UNFORGIVEN – Blu-ray review

“I’ve always been lucky when it comes to killing folks.”  –William Munny

Note:  In the following joint Blu-ray Book review, both John and Jim provide their opinion of the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.

The Film According to John:
Despite my personal bias toward Clint Eastwood’s “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” I can’t argue that “Unforgiven,” his 1992 Academy Award-winner, isn’t among the two or three last great Westerns Hollywood ever produced; and I can’t argue that its Blu-ray presentation isn’t pretty decent, too.  The “however” is that in this twentieth-anniversary Blu-ray Book edition, Warners don’t appear to have done anything to improve upon the picture or sound, giving us the same audio and video encodes we got a few years earlier on BD; and this is despite the packaging saying it’s “newly restored.”  I guess the studio meant they “newly restored” the movie a few years earlier.  So, if you already own “Unforgiven” on Blu-ray, the primary advantage of this new release is the handsome and informative Blu-ray Book packaging.  Of course, if you don’t already own the film in high def, this is certainly the edition to own.

“Unforgiven” is producer-director-star Eastwood’s and writer David Webb People’s attempt to demytholigize the Western, to present the Old West on film as something closer to what it might really have been.  Thus, you will find no heroes here, nor any true villains.  The main character, played by Eastwood, is William Munny, a widower with two small children, living off the land in a little mud hole in the middle of the Kansas plains.  But it wasn’t always so with Munny.  Some ten years earlier, he was a “rootin’, tootin’ son-of-a-bitchin’, cold-blooded assassin,” a drunkard, a thief, and a murderer by his own admission.  But he found a new life in the bosom of a good woman who showed him the error of his ways and set him on a new and sober course before succumbing to smallpox on their prairie farm.

Now, life is tougher for Munny than ever before, and when a young gunslinger, the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), comes by offering to share a thousand-dollar reward with him if he’ll help him kill a pair of cowboys, Munny goes for it.  But Munny insists he’s a changed man, reformed, and is only doing the killing for the money; not like the old days when he would do it for pleasure.  And Munny especially wants to do the job when the Kid explains that the cowboys they’re going after cut up a defenseless prostitute, and her fellow harlots are putting up the reward for the perpetrators’ deaths because the law would do nothing to help them.

Munny hasn’t been on a horse in years and can hardly handle a gun anymore, but that doesn’t stop him.  He needs the cash.  More important, he sees the killing of these miscreants as a kind of redemption for him, a distorted good deed for a life of iniquity.  He hooks up with an old pal from his outlaw past, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), who has also forsaken the gun and turned to farming, and together the three men ride out like avenging angels, or knights errant, to right the wrongs of a harsh and uncaring world.

But, as I said, life is tough for Munny, and things are not so simple as their merely shooting two men dead and collecting their money.  The two cowboys they’re after are holed up on a ranch just outside a little town whose sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), is a strict law-and-order man, a guy who believes that any means are worth the end.  Daggett is a bully and coward who commands respect with the help of a passel of deputies, and he administers his own brand of justice once he disarms a man.  Little Bill isn’t about to have any bloodshed in or around his town.

Along the way we also meet a writer, W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), an Easterner come West to find grist for his dime novels.  He’s looking for gun-toting heroes, and if can’t find them, he creates them.  Lately, he’s spinning yarns around a phony British fop of a gunslinger who calls himself English Bob (Richard Harris).  Nothing is as it seems.

The movie depicts the West as a largely dirty, brutal place, at least the areas inhabited by Man, with the movie’s characters all ordinary people with ordinary weaknesses.  Munny himself is neither a good bad man nor a bad good man; he is simply a man.  This is a deglamorized version of “Shane,” where not the fastest draw but the calmest demeanor and the steadiest hand wins the gun battle.  Likewise, Sheriff Daggett is no common heavy; instead, we see a person who truly believes in what he’s doing to keep the peace, no matter how violent it may seem to us.

Some people who have seen this movie have said it also displays themes of antiviolence and women’s lib, but these are only peripheral issues in a story that basically tries to proffer a different slant on a traditional genre.  And we must not forget the film’s humor.  Though violent, often downright brutal, the filmmakers often imbue it with a lighthearted tone.  When somebody starts firing at Munny and Logan, it appears from the look on his face as though Munny may have been shot.  “Did they hit you?” asks Logan.  “No,” replies Munny.  “I bumped my head falling off my horse.”

Yet for all its attempts at debunking the conventional Hollywood Western, “Unforgiven” remains an orthodox example of the breed.  It maintains Hollywood’s strict “Code of the West,” where courage and loyalty reign supreme and the protagonist faces off with the antagonist in one big, final showdown.  William Munny may be older and more grizzled than Eastwood’s seminal Western hero of several decades before, but, make no mistake, underneath it all he’s still Sergeo Leone’s “Man With No Name.”

The movie’s cinematography also works in the grand Western style, with gorgeous background scenery and vast, open vistas to ponder.  The leadoff shot of Munny’s little cabin silhouetted on the prairie against a setting sun is itself worthy of brief meditation, as is the fine, simple musical score by Lennie Niehaus and the main musical theme by Eastwood himself.

John’s film rating:  8/10

The Film According to Jim:
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 sprightly take on the taming of the West, the use of guns and violence is questioned. So is the mythologizing 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 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.

Jim’s film rating:  8/10

As I mentioned earlier, the video encode appears to be the same one Warners used for their previous Blu-ray edition.  This means a VC-1 codec and a dual-layer BD50 to present the picture in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1.  It’s a fairly dark film, about half the action taking place either at night, in the darkness, or in the rain; and the high-definition transfer displays the detail in the darkness fairly well, with object delineation reasonably clean and clear.  Understand, however, that because of the overall duskiness of most of the film, the HD reproduction may not make every scene look much different from standard definition.  Anyway, the disc renders background shots and scenery beautifully and realistically, as are things like dusty trails and smoky barrooms, but where the high-def comes into its own is in close-ups, faces, and outdoor daylight shots.  I swear there are times you can see every leaf on every tree, although there are also times when things are a shade soft.  The Blu-ray’s 1080p resolution sets off colors better than ever, with solid blacks providing a natural, three-dimensional appearance.

As on their previous Blu-ray edition, the soundtrack again comes to us via lossy Dolby Digital 5.1.  Yes, I wished they had remastered it in lossless Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio, but it was not to be.  Nevertheless, the Dolby Digital sounds fine, a wide frequency range producing a good deep bass and strong transient impact.  It is a pleasure to listen to the sounds of horses’ hooves, birds, rain, crickets, and distant rolls of thunder rendered realistically.  While most of the sound continues to come from the front speakers in this 5.1 remix, the rear surrounds accomplish their job, too, enveloping the listening area in many environmental sounds of the day.  About my only minor criticism is that the upper midrange can be a tad forward and bright at times, although it doesn’t have much effect on voices.

“Unforgiven” contains the same bonus items found on WB’s previous Blu-ray edition, and they are an impressive lot.  First, there’s an audio commentary with film critic and Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel, followed by four documentaries and a television show.  The best of the documentaries is a twenty-two minute item called “All on Accounta Pullin’ a Trigger” that features comments by Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, and various crew members.  The second documentary, “Eastwood & Co.:  Making Unforgiven,” is twenty-three minutes, narrated by Hal Holbrook, and made at the time of the film’s shooting in 1992; it seems more like PR hype than the first documentary, but it contains some useful information.  The third documentary, “Eastwood…A Star,” is sixteen minutes and chronicles the star’s career; while the fourth documentary, “Eastwood on Eastwood,” is a sixty-eight minute examination of the man’s life, career, and outlook on filmmaking.  Then, there’s a classic, James Garner “Maverick” episode from 1959, “Duel at Sundown,” that features a young Eastwood in a supporting role.  These bonus items are perhaps a little much to absorb at one sitting, so you might want to go at them slowly.

The extras conclude with thirty-three scene selections; a widescreen theatrical trailer; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Finally, because this is a Blu-ray Book release, the disc comes packaged in the back of a fifty-eight page hardbound book, filled with pictures and text illustrating almost every aspect of the film, its stars, and its production.

Parting Thoughts:
“Unforgiven” is a delicate yet brutal balance of real West versus reel West.  If this seems contradictory, remember that the movie never strays too far in either direction to distract us from its primary purpose, which is to entertain.  It’s no wonder the movie made more money than any previous Eastwood Western and won the Oscars it did, including Best Picture, Best Director (Eastwood), Best Supporting Actor (Gene Hackman), and Best Film Editing (Joel Cox).

Appropriate to its gritty purpose, the movie gets an R rating for vulgar language, violence, and sexual situations.  It’s one heck of a good film.