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Sunday, September 9, 2007

Unforgiven: A movie that changes the image of Western movies

Westerns in the American movie world have typically of the sphagetti western type popularized by Clint Eastwood, and for those who remember, by John Wayne earlier. After all, how many would not remember 'For a fistfull of dollars', 'High Noon', 'Once upon a time in the West', and so on. The westerns in movies portray a picture that is vastly different from the one portrayed in Unforgiven in many respects.
Traditional westerns have mostly portrayed the west as a desolate place, with the gunslinger as a loner, treading along on his trusty steed; sometimes fighting the villain, sometimes fighting Indians, or it can be the cowboy working on a ranch or trying to setup something on his own in a big ranch. The hero is typically a good man from the heart, shooting from the hip, and wearing a certain set of clothes including a Stetson hat (large), spurs, bandanna (many of them), buckskins, a rifle or maybe a revolver. Many times the setting happen in a location that can be mountainous and arid at the same time, or in a desert like situation with sage rolling on the ground. A saloon forms a distinct part of the landscape, and a sheriff is an important part of the locality, with people being deputized when required. Here also you will hear the term 'posse'.


This entire vision had been under revision for some time with facts, studies and movies trying to debunk the romance involved in this mission. And then came this movie, Unforgiven (1992) which cleared away the whole vision, instead portraying people as normal people. So a gunfighter is essentially a mercenary (who will kill women and children for money), a sheriff is a person who does not implement fairness and is not above implementing his beliefs for implementing law, where women do not have an equal role; essentially it is a sordid tale. You have an aspiring gunslinger who finds out that life is more sordid than he expected, and you have a journalist who will do anything for a story.
Unforgiven was such a stark movie and so impressed people that it won a variety of Academy Awards. It was nominated for 9 awards and won 4 of them:
1. Best Picture for Clint Eastwood
2. Best Director for Clint Eastwood
3. Best Editing for Joel Cox
4. Best Actor in a supporting role for Gene Hackman
Violence is not glorified in any way, and even the anti-hero (Clint Eastwood) is not portrayed as a heroic figure, instead he is a retired former gunslinger (who was reformed after marriage), and is now supporting 2 children (his wife has died) by running a pig farm and gets back to being an active gunslinger because he needs the money.
The movie starts with a prostitute being attacked by a cowboy when she makes fun of his under-developed organ, and he, in a rage, slashes her face with a knife. The sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), a former gunfighter himself, comes and dispenses justice; he fines the cowboy and his friend and then, pays the money to the saloon owner and the pimp since they suffered damage to their goods; the prostitute does not get anything and the cowboy is not punished in any way.
The women of the saloon are outraged at this display of injustice and collect $1000 for whoever bounty hunter will kill the 2 cowboys and spread this information far and wide. People respond to this, with a newbie gunfighter, The Kid recruiting William Munny (Eastwood) to try and collect this money. Munny is a retired gunslinger, mercenary, and bandit, so he does not have a very reputable past life. Munny also takes the help of Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) to help in this mission, and they set off to kill the 2 cowboys.
Another person is also approaching for the sake of getting this money, English Bob (Richard Harris). He arrives with his own biographer to write a book about him called 'The Duke of Death'. However, the sheriff has not taken kindly to the thought of bounty hunters arriving in his town to kill the cowboys and beats up English Bob and jails him, whereupon the biographer switched sides. He is a fan of the Great Western, and the sheriff seems to be a good representative of the lot. Further, there is a local ordinance that prohibits guns, and hence the sheriff is empowered to arrest anybody who carries guns.
And then these 3 - the Kid, Munny and Logan arrive in town and enter the saloon where while Munny waits downstairs, the other 2 go up to enjoy the prostitutes. And then the sheriff, Little Bill discovers that Munny is carrying a gun; given the reason, he beats Munny pretty viciously in front of everybody in the saloon. However, he escapes with his life and The Kid and Logan take him out of town and nurse him to a recovery with the help of the prostitutes.
Once Munny is recovered, they start tracking the cowboys down, and kill one of them. The murder shakes Logan up and he wants to leave; so the Kid and Munny continue and kill the other cowboy where he had hidden. One of the points of the movie is that murder is not something that you can do and then be casual; it affects both Logan and the Kid, since both renounce killing after that. The Kid no longer wants to become a gunslinger.
Logan in the meantime has been caught by the sheriff who is beating him to get information, and in the process he kills Logan; his dead body in a sheriff is then put for display just outside the saloon as a reminder that wild west justice can be harsh. When Munny gets his reward money, he is also told about the death of Logan and that puts him in a fury. He had given up drinking, but now drinks whiskey again and prepared to confront the sheriff.
In the meantime, the sheriff has setup a posse in the saloon to pursue Munny and the Kid, but then Munny arrives. He holds up everybody with a shotgun and then shoots the saloon owner who is unarmed; when told that this was not a done thing (after all, the correct thing was to shoot somebody when they also had a weapon), he retaliates that this was bound to happen ever since Logan was killed and his body displayed outside the saloon. In the ensuing gun fight, he is more skilled, and kills 3 posse members, and wounds the sheriff. And then when he hears the sheriff re-loading, he disarms him and then kills him.
But the point is, there is no heroism in this scene; Munny kills people after disarming them, or when they don't have a gun as well. In addition, even when leaving, he threatens all sorts of threats against anybody who would come after him, including threatening to kill their families.
If you are a western fan, then you should watch this movie; it is a decidedly different sort of movie. Further, this movie is a classic, part of any good DVD collection.

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