There was a time when the very idea of “Clint Eastwood, Oscar-winning director” was the stuff of science fiction. Sure, he’d made Serious Films like Bird and White Hunter, Black Heart, but the glass ceiling quarantined their acclaim to our esteemed French colleagues and the odd tech award. However, there was something about the soft-sell iconography in the Unforgiven trailer, with a grizzled Eastwood turning toward the camera, out of the shadows, that clued people into the fact that the former star of TV’s Rawhide and Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, was about to take a sledgehammer to that glass ceiling. Against a shallow field of contenders (Howards End was the only real threat), it took the Best Picture Oscar, and the rest, as they say, is history. Acting less and less frequently, Eastwood is now seen as something of a regular Oscar player, and if his films don’t make the final brackets, it’s not because they lack in pedigree.
We can go back and forth all day on the sea change in how Eastwood the director was perceived post-Unforgiven (from Breezy through J. Edgar, I can’t think of another director whose films are so unmistakably personal, strange, and emotionally rich, however much they superficially qualify as “white elephant art”), but revisiting the 1992 western, which would seem to be his last encounter with the genre, only to validates the idea of the contradictory systems in his art, the way he can get away with guilelessly “making a statement” while so thoroughly grounding the events in his films in the specific and circumstantial. This effectively deflates any perceived grandstanding, and syncs the narrative to whatever emotional states he wishes. Unforgiven is laden with so many qualifiers, both for its putative hero and its designated villain, that any statements it might make are as much about itself, and its characters, as they are about themes concerning genre or history.
Following a title crawl that already diminishes our hero (well before we ever meet him) via the portentous language of some unknown western novel, describing William Munny (Eastwood) as an intemperate, amoral scoundrel, we witness the fateful events at Skinny Dubois’s bar and brothel. A rowdy—and insecure and violence prone—cowboy slashes the face of a prostitute. Little Bill handles the matter with an air of frontier bureaucracy, fining the guilty party instead of whipping or hanging. It may not be a good choice, but a man in Little Bill’s position, we presume, must sometimes make bad choices to keep his little town from drifting off the precipice. Or, if that’s not a good enough justification, then the fact that it might be true is good enough for Little Bill, and the mechanism he’s put in place to maintain a modicum of order. Scene after scene follows suit, never excusing the actions of the characters, but also denying them any archetypal value. English Bob’s (Richard Harris) arrest and ritual humiliation is only the longest and most detailed of subplots and events that take up the pattern of annihilating the archetypal, in all its material forms.
The years following Unforgiven witnessed the resurgence of the “revisionist” western, a term that seemed to indicate flashy camerawork, gruesome bloodletting, and characters slathered in dirt and grime. Eastwood, whose career was launched in the surge of the postwar TV-western craze, almost certainly realized that the myth of the soft-hearted, morally unequivocal, white-hat/black-hat western of Hollywood’s heyday was just that: a myth. The brutality and moral fog inhabited by Unforgiven owes a debt not just to Eastwood’s mentors, Sergio Leone and Don Siegel (the film is dedicated to both men), but films like Andre de Toth’s Day of the Outlaw and Anthony Mann’s The Man from Laramie. Concerning the western genre, such things were the rule, rather than the exception, even on a relatively straightforward TV series like Rawhide, which first brought Eastwood his lasting fame.
Not that Unforgiven lacks for mythic ambitions, as the iconic scene following the Kid’s first killing will attest—the one with the gray storm clouds, and the town in the distance, where Munny says, “We all got it comin’, Kid.” It’s in this moment, the observant viewer will recall, that Munny takes his first drink since he married his recently departed wife and took up pig farming. Scenes such as these figure into one of Eastwood’s more frequently examined ideas, that we are part of a larger mechanism that’s capable of thoughtlessly pushing our counter back to double zeroes before patting us on the head and sending us on our way.
Eastwood’s storytelling grounds such scenes in the specifics of character and the themes he explores: fate, appearances, the finality of aging and death. Much of the film’s middle section concerns the devolution of mythic images, as Eastwood tends to favor that which will diminish. There are repeated shots of Morgan Freeman, paralyzed after failing to pull the trigger on Davey Bunting, repeated shots of Munny tumbling from his riding horse, repeated mentions (and visual evidence) of the incompetent craftsmanship of Little Bill’s carpentry. The last metaphor may be an apt one to represent the film’s statement: His house is a structure that stands despite its flaws, but also one that lets in the water when it rains, and, at long last, stands empty, without purpose.
Hardly the worst HD transfer I've seen, Warner Home Video's job on this Oscar winner is quite a disappointment compared to, say, the same studio's much prettier Pale Rider Blu-ray. (That Eastwood western boasts a similar visual scheme, but was made less than a decade earlier.) Only so much of this can be attributed to the physicality of the movie's pre-Digital Intermediate grain. Lacking in clarity, and with a dark fog over the image, this looks more like a great VHS tape than a Blu-ray. The Dolby sound mix is acceptable, but the lack of a DTS track smarts a little.
The extras are ported over from the 2002 two-disc DVD edition, including the "All on Accounta Pullin' a Trigger" featurette and the 1959 "Duel at Sundown" episode of Maverick starring a 29-year-old Eastwood. On the whole, there's far more celebration than insight, but the Maverick episode provides a light antidote to this grave film. The obsequious Eastwood doormat Richard Schickel provides the audio commentary, if you aren't paying any attention whatsoever to the film and you need every last fucking thing explained to you.
Don't be fooled by the fancy-pants book package: This is a smuggled-out-under-the-cover-of-darkness rehash of the 2002 two-disc DVD set, with a mediocre, unrestored transfer and no DTS track.