Like my colleague, John J. Puccio, I have a special fondness for Clint Eastwood's "The Outlaw Josey Wales." I was living in Oroville, California when it was filmed there, and seeing my old stomping grounds still gets the blood going. Since Oroville was an old mining area, I also really liked "Pale Rider," in which Eastwood's mysterious character rides to the assistance of miners. Both of those Eastwood Westerns are save-the-day classics, as many of his films have been, so it's more than a little ironic that the one Eastwood Western to win an Oscar for Best Picture was also the least classic and heroic of them all.
In a way, "Unforgiven." is a dark version of "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." In John Ford's spritely take on the taming of the West, the use of guns and violence is questioned. So is the mythogizing of the West, though as one newspaper editor remarks, when legend comes into conflict with reality, print the legend. And in Ford's West, legend gets the man who thinks he shot gunfighter Liberty Valance elected to Congress.
That's not how it's handled in "Unforgiven," which relies on gritty realism and reality checks, both for the characters and for audiences. Legend pulls a lone rider to the pig farm of former gunman William Munny (Eastwood), who has two young children to take care of and a broken-down farm. He's seen better days, and frequently slips in the mud as he tries to wrangle his hogs. In other words, he's far from the legend of an old gunfighter who'd killed a number of people. A young boy calling himself the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) rides up saying he's looking for gunman William Munny to partner with. A group of whores from Big Whiskey, Wyoming have offered a thousand dollars to anyone who'll kill two cowboys who cut the face of one of the girls. Of course, Munny downplays who he is and who he's killed, only acknowledging that he is Bill Munny.
When the boy leaves, it leaves Munny thinking. He'd like his kids to have some security, and so he pulls out his old pistol and takes aim at a can on a post to see if he's still "got it." Well, he can't hit the broad side of a barn anymore, and can't seem to understand it. No matter. He goes into the house, brings back a side-by-side shotgun, and blasts the crap out of the can. Then he goes to get onto the saddle horse, which hasn't been ridden for so long that it bolts and Munny ends up on the ground again. It's hell getting old, and the reality is that Munny is so rusty that he's not nearly the man he once was. No matter. He rides to a nearby farm to hunt up his old partner, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman). When he's convinced Ned to go with him to catch up to this kid, their ill-fated adventure begins.
Meanwhile, a legend of another sort is being tested. A pompous dandy who goes by the name of English Bob (Richard Harris) bathes in his own legend and travels with a dime novel writer (Saul Rubinek) who stays close at hand in order to be able to write about new exploits: English Bob outshooting passengers on a train in a pheasant competition, English Bob heading into Big Whiskey to plug two cowboys and collect the bounty. Trouble is, the sadistic sheriff of Big Whiskey (Gene Hackman), a man named Little Bill who came out of Kansas and Texas, is the real deal. He knows all about some of the killings that have made English Bob legendary, and it didn't happen the way that Bob has been telling his dime novel toady. Legend--phony legend, at least--takes a beating in this Western. Little Bill deliberately mispronounces "The Duke of Death" and keeps calling Bob the "Duck." That's just rubbing salt in the wound, because after Little Bill confiscated Bob's gun he kicked his face into as bloody a mess as the whore he'd come to avenge.
There are all sorts of shades of gray in this interesting end-of-the-trail Western, which combines the theme about legends and gunfighters with the sad-but-triumphant elegiac tone of "The Shootist," John Wayne's last Western. It this is Eastwood's last, and that's probably the case, it's a fitting way for him to end his career as a cowboy-on-camera. What you see is what you get: a study in human nature and a growing distaste for macho posturing and violence. Rumor has it that Eastwood came full circle with his wardrobe, wearing the same boots that he broke into back in 1959 on the TV Western "Rawhide." If that's true, it's almost as fitting as David Webb Peoples' script getting picked up after bouncing around in Hollywood for 20 years. This was a film whose time had come, one which would join "Cimarron" (1930-31) and "Dances with Wolves" (1990) as the only Westerns to earn a Best Picture Oscar.
The aspect ratio is 2.40:1, with a 1080p High Definition picture that pulls in a great amount of detail despite much of the film shot under murky conditions. The black levels are good, and in bright light there's decent color saturation. At other times, the color levels are much more muted, depending upon the scene. Everything seems based on light conditions, which is to say that the lighting and color are realistic. This won't be one of the Blu-rays you trot out to show off the new format, but if you look closely you'll see that the amount of detail on hairs, whiskers, hog bristles, and other textures is really excellent.
The audio options were Dolby Digital English 5.1 and French or Spanish 2.0. The rear speaker ambient noise is especially strong, and with a great deal of rain and horse clomping you get plenty of chances to hear them at work. There seems to be a good balance between treble and bass, with a bright overall sound that stops short of being tinny. Subtitles are in English, French, and Spanish.
Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel turns in a decent commentary track, combining the kinds of anecdotes that viewers crave with the factual information that helps us view "Unforgiven" in the greater context of other Eastwood films. There are also four documentaries that range from 20 minutes to an hour each. "All on Accounta Pullin' a Trigger" offers plenty of actor and crew reminiscences, while "Eastwood & Co.: Making 'Unforgiven'" is a pre-release promo documentary narrated by Mark Twain (I mean, Hal Holbrook). They're okay, but don't look to either for any earthshaking insights. I much preferred two documentaries on Eastwood: "Eastwood . . . a Star" and "Eastwood on Eastwood," both of which give a pretty good sense of the man en route to making the Western that would be the culmination of his Western career.
Oddly enough, the bonus feature I enjoyed the most was an old black-and-white "Maverick" episode starring James Garner and a very young Eastwood as someone who's challenging Maverick to a shoot-out. It makes the shoot-out inside Skinny's place all the more interesting and poignant. Rounding out the extras is the theatrical trailer.
The Alberta, Canada scenery is as stark as the plot of this elegiac Western, which shows the last gasp of a dying breed. Eastwood, Hackman, and Harris deliver powerful performances, though all of the minor characters contribute to our sense of a rapidly changing West, where violence and legends are becoming relics of the past. "Unforgiven" feels authentic, and for a Western, there's no greater compliment.