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Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" (1992) is from a screenplay by David Webb, and it occurs during a period of transformation from the old West to the new. The transformation is illustrated by the film’s opening shot of a home, a tree and a man at a graveside. The sun is setting on the man and the era he represents (Cloutier, 2012). “Unforgiven” is an American Classic that is very rich in themes, brooding and intense. During the period of “Unforgiven,” professional gunfighters’ lives were endangered to the point that well-known thieves and murderers such as William Munny chose to forego stealing and engage in hog farming to support his family (Stein, 2009). In case the Western genre was not yet dead at the time of “Unforgiven,” then it was in its death process as science fiction, and special effects were preferred by most audiences (Cloutier, 2012). The violence that marked the old Western only existed in the memories of men who were joining the middle class by 1880 (Orit, 2006). The period chosen for “Unforgiven” mirrors Eastwood’s stage in life when he was in his 60s. During Sergio Leone’s early films “A Fistful of Dollars” and “For a Few Dollars More,” he was a young gunslinger on TV. He later matured under the guidance of Don Siegel, his mentor, in his films “Coogan’s Bluff” and “Two Mules for Sister Sara.” Therefore, Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” is a dedication to Leone who had died in 1989 and Siegel in 1991 (Orit, 2006).
Summary of the “Unforgiven” Film’s Plot
The Sheriff, “Little Bill” Daggett runs Big Whiskey, a town in Wyoming State with an iron fist, as he does not tolerate firearms or criminals. However, he disappoints the residents of a local brothel when he forgives “Davey-Boy” Bunting and “Quick” Mike, the two cowboys who mutilate Delilah, a prostitute, for laughing at her client’s size of manhood (Stein, 2009). He simply asks them to compensate the brothel owner, “Skinny” Dubois as a form of punishment (Orit, 2006). Angered by Little Bill’s actions, the brothel’s prostitutes led by Strawberry Alice offer a reward of $1,000 to whoever kills the cowboys for them (Stein, 2009). The offer attracts the attention of most bounty hunters especially that of “The Schofield Kid,” a brash gunfighter, who forms a group meant to bring the offenders to justice (Cloutier, 2012). The Kid seeks out William Munny because he was once known for his hard-hearted killings. However, at that time Munny was a widower who takes care of his pigs while raising his two children. Munny initially rejects the offer as he had sworn off killing and strong drink after living quietly over many years. However, he later accepts the offer after analyzing the sorry state of his farm and realizing that the proposal was his only option to secure his children’s welfare (Orit, 2006). On his acceptance, he recruits Ned Logan, another retired gunslinger.
The British gunslinger, English Bob, Little Bill’s old rival decides to tour Wyoming along with the biographer W.W. Beauchamp for adventure when word of the offer by the brothel’s prostitutes reaches them (Stein, 2009). Bob is disarmed and given a thorough beating by Little Bill on arrival at Wyoming. He is expelled from the town the next morning in a bid to warn and scare away any other vigilantes (Cloutier, 2012). Charmed by Little Bill’s old exploits as a gunfighter, Beauchamp chooses to stay behind to write about Little Bill’s life.
Later, during a storm, The Kid, Ned Logan, and William Munny arrive in Big Whiskey and head for the brothel to enquire on Felon’s whereabouts. Unfortunately, not long afterward, Little Bill and his enforcers arrive at the brothel and beat up Munny who they find alone in the saloon in a bid to implement their “no firearms and vigilantes” rule (Orit, 2006). Ned Logan and The Kid are lucky to escape Little Bill by slipping through a back window. They find Munny and attend to her wounds in a barn located on the outskirts of Big Whiskey. Some investigations reveal the location of the two cowboys and the three kill Davey-Boy Bunting. The killing of Bunting makes Logan and Munny develop a different opinion after realizing that they can no longer tolerate violence or murder (Cloutier, 2012). Logan goes home as he deems that as his best course of action whereas Munny feels obligated to complete the job. Munny is accompanied with The Kid to the cowboys’ ranch. In an outhouse, The Kid catches Quick Mike by surprise and kills him. His actions shook him to the extent of giving up on a gunfighter’s life after confessing to Munny that Quick Mike’s killing was his first (Orit, 2006).
Before the prostitute awarded The Kid and Munny, they learned that Logan was caught by Little Bill’s men and severely beaten and brutalized. Logan was almost dying when he revealed Munny’s violent past. Filled with resentment, Munny heads to Big Whiskey to finish off Little Bill whereas The Kid returns to Kansas to give part of the reward to Munny’s children and Logan’s widow (Cloutier, 2012). Munny gets to the saloon at night only to find Logan’s mutilated corpse in a coffin that displayed outside the saloon with a warning sign that reads: “THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS TO ASSASSINS AROUND HERE” (Orit, 2006).
Aware that Logan’s associates would want to avenge him, Little Bills gathers a gang to hunt down The Kid and Munny (Stein, 2009). Munny is not afraid of endangering his life as he courageously steps in and shoots Dubois causing Little Bill to face him. They exchange inappropriate words giving rise to a full-blown gunfight (Stein, 2009). Munny seems to have regained his former viciousness as he kills most of Little Bill’s deputies and swears, "See you in hell," to the wounded Little Bill before shooting him (Orit, 2006). Munny threatens Big Whiskeys residents before leaving the place. He promises them more killings if they fail to give Logan’s body a proper burial and if they maltreat the brothel’s prostitutes in any way. Then the film ends shortly after with a text on the screen about Munny’s next steps after the Big Whiskey fiasco (Cloutier, 2012). The writings elaborate that Munny moved to San Francisco with his children and started a dry goods business that did very well. He presumed to have permanently left the world of gunfights and bloody vendettas (Orit, 2006).
Analysis of the “Unforgiven” Film
Initially, David Webb's script was titled “The William Munny Killing.” At the time of its release, it was commercially successful as it was the first film by Eastwood to pass the $100 million mark. The film attained nominations for nine awards and managed to win four of the major awards (Cloutier, 2012). The awards he won include Best Picture (Clint Eastwood as producer), Best Supporting Actor (Gene Hackman - his second Oscar after winning for “The French Connection” (1971)), Best Director, and Best Film Editing (Joel Cox) (Stein, 2009). Eastwood was the third ever Westerner to win the Best Picture Academy Award, and this revived the Western’s reputation (Stein, 2009).
The film illustrates the themes of justice, law enforcement, the untamed West, corruption, revenge, honor, feminism and masculinity, and the tainted gunfighter among others (Stein, 2009). It was done during a time when women’s rights had not been enforced, and they were viewed to be inferior as compared to their male counterparts (Cloutier, 2012). In the film, no woman has been given an actual speaking role. The ladies are also not engaged in careers as all the women in the movie are prostitutes. At the period of the film, administrators could not be trusted to grant justice to the people they ruled. Therefore, people believed in the judgment that is achieved by the gun prowess (Stein, 2009).
In the Americans’ popular culture, there has been a fraught notion on the distance between revenge and legal solutions (Ali, 2017). When most Americans seek justice, they are usually in search of an angry and punitive action according to their culture of vengeance as noted by Ali (2017). Americans experience two forms of justice systems. The first one is a legal system with procedures to remove personal biases based on but not limited to feelings of vengeance. Secondly, justice acquired at the end of a gun's barrel (Ali, 2017). Clint Eastwood serves to enhance the “punitive” and “angry” American culture when he plays William Munny who expresses his punitive anger through his prowess at handling a gun. He fosters and further enhances the American popular culture of the justice found at the end of the barrel of a gun as they view it as personal, satisfactory, swift, precise and conclusive (Ali, 2017). The “Unforgiven” film is timeless as it revives the Western history at a time when it had been banished and had a significant impact on its audiences and still does.
Ali Shehzad, Z. (2017). The Iconic American Western in Film and Literature. Acta Neophilologica, Vol 50, Iss 1-2, Pp 83-94 (2017), (1-2), 83. doi:10.4312/an.50.1-2.83-94
Cloutier, J. (2012). A Country for Old Men: Unforgiven, The Shootist, and the Post-Heyday Western. Cinema Journal, 51(4), 110-129.
Orit Kamir, a. (2006). Honor and Dignity in the Film "Unforgiven": Implications for Sociolegal Theory. Law & Society Review, (1), 193.
Stein, A. (2009). The Byronic Hero in Film, Fiction, and Television. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
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