since the film‘s release and during this time Eastwood has directed and sometimes starred in another 22 movies, but has never returned to the Western genre.