Unforgiven | Third Space


Thu 12 Aug 2021
Focusing on a classic

5 stars

“Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

Clint Eastwood is associated with numerous classics as both actor and director, but few are as legendary as Unforgiven, a film that is last in the anthology of great American Westerns. The legacy of director John Ford and John Wayne (The Duke), began in the mid-20th century and includes classics like Stagecoach, The Searchers, and Liberty Valance. Later, Italian director Sergio Leone completely redefined the genre and cast Clint Eastwood as the enigmatic Man With No Name. He made numerous so-called Spaghetti Westerns, including a sprawling epic called The Good the Bad and the Ugly. Decades have passed by and the 91-year-old Eastwood remains one of the most celebrated and prolific actor/directors in Hollywood. His renowned mystique is inextricably tied to the Western, a motif solidified with a Best Director and Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of an ageing outlaw and killer named William Munny in this celebrated Western.

The film’s wide-angle opening sequence is of a man burying his wife against the backdrop of a beautiful western sunset. The black silhouette of a leafless tree next to a dilapidated farmhouse stands in sharp relief against the vibrant sky. As the opening prologue crawls up the screen, a lone guitar plucks the simple chords of a haunting melody called ‘Claudia’s Theme’. “She was a comely woman, not without prospects. Therefore, it was heartbreaking to her mother that she would marry William Munny, a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.”

Munny is a retired gunslinger who, under the inspiration of his “dearly departed”, Claudia, was “cured of drink and wickedness.” He is comfortable being a struggling hog farmer and father of two. Viewers can see how this transition is symbolised in the opening sunset. Depicting a life filled with lawless depravity to one of meager domestication. This former outlaw seems resigned to family life on the farm until one day a small-time bounty hunter called “The Schofield Kid” (Jaimz Woolvett) shows up to recruit the notorious William Munny to help kill a pair of cowboys who cut up a woman in Big Whiskey, Wyoming. “You don’t look like no rootin’ tootin’ cold-blooded assassin”, the Kid remarks with a hint of disgust. This leads to Will declining the offer, but old habits die hard and with the promise of a reward, he and his old partner, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), agree to help the Kid.

Traditional Westerns draw a clear distinction between good and evil. This is seen in examples like The Lone Ranger’s white Stetson, which is worn in contrast to the “Black Hat” villains. In Unforgiven, Eastwood blurs the line between right and wrong so the audience connects with everyone. Men with deplorable histories act with good intentions and outwardly virtuous men turn out to be brutal and cruel. His central character seeks absolution from his past murderous ways despite believing “those cowboys deserve to die for what they done.” Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) is a cold-blooded mediator of justice whose answer to violence is viciousness. In the film's final scene,Little Bill says, “I don’t deserve to die like this. I was building a house.” Will tells him, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” Both men are in pursuit of redemption that in the end, never comes.

The characters in Unforgiven are conflicted with past transgressions. They struggle with accepting a tamed West. One that produced shootists and desperados, men like Will Munny and Little Bill and English Bob (Richard Harris), men who are irrelevant now. Towards the end a visibly shaken Schofield Kid says, “Well, I guess they had it coming.” Will replies, “We all have it coming, Kid.” Eastwood destroys the romantic myth of the American West. Violent men cannot be civilised and there are no paragons of virtue, all are unforgiven.

Reel Dialogue: Is it possible for anyone to be forgiven of their past sins?

“What is impossible with man is possible with God.” Luke 18:27

Is there such a thing as an unforgivable sin? The title of Clint Eastwood’s classic does say that some people are not able to be forgiven. Despite trying to live right by his family, he shows that no one is able to escape their past. All the while, he weaves a story that centres on that very question, how far is too far when it comes to being able to forgive others.

Interestingly, this is at the heart of the message of the Bible, too. Not just the question of forgiveness between human beings, but more importantly between God and mankind. Regardless of what we have done against God or others, the God of the Bible is willing to forgive those who are willing to seek his forgiveness.

1. How can God forgive sins? (Isaiah 59:1-2, Ephesians 1:7, 2 Timothy 2:13, 1 John 1:9)

2. Why should we believe that God will forgive anyone? (Psalm 23:4, Matthew 24: 11-13, Luke 15:1-10)

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