Clint Eastwood's UNFORGIVEN is an elegy to the genre, and an excellent example of a revisionist western ...or is it?
I think it's an extremely interesting film for the fact that it sets itself up in the traditional ways of western storytelling then meta-rides through it's own contempt for the genre wilst utilizing it's tricks to both defy and embolden our ideas of "a western" at the same time. Even the decision to open the story with the respect for women that the genre is know for a definitive lack-of, is a genre-challenging choice that should let us in on the fact that this is going to be a layered intelligent film. The screenplay flirts with conventions while undermining its power with the same tools. Unforgiven, like Will Munny, hates itself whilst respectfully acknowledging the only language it can speak to us in - the language of fear.
I remember seeing it for the first time - I was a wild 21 year old, and the fear in Clint in that end scene - it threw me off, and I wondered why? Why the effect in me, and why the choice to end the film on the note of a seemingly powerful character's fear. Like Chinatown and The French Connection I wasn't sure if I liked it, but it called to me - I needed to understand why Unforgiven was told.
There's a lot of fear in the movie 3:10 TO YUMA as well, and I think this element of humanization is always the way revisionist genre will go. We create stories that mythologize the things we believe in on a grand scale - makes for great entertainment, but association with this is a bit trickier ..broader than the world we reside in. This is where realism, or at least the move towards it has to begin, so that we the audience can find ourselves within the story being told, no matter which character we find association within.
Even as far back as 1957, I think the audience of 3:10 would have been equally split between the motivations of Dan(the good guy) vs the motivations of Ben(the bad guy), and I'd even guess Elmore Leonard's choice of names was deliberate - they're pretty close. Each of these men is trying to be something specific and different, but each seems very much activated by fear. We see each of these men make decisions from different motivations and we understand them.
|So much for color-coding cowboys, eh?|
as well as being many of Clint's younger, wilder characters.
Is Unforgiven's Director not saying straight up "I've played a lot of violent irresponsible characters - perhaps it's time to atone, at at least address atonement."
Gleaned from David Webb Peoples' screenplay is that yes, Munny was a rather bad cat - drunk, violent and not unlike the scheming womanizer Ben of 3:10, who may just go on to become a better man.
But what does Clint ultimately say about the western and the western archetype by playing this aged antihero who rises to defend the honour of whores?
Plenty, but it's complex. Like his character in Gran Torino, I think Mr. Eastwood is at a point of maturation and recognition of much larger elements to the human story. The phrase "no more" is used quite a bit, illustrating a definite acknowledgement of everything that came before, both in his own career and the genre itself. As the Director of Unforgiven I think Clint saw an opportunity to comment very deeply on his own perception of violence, and when/why it is ugly but necessary. Or maybe it evolved as he recognized it within himself - the grand comment from filmdom's senior tough guy might be "..there's always a smarter way to face your fears than violence".
3:10 to Yuma is an excellent example of a revisionist genre film, whilst Unforgiven is either the ultimate revisionist western, or an extraordinary film-career-socio-commentary-meta-film on the ridiculousness of North American violence really well-disguised as one.