The William Munny Killings was an original screenplay by writer David Webb Peoples that came across the desk of Clint Eastwood in the early 1980’s. Peoples story told of a retired gunfighter trying to raise his two children on his own. It wasn’t going well, as the pigs he was raising were dying from a sickness and money was quickly running out. An opportunity presents itself to Munny when he learns of a bounty placed on two ranchers. The money being offered is so good that Munny decides to holster his weapons one last time to track down two ranchers who disfigured a prostitute. Accompanied by a young punk who fancies himself a killer and Munny’s old riding friend, the sixty-year-old man rides off to Montana to find those men in a town run by a ruthless sheriff.
If that description sounds familiar then you’ve probably seen Unforgiven, Eastwood’s western masterpiece that was released twenty years ago this August and is available in this 20th Anniversary Blu-ray edition of the film. Eastwood optioned Peoples’ script and then sat on in for nearly a decade. He felt that the character in the story should be an older man, not someone in their late 30’s, as was originally written. The venerable actor/director knew that he would someday play the role, but he needed to be the right age. It wasn’t until the early 1990’s that Eastwood felt ready.
Warner Brothers, the studio behind the film and Eastwood’s longtime home for making movies, understood how special the production was and saw the potential of this western to be a classic film. Executives at the company approached the director about casting some big name actors in the supporting roles. They suggested Academy Award winner Gene Hackman and previous Academy Award nominees, Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris. Eastwood was thrilled that the studio was willing to pony up some extra cash to bring these legendary performers into his production. The small movie he’d envisioned making was becoming a prestige project. Completing the cast were Saul Rubinek, Jaimz Woolvett and Frances Fisher.
Typical of every Eastwood film, Unforgiven (as the movie was eventually renamed) was completed ahead of schedule and on budget. Nearly a year after the cameras began rolling, the film opened in August of ’92. The film was both a critical and box office success and when awards season rolled around, Unforgiven racked up numerous accolades. In February of 1993, it would go on to win four Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing (Joel Cox) and Best Supporting Actor (Hackman).
It’s easy to understand why the film was a hit with critics. To this day it remains a powerful statement about the nature of violence and its effect on a man’s soul. Munny (Eastwood) and Ted (Freeman) have lost a part of themselves due to the harm they’ve inflicted others, and Little Bill (Hackman) has become corrupted by the ease with which he can use violence for justice. Unforgiven also explores that very gray area between good and evil. Bill is clearly the antagonist, yet he has the interests of the town in mind, so is he 100% evil? Meanwhile, Munny is portrayed heroically, but his past and his current mission make him more of an anti-hero.
For scholars, Unforgiven also offers something interesting as the film shows the myth of the old west vs. the reality. Saul Rubinek’s character, Beauchamp, a dime store novelist, is a myth maker for sure, turning killers and scoundrels like English Bob (Harris) into folk heroes. Beauchamp believes that the men he’s glorifying aren’t so bad. But he learns. By film’s end he’s well aware that these men aren’t heroes in the savage west, but ruthless survivors.
That Unforgiven was a commercial success doesn’t surprise me, due in part to Eastwood’s stature as a western actor. However, being a master storyteller, there are moments of levity that offset the seriousness of the themes of the movie. Situations like Munny’s struggles to get back on his horse, Ted’s eagerness to get a poke from one of the prostitutes, or Bill’s lack of skill as a carpenter are laugh out loud funny. However, once the film turns, and I’m speaking of that brilliant scene between Munny and the Kid (Woolvet) in which they discuss killing a man, that’s when Unforgiven becomes the classic film that everyone remembers. In that short moment, everything the film is trying to say is spoken in a few short sentences between the two characters.
It’s hard to believe that twenty years have passed since its release. Unforgiven remains one of the best westerns and best American films ever. I would rank it next to John Ford’s The Searchers as one of the most important westerns of all time. If you haven’t seen the film in some time, this special edition Blu-ray is a great way to see it. Picture quality and sound are excellent, making for optimum viewing experience. As for special features, if you previously invested in the Unforgiven 10th Anniversary DVD, then you’re going to be disappointed, as all of the contents of that edition are the same bonus features here. Granted, it’s a wealth of material, including two documentaries on the making of the movie, an superlative special that looks at Eastwood’s entire career (up until 1997, when the special was made) and commentary by Eastwood biographer and Time film critic, Richard Schickel. The only new material included in this special edition Blu-ray is a nice essay written by Schickel that is incorporated into the disc holding case. Both informative and lovingly written, it’s a fine addition to the Unforgiven canon of historical material.