Thursday, 30 May 2013

Unforgiven (1992)

On Tuesday, with a vital geography exam on Thursday, I saw a film that I liked the sound of via Top Film Tip, a movie-catching service on Twitter. Rather than revise atmospheric circulation, preventative measures for malaria and the Green Revolution, I decided it would benefit me more in the long term if I caught Unforgiven on TCM. I can't say if that was the right choice until results day in August, but I certainly don't regret it yet. Now the geography exam's over, and with that all my fifth year exams, I no longer have an excuse for not watching any films. I'm going to try and make up for lost time in the week's holiday I have left.

But anyway, Unforgiven was on the telly. I was particularly drawn to it as it was a Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards, one of only three westerns to have walked away with the top prize (two of which, oddly, were in the nineties, hardly a period iconic for the cowboy movie). I know, a western. I've never felt particularly enthused by westerns. In fact, I think Unforgiven might just be the first western I've watched all the way through unless, I've just realised, you count Blazing Saddles, which you probably do. They've never appealed to me. Maybe I feel a bit alienated by such an overtly American genre. Maybe it's because I've never imagined the plot digressing too far between different films (it's probably about two old rivals meeting for the final time, and solving their dispute once and for all with a couple of Magnum pistols), or because I know what a load of nostalgic bollocks it is. Either way, it's meant I've avoided them pretty successfully for seventeen years. Except Blazing Saddles. And, I've now remembered, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I realise my earlier statement might be flaking a bit.

The greatest icon of this sort of film has always been, and probably always will be, Clint Eastwood. The name comes with a sort of gravitas that comes rarely, one that invokes a particular image. It's a name that's almost grown beyond the actual person who owns it, like Elvis Presley, or Albert Einstein. He personifies The Western in a way not even legends like John Wayne or Gary Cooper can, at least over in the UK. It must have been a surprise, then, when he announced that Unforgiven would be the last western he would ever make. He'd be directing, producing and starring in it. It would be his baby.

It must have also come as a surprise when everyone actually watched it. This isn't the typical, generic, Eastwood western of black-and-white Good against Evil. It's a black, sticky web of badness, just bad people going up against other bad people. Clint isn't a hero in this, although he likes to play with your perceptions. He's William Munny, an ageing cowboy who's given up his ways in order to raise his kids on their pig farm. In a past life, he was a thief, a man who killed swathes of men, women and children. After getting married, he quit and moved far away to be with his family. Soon after his wife dies, however, Munny is visited by a young man who asks him to accompany his bounty hunt against two men who disfigured a prostitute's face. After the young man's wildly exaggerated description of the attack, Munny initially refuses before being tempted by the lure of his old life and the idea of justice.

It's a curious film, is Unforgiven. At no point do you find yourself cheering anyone on. There's an interesting chap played by Richard Harris named English Bob who appears separate to the main plot line. Initially, after his short speech on a train advocating gun control, I found myself thinking, finally, someone I can feel for. Then, during a confrontation with Gene Hackman's sheriff, you find that he's a bastard who could stand with the best of them. It's a cynical film, one that tells you no man is better than anyone else. The young man who recruits Eastwood boasts to Morgan Freeman that he's killed five men; by the end, he's killed his first, and breaks down in horror at what he's done. It's quite affecting and harrowing to watch.

It's a story of violence twisting into more violence because violent people with guns believe violence with solve it. There are a lot of guns in Unforgiven. There's a scene in a sheriff's office where you can hardly hear anyone speak for the constant clicking of loading and unloading guns. The only people without any bad karma in the film are a bunch of prostitutes. The 'hero' kills just about everyone in a bar without a word. It's unpleasant to watch, but a fantastic look at the true motivations people have - nowadays just as much as in the Wild West.

Follow me on Twitter: @crunro

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