October 23, 2012  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven

Unforgiven. 1992. USA. Directed by Clint Eastwood

These notes accompany screenings of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven on October 24, 25, and 26 in Theater 3</a>.

Clint Eastwood’s diverse acting performances and directing accomplishments in Western films have earned him a solid place high in the pantheon of such genre artists as Ford, Hawks, Wayne, Cooper, Fonda, and Stewart…. Eastwood’s association with the genre goes back to a point before his work with [Sergio] Leone. After some bit parts in B-films, he kick-started his career…in the long-running television series Rawhide, beginning in 1959….

Unforgiven is a movie about violence in the Old West, but it also expresses Eastwood’s accumulated appreciation of the natural landscape…. Eastwood…uses selective shots of nature, visually elegant and each lasting only a few moments, as scene dividers. These quiet and poetic moments strike the viewer as a fitting contrast to the human-centered scenes of anger and violence that dominate the narrative…. (S)uch moments are…symbolic of a more natural and harmonious world beyond the brutality and artifice of self-centered human beings…. Munny is a character who finds himself not only within the actual physical landscape but also within the psychological and moral landscape of his own troubled memories and sense of loss.

Unforgiven reminds us of Henry King’s The Gunfighter (1950) and [Don] Siegel’s The Shootist [1976] because it is a story of a man who desires to hang up his gun for good, but not before one final act of violence becomes necessary…. Unforgiven has much to say about the reputation that a gunslinger earns and how that man must live, often regrettably, with the consequences of that reputation…. Its lessons about the deceptions involved in Old West mythologizing, and about the horrifying violence that permeated the reality of the Old West, make Unforgiven an exemplar of genre revisionism, even with its classical form of montage and visual stylization.

– Mary Lea Bandy and Kevin Stoehr, Ride, Boldly Ride: The Evolution of the American Western (University of California Press, 2012) (currently available in the MoMA Store)

Clint Eastwood (b. 1930) came late to the role of director. After acting in some 20 films over nearly two decades (graduating from Francis in the Navy and Revenge of the Creature to work with Sergio Leone and Don Siegel), Eastwood finally took the directorial plunge, with Play Misty for Me, at the age of 41. His most prominent actor/director predecessors (Chaplin, Keaton, Welles) had all moved behind the camera in their twenties, and several other early directors had simply given up acting for the director’s chair (Griffith, Lubitsch, Borzage, Walsh). From Misty on, Eastwood demonstrated the strong and assured hand of an authentic auteur, sometimes providing a surprisingly mellow and more complex tone than his onscreen persona would suggest. In recent outings like Gran Torino and J. Edgar, he has allowed a certain unanticipated tenderness to show beneath the surface.

Unforgiven. 1992. USA. Directed by Clint Eastwood

To be sure, neither of these two films are Westerns, and, in fact, Clint seems to have sworn off Westerns since Unforgiven, made two decades ago. John Ford stopped making Westerns (which had been his bread and butter) from Three Bad Men (1926) to Stagecoach (1939), but returned to—and vastly enriched—the genre over the next quarter-century. With Eastwood, It would appear that he feels he has had his final say with Unforgiven. The critic Stuart Klawans draws an interesting contrast between Ford’s “floods of sunlight” in Monument Valley and Eastwood’s film, in which “everything looks a lot darker” due to the “richly toned murk of his cinematography.” (Klawans suggests that Eastwood is less prone than Ford to be commenting on America and its historic destiny through his Westerns. Of course, some of Ford’s later, less-optimistic Westerns were pictorially less glistening.) Unforgiven‘s classic final shot in the rain evoked from Richard T. Jameson comparisons not just with Ford but also with F. W. Murnau and Kenji Mizoguchi, two of the cinema’s greatest visual stylists. Perhaps Eastwood was correct in allowing this to be his final word, or rather, image, in the genre.