A critical analysis of unforgiven
During the process of this essay I will identify the interaction of implicit and explicit meaning within this film. I will identify the use of specific forms, cinematographic devices and narrative techniques within Unforgiven and putting it into context showing the influence over how it was produced and is received. I will also apply one or more approaches used in the analysis of film.
William Munny (Clint Eastwood) is a pig farmer who travels from Kansas to Wyoming picking up a group of misfits along the way, his ex partner a black man whose now a farmer who’s married to a Native American, a short sighted kid and a victimised young prostitute whose abusers he’s paid to avenge. On the journey Munny has to confront his past. A reformed gun singer, his wife Claudia showed him the errors of his ways, turned him into a virtuous husband, a caring farther and a hard working farmer. With his wife buried and the chance of losing his farm, word of a $1000 bounty on the heads of two cowboys who stabbed the prostitute convinces him to revert to type.
That is the first half of the film, and is similar to the outlaw Josey Wales (1976), then when Munny reaches his destination; he is turned into a superhuman avenger who steps out of a thunderstorm to shoot down five people before riding off into the distance and resembles High Plain Drifter (1972).
The film opens with a distance shot of a frontier home, lone tree, golden sunset and a man digging a gravesite silhouetted on the horizon. This long shot is similar to one with John Wayne in John Fords She wore a yellow ribbon. Eastwoods familiarity with westerns means this is probably deliberate as is similarities with other western films and conventions found through out the film.
http://www.cinemas-online.co.uk/bios/clinteastwood/bio.phtml observes that Clint Eastwood signed for Universal studios in 1954 after a spell in the army. His parts were small ones in poor films. He was dropped by the studio and went on to find his own work. Eastwoods big break came with the TV series Rawhide, where he was cast as cattle driver Rowdy Yates. This led to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. In a fist full of dollars (1964), for a few dollars more (1965), and The good the bad and the ugly (1966) Eastwood gained an international reputation, at the same time developing the screen image that was to see him through his career. From 1986 to 1988 he was elected mayor of Carmel, California. The Unforgiven earned him Oscars for both best picture and best director.
Unforgiven has many direct visual and verbal references to past Hollywood Westerns. Big Whiskey where they are headed has snow-covered mountains in the background and its main street is drowning in mud just like the town in Shane. The references in Unforgiven have the effect of cementing Eastwoods image in the genre rather then being seen simply as copying western traditions. The narrative has many strategic devices: foreshadowing. irony, symmetry and symbolism (Hackmans hollow sense of home), dialogue that means more then it says.
In many of Eastwoods films he plays the part of ‘The man with no name’, an aloof gunfighter with no background. When this film was made it was necessary to expand on that William Munny is the mercenary man with no name but he’s now old and mellow looking back at the pain he’s caused. The character is more developed and humanised yet while answering some questions or giving more information about him, cleverly leaves the audience wanting to know more and so is successful in still keeping him elusive, in his past films he was killing for money but no use for this money was indicated but in Unforgiven he has a family to support.
Else (1995) says Unforgiven is philosophical, looking at humankind and finding it lacking. There are no real hero’s in this film and all the characters have their imperfections. There is good and bad in everyone, there’s impossible choices, fate and reality. Munny needs to survive and so fails in life by reverting to a gunfighter. This is in contrast to a lot of westerns; where the gunfighter settles or at least hopes to settle down on a ranch.
As William Munny walks into the BigWiskey brothel in his long coat, his hat pulled down with the famous stern Eastwood face and says ‘Who’s the fella owns this shit hole?’ it is clear his resolutions have been broken. It is a good cinematic sequence and is photographed as a series of stark contrasts, the farm and journey in bright sunlight, the town in darkness, rain and mud and appears to be a style favoured by Eastwood the director.
Munnys partner Ned is whipped and killed by the town sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman) leading him to do what would be expected of ‘The man with no name’
Munny: I’ve killed women and children, I’ve killed just about every thing that walked at one time or the other and I’m here to kill you little Bill for what you did to Ned.
As he leaves town his resignation of himself is shown as he swears
‘I’m comin’ out! Any son-of-a-bitch takes a shot at me, not only gonna kill him, I’m gonna kill his wife! And all his friends burn his damn house down! You better not cut up nor otherwise harm no whores or i’ll come back and kill every one of you sons- of-bitches.’
The themes of revenge, honour, justice, corruption, myth versus reality and a message of violence being unglamorous are well shown. The title suggests a religious judgement and although an unbeliever himself religion is a theme in many Eastwood films. The explicit meaning of the film is that the protagonist Munny is damned for his past sins. The implicit meaning, shown by the imperfections of all the characters is that we are all damned. These two meanings work to give this film a dark feel whilst perhaps also getting the audience to consider themselves and the wider world. Another implicit meaning in this film can be found in a message of the reality of violence and its effects, not glamorising anything, Unforgiven is perhaps a reaction to the meaningless violence in films and how when you kill someone they are really dead.
The end of the film is symmetrical to the first image in the film, Munnys home silhouetted on the sun-setting horizon. Clothes flap in the breeze on a clothesline. He walks towards the gravestone of his wife, he then disappears. The following text appears
William Munny had long since disappeared with the children some said to Sanfrancisco where it was rumoured he prospered in dry goods.
Years later, Mrs.Antonia feathers made the journey to visit the last resting- place of her only daughter. There was nobody and nothing to explain why her only daughter married a thief and murderer.
Unforgiven was a huge box office success. It had quality experienced actors providing a draw. Eastwoods use of western conventions made it easily recognisable and easy to read which helps in attracting a wide audience. The cinematography was simple but effective and played a lot on the contrasts of light and dark In the town of Big Whiskey a lot of the shots are from inside looking out, so that the figures seem dark and obscure and the brightness that pours through the windows is nearly blinding. The effect is to diminish the stature of the characters, these are not heroes, but people of a horrible town in which murders are a normal common event.
The film worked to enhance the Eastwood ‘The man with no name’ character and Eastwood himself. Initially I found it a little self indulgent but when considering all factors feel the film is successful in achieving its goals. Released in the cinema in 1992 and with Clint Eastwood and many of the actors over sixty years old this film is not only seen as Eastwoods final western but perhaps the last of its kind in the genre, Eastwoods references to other great westerns not only helps to see him and this film on the same level as them and embodying him within its traditions but can be seen as his tribute to them.
The humanising and rounding of the man with no name character was done brilliantly as somehow the audience is left to wonder and question even more about him. In a way this a film about how when you kill someone they are really dead but perversely the best scenes in the film are those of violence. Hunter (1995) says Unforgivens condemnation of sin has the effect of attaining a spiritual state of grace even though it denies grace to its characters and to the audience.