Some things are great forever…some have an expiration date. For this fact alone, some “All-Time Greats” need a serious reality check to see if they still stand up or can still be considered great at this present time. Enter “The Wiz Retro Rewind,” where The Wiz re-examines some important and beloved films to see if it’s still good, still relevant or if could be expanded upon or updated.
For this entry, it’s a genre film that is for some is considered one of, if not the best, western movies ever made. In fact, it’s #111 on the Top 250 of IMDb’s best movies. It’s also #4 on Top Ten Westerns on AFI’s 10 Top Ten. It’s currently #68 in AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies list. In 2004, it was admitted into the National Film Registry. It’s also a pretty good Metallica song!
Unforgiven, the last western film Clint Eastwood has starred and directed. This was going to be Clint Eastwood’s last movie, according to him before the film’s release. We all now know that isn’t the case (his film American Sniper was nominated for Best Picture this year). Unforgiven is considered by many to be the best classic western ever made…of course if you haven’t seen The Searchers, High Noon, Shane, The Wild Bunch, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, My Darling Clementine and Once Upon a Time in the West. Or The Magnificent Seven.
But, there are also new western films, and new types, that came out, which many thought would never happen. Open Range, El Mariachi, Desperado, Tombstone, Wyatt Earp, The Quick and the Dead…let us also not forget Django Unchained, Ravenous, Ride with the Devil, the remakes of 3:10 to Yuma and True Grit, No Country for Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford. Ok, you get it.
And yet, even through all of this, it just feels like Unforgiven is considered by most to be the quintessential western…mostly by default. It is a shame because Unforgiven is a good film that is an interesting 90’s revision of the old westerns that were popular during the spaghetti western and black and white days of cinema.
How many yards can you see?
For anyone who has never watched a Western, or never realized they have watched a bunch of Westerns, the very first thing you need to know is that Eastwood’s direction is to romanticize the setting of the Old West and the town of Big Whiskey. Like Westerns of old, there are long shots of vast greenery, colors are by default brown and orange and tension is mainly manufactured more from dialogue than from violence.
This is crucial for people to know who haven’t seen or have been slightly interested in older westerns. If you saying to yourself “I really liked Django Unchained, I think I know what I’m getting into!” Just stop right now. The movie is making a sense of place in a small town, not making an expansive western palette.
In fact, few films have made a sense of place that Big Whisky creates, only in an old school sensibility sort of way. It’s an interesting piece of 80’s and 90’s film making when it comes to setting. The later westerns concentrate more on the raw elements of the west, while Unforgiven does a beautiful job reminding some what made them fall in love with westerns in the first place.
At least, that’s one of the themes…
Gun Control in the West
Another theme to the movie is what the outlaw lifestyle does to people. Bill Munny (Eastwood) and Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) are former outlaws who take on “one last job” in order to get a $1000 reward for killing two cowboys who brutally stab and disfigure a prostitute. This angers the sheriff in town Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), whom felt that he has calmed the situation already by offering livestock in exchange for the money the owner lost in possible revenue for the whore.
Both Munny and Logan have retired the outlaw lifestyle for years now, but it’s the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) that convinces Munny to come back since he’s not doing so well as a farmer. Both Munny and Logan were infamous outlaws, but none more than Munny, who has a reputation of being a repugnant human being in those days.
There are many films about flawed people finding redemption, but few actually talk about staying on the narrow path. It’s easier to just think that the person will never do the things that hurt himself or others, but actually showing exactly how hard it can be to stay on that path is what makes Unforgiven stand apart. Especially since it demonizes one of the things that the western genre glorified: violence and outlaws.
This dynamic brings some challenges to the film that really comes through…but only if you’re knowing of what Unforgiven is referencing. In fact, it just feels that this film is laying rest an old type of movie that people just don’t seem to want anymore. It’s not a bad thing, it just limits to those who will enjoy the movie for what it is.
If you haven’t seen films like High Noon, you simply won’t understand what makes Little Bill so damn despicable, which has one of the best performances by Gene Hackman. If you haven’t seen anything from the Man with No Name trilogy, you’re not going to get the same feelings when seeing Eastwood struggle to get on a horse or to shun his former glory days.
This film, quite literally, is an anti-violence movie about the old west. It still works to this day, but it only works for those who get and like westerns.
When Nostalgia Backfires
Quite literally, if you don’t get some kind of emotional reaction from seeing Eastwood confidently stride on a horse or using a six-shooter or a rifle, a good 70% of this film is not going to mean much to you. If it does mean something to you, you are likely feeling two ways about the film: either you admire Eastwood going against type that you’ve been accustomed to or you can’t stand the fact that what you really want to see is only going to happen 10 minutes at the end of the film.
If you like both, Eastwood’s performance will be one of your favorites, including his performances in In the Line of Fire and Million Dollar Baby or Bridges of Madison County. It’s a measured performance: the arc of the story goes into his transformation perfectly and he blends in so well with the story that the ending isn’t much of a surprise as it is a satisfying conclusion to a complex character.
Yet again, you need that previous engagement to Eastwood and to the style of western this movie is trying to revise to truly enjoy it. If not, it’s really a mixed bag on how you will feel about Munny and how Eastwood portrays him.
It’s strange though, watching this film gives mixed emotions about a by-gone era of filmmaking. It was supposed to be a swan song to a genre. As some of you know, it wasn’t.
The Deadwood Effect
Here comes the other problem: If you are a fan of westerns and have seen most of them and the more current iterations, there is a good chance that you’ve watched the HBO series Deadwood. If you haven’t, Deadwood is an HBO series that was set in a gold rush town in the 19th century. What made Deadwood distinct was the fact that it was gritty, sexualized, bloody and had characters with such depth that the films never dared to touch until years later.
The reason why this show is mentioned: Deadwood pretty much outdates Unforgiven in so many ways that it’s hard to even watch this movie without thinking “Well, Deadwood pretty much did that better” or “I see how this was surprising in the 90’s, but Deadwood did it with more nuance.
Is it fair to compare a 2 hour movie with a 30 plus episode run of a TV series? It really depends on what you are looking for. Unforgiven is a throwback with a gritty and somewhat depressing end, which at the time was mind blowing to some.
Give this to someone who’s used to Deadwood and loved that series, their thoughts will be this: “This is like Deadwood but in the past…starring an old guy…with another old guy…and a lot less sex.” One of Unforgiven‘s biggest strengths was its authenticity at the time. It felt like the old west like it really was: now it feels like a watered down version of it.
Take what you will with it, but now other movies have outshines it in authenticity, including the remake of True Grit and Django Unchained (to an extent). For the most part, Unforgiven is a film that shows an evolutionary step of what western films and TV shows are like now. It also shows how it could improve some.
Should I See It? Is it Still Relevant?
Who Should See It:
Lovers of Classic Westerns
Lovers of Clint Eastwood Westerns (including Man with No Name trilogy)
Who Shouldn’t See It:
Your first westerns were Django Unchained and Deadwood
Not a fan of westerns.
Not a fan of Clint Eastwood.
You like a more action oriented Western.
You want classic Eastwood from minute 1.
Unforgiven is a great genre film that is disguised as one of the best films ever made. Old country western fans have already seen it and probably really like the film. Newer, more gritty country fans might appreciate but won’t get the nuance of what makes Unforgiven special.
Basically, Unforgiven is a genre classic that, as the genre of Westerns evolve to do better, more daring things, it will be further relegated to the back of the line of “essential Westerns”. It’s a great movie, but it’s only great for such a particular subset of film lovers that it’s strange that there’s so much praise thrown at this film.
The good news: Westerns are the one type of film that only has a good film every 6 – 10 years, so it’s still got some time.
The Wiz Retro Rewind #3