Clint Eastwood has been one of the best actors and directors of our generation, and well, the past generations too. Eastwood is well-known for his work in the Spaghetti Western genre, especially that of Joe in A Fistful of Dollars and Blondie in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. However, Eastwood’s best film is one where the western tropes get turned on their head. Unforgiven is that Clint Eastwood movie. What makes Unforgiven so special is the consistent pressure that titular “hero” Bill Munny is in to remain a neutral party. The Wild West has always been painted as a cutthroat type of existence, and the weight in which that falls on Munny makes this Clint Eastwood directed picture the best in his massive lineup.
Unforgiven came out in 1992, in a time in which directors and writers began to truly understand what it was to create a western film that didn’t have to rely on the same old tropes of the genre. The Spaghetti Westerns were a thing of the past, essentially, and Clint Eastwood took to allowing the antihero archetype to a new level. Bill Munny just wanted the simple farm life and wanted nothing to do with his former gunslinging ways any longer. However, by the end of the film, he had no other choice but to return to his old roots. The insurmountable pressure of trying to do the right thing but consistently being pushed into the wrong thing is a strong dynamic. You truly cannot go wrong with Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, and Gene Hackman in one film. That’s a superstar level of talent, and why Unforgiven remains the top Clint Eastwood movie.
Unforgiven’s budget was a reported $14 million, but it grossed slightly over $159 million. That signifies a box office success and a big win for the careers of those involved. Amazingly, this film was also an award magnet, and that’s where Unforgiven really shines. This Clint Eastwood movie was a critical success by a great measure. Unforgiven holds a certified fresh 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with an audience score of 93%. The film was nominated for an astounding 9 Academy Awards and won 4. Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Gene Hackman), and Best Film Editing (Joel Cox). Simply put, Unforgiven was a massive success all around.
Unforgiven is what is known as a “revisionist” western. That is another fancy term for a post-western, in which the traditional tropes of the western genre played within a sense that doesn’t follow the traditional storyline and plot point for a western. This Clint Eastwood movie helped define what would come for the genre afterward. Although the revenge trope is one that has been deeply laden in most western films, the way in which Unforgiven handles revenge works extraordinarily well. Bill Munny starts off dead set against hurting anyone ever again. He’s at a critical point in his life. He wants nothing to do with killing people for any reason any longer and wants to return to his life as a simple farmer, but when his peace is finally shattered with the innocent killing of his friend, he can no longer be stopped. That transition from a man who can no longer shoot, to a cutthroat murderer is fantastic. Munny shows what is like when you “poke the bear.” His transformation really shows off Clint Eastwood’s acting skills. This is truly a great movie.
The fact that every character acts on their own selfish behalf and the film has little to nothing to do with the moral high ground also makes it one of the best post-western films ever made and why this Clint Eastwood movie reigns supreme. Munny wants money, as does Ned, and The Kid. The Kid renouncing his old desires to be a gunslinger after finally killing a man is what makes his character that much more dynamic as well. Most westerns revolve around shooting and more shooting, but when someone can realize that life isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, you get some great characterization. Munny takes a beating from Little Bill and still doesn’t retaliate until his friend is tortured and murdered. That is one of the only “moral” aspects of the film, but it is still acted on by the murder of even more people.
Unforgiven is one of three western films that has ever won a Best Picture Academy Award. Dances With Wolves and Cimmaron are the other two. That should say enough about how amazing this Clint Eastwood movie is. Go watch it for yourself and see how Eastwood expertly handles the antihero archetype and post-western genre. For those with HBO Max, Unforgiven is currently streaming on the platform.