The 1880s and in Wyoming, a scandal has created a buzz in the land for word has gotten around that a couple of villains cut up the face of a prostitute (Anna Levine) in revenge for her laughing at one of them when they undressed, and has left her scarred for life. The tale grows in the telling, but the most important aspect to some ears is that the girl's fellow whores have placed a generous bounty on the heads of the criminals, news which mightily annoys the town sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman) - yet intrigues retired, reformed gunfighter Bill Munny (Clint Eastwood) who has fallen on hard times.
It could be one of the reasons Unforgiven was so embraced by movie buffs resided in that last dedication after the end credits: "To Sergio and Don", Eastwood paying tribute to the two directors who were so crucial in shaping his career and teaching him the craft which he put to such good use for his own broadening career, of which you could say this film was the ultimate fruition. Certainly Eastwood's generosity and sincerity in that tribute won over a lot of fans who could see where he had taken their lessons to heart in this, fashioning a Western which could have been out of step with the current trends of the nineties, but managed to find a fresh relevancy in its thematically rich story.
The main theme was that violence begets violence, and nobody here was innocent of proving that to be the case, even those who never fired a shot: you could include Munny's kids in that as well, for though they do not expressly ask their father to take up his guns again it is for them he does so, even as it causes him anguish for their late mother had done her best to improve him from the wanton murderer he used to be. Some saw these meditations on the nature of what brings people to violence a muddle, or not quite thought through, but actually in David Webb Peoples's script things are more complex than the black hat vs. white hat yarns that the genre had been regarded as by those who tended to dismiss it.
Famously, Peoples' screenplay had been bought by Eastwood's company many years before, and had been floating around for longer than that, the story going that the star wished to "grow into" the role of an ageing gunfighter rather than film it before he felt it was the right time. But in the early nineties, the problems of police corruption and lawlessness among a disadvantaged public were very much in the headlines: if that factoid was true, then Eastwood displayed quite some nous in adapting it when he did (and didn't even think to consult with Peoples at all in the process). If Little Bill represented that authority taking dangerous lengths to maintain the peace, then Munny was the man driven by social pressures to break that law, and he was not alone as the need for money begins to be supplanted by the desire for vengeance.
You could blame the thugs at the beginning of the film, or the prostitutes (led by Eastwood's then-girlfriend Frances Fisher) for appealing to the greed of the outraged by putting up their savings as reward for the bounty, or Bill for being so selective in his justice that it becomes meaningless, and so it goes on with each character in this chain of sorrow playing their part. Needless to say, with a cast of this calibre the dialogue fairly crackled: you could feel the electricity in the air when the situation grew tense, which was often. Hackman was quite brilliant in one of this best roles, which is saying a lot, Richard Harris made the most of his opportunities as the rival assassin who demonstrates to us the hollow triumph of being famous for attacking people, and Morgan Freeman is the conscience as Munny's old friend who joins up only to be sickened when he realises the implications of murder. Even Jaimz Woolvert as "The Kid" illustrated how youth was drawn into this hell through bluff, bluster and arrogance; really, there was so much to analyse it was worth simply recalling just how gripping and menacing Unforgiven could be. Music by Lennie Niehaus.
Becoming a superstar in the late 1960s gave Clint Eastwood the freedom to direct in the seventies. Thriller Play Misty for Me was a success, and following films such as High Plains Drifter and The Outlaw Josey Wales showed a real talent behind the camera as well as in front of it. He won an Oscar for his downbeat Western Unforgiven, which showed his tendency to subvert his tough guy status in intriguing ways. Another Oscar was awarded for boxing drama Million Dollar Baby, which he also starred in.
Also a big jazz fan, as is reflected in his choice of directing the Charlie Parker biopic Bird. Other films as director include the romantic Breezy, The Gauntlet, good natured comedy Bronco Billy, Honkytonk Man, White Hunter Black Heart, The Bridges of Madison County, OAPs-in-space adventure Space Cowboys, acclaimed murder drama Mystic River, complementary war dramas Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima and harrowing true life drama Changeling. Many considered his Gran Torino, which he promised would be his last starring role (it wasn't), one of the finest of his career and he continued to direct with such biopics as Jersey Boys, American Sniper and The Mule to his name.
Mark Cousins argues what he believes to be Eastwood's overrated position as a serious artist hinges on his late discovery of something every other great director already knew: that violence is bad. I think that is an oversimplified dismissal. Eastwood's work as a director had depth, moral complexity and poetry from the outset, even when he delved into dark waters. With Unforgiven he shed some of the misogyny that dogged his earlier, near great westerns such as High Plains Drifter. While I would argue The Outlaw Josey Wales is every bit as much a masterpiece, Unforgiven was a game-changer for Eastwood and as good as any western from the genre's heyday.