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Unforgiven: 10th Anniversary Edition

Warner Home Video

Starring Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman,
Jaimz Woolvett, and Richard Harris

Written by David Webb Peoples
Directed by Clint Eastwood

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                   

Before Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven in 1992, westerns had, over the previous 20 years, been rightfully discarded as antique entertainments, poorly recycling the used ideas from classics of a distant era. The 1940s and 1950s belonged to the idealism of John Wayne, John Ford, and High Noon, while the 1960s delivered the viscerally violent operas of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. With few exceptions, after Robert Altman's fine death-of-the-west allegory McCabe and Mrs. Miller in 1971 the western genre shriveled, dried, and blew across the cultural landscape like so much sagebrush. By the mid-'70s John Wayne had finally won his Oscar and Hollywood felt safe to wash its hands of outlaws, injuns, and gunslingers.

It's interesting, then, that David Webb Peoples' towering screenplay for Unforgiven spent 20 years unproduced before it haphazardly landed in Eastwood's hands. Eastwood had already directed 16 films but had yet to match his striking performing resume with a work of distinguished authorial quality. Having earned his spurs in westerns as a young man before contemporizing his severe "Man with No Name" persona as cowboyish cop "Dirty" Harry Callahan, Eastwood scraped Unforgiven out of the genre graveyard and made a masterful, icon-smashing film that reinvented the familiar trappings of John Ford within the cynical, political, and antiheroic attitudes of the early 1990s.

Eastwood stars as Will Munny, an aging outlaw of fearsome reputation who left his killing ways behind him to live in the redemption of a good, Bible-teaching woman. With his wife dead to smallpox, and two children and a sty of sick hogs to care for, Will gracelessly attends to his farming chores like a prisoner saddled with the glum duty of miserable penance. But his old life revisits him when eager young scofflaw "The Schofield Kid" (Jaimz Woolvett) enlists the infamous killer on a mercenary mission to assassinate two cowpokes guilty of slicing up the face of a whore in Big Whiskey.

Even though he insists that his killing days are over, Munny eventually accepts the job on the pretense of needing the cash. He rides off to Big Whiskey, with the boastful Kid and former sureshot sidekick Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) at his side. However, they aren't the only ones. Hired guns the west over descend on Big Whiskey to earn the "whores' gold," and none to the liking of hard-assed sheriff Little Bill Dagget (Gene Hackman), who, despite his diminutive name, walks tall, talks tough, and promises to beat the tar out of any scoundrel coming to collect on the bounty.

Unforgiven has been criticized both for its moralizing and its grim violence, which should give one an idea of what a provocative and complicated story it tells. Munny is a man poisoned to the soul by his reckless dispatch of murder and mayhem during his younger days, and he's the first one to admit it. He refuses to romanticize his shocking reputation, even while others, like English Bob (Richard Harris), crave the fame associated with such legendary status, and Munny woefully accepts a beating like a man who harbors no doubt that he deserves it. Still, when pressed into a conflict weighing mercy with his new sense of justice, Munny unleashes his six-guns with righteous fury and the conviction of the condemned. At one point in Unforgiven, Munny recalls to Ned a man he shot in the face: "I think about him now and again. He didn't do anything to deserve to get shot. At least nothing I can remember when I sobered up." By the end of Unforgiven, however, Munny has decided that everyone deserves it, in some way. Maybe that's why he started drinking in the first place. There's no polemic at work in the film: Violence is shown as a senseless horror, an intoxicating act of fantasy, a right tool of justice, and a practical means to an end.

It's a vast understatement to claim that Unforgiven has the best cast of any western ever, with Eastwood and Hackman both at their mesmerizing best, the former making the most of his rueful face of death and the latter creating a truly intimidating and commanding mixture of genial good-ol'-boyisms and uncompromising authoritarianism. All of their supporting performers do them proud, too. In addition to the reliable and thoughtful Freeman, young Woolvett hands in a movingly convincing portrayal of a boy drunk on unrealistic expectations. Veteran Harris is perfect as the craven braggart English Bob, as are Saul Rubinek as his equally mercenary biographer, and Frances Fisher as a prostitute aching for vengeance.

*          *          *

Warner Home Video has put together a well-packaged 10th Anniversary Two-Disc Special Edition for this Oscar-winning film (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor for Hackman, and Best Film Editing for Joel Cox), with its centerpiece the gorgeous new anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) of Jack N. Green's excellent, vivid cinematography on Disc One. Audio is clear in Dolby Digital 5.1, and the disc also includes a commentary by Time magazine film critic and Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel.

Unforgiven's second disc supplements the feature film with some decent extra material.

Also inluded are an awards list and trailers.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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