Clint Eastwood Gave Us The Best 10 Minutes Of Any Western Movie

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‘Unforgiven’ was a masterpiece of the genre, and the culminating shootout was its pinnacle.

Clint Eastwood returned to his roots as an angry cowboy who relapses into his scornful past in Unforgiven, considered the best Western of all time. The Best Picture of 1992 was nothing short of a cinematic masterpiece, with an Academy Award-winning performance from Gene Hackman and great performances from Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris. It received widespread critical praise and sent shockwaves through the film community, presenting a deconstruction not only of Eastwood’s whole career, but also of the genre and its intrinsic exaltation of the wild west. Despite its inherent poeticism, the film manages to outperform itself by providing audiences with the best ten minutes in Western filmmaking.

What is ‘Unforgiven’ All About?

Eastwood plays William Munny, a widower who has all but given up on the life of crime. Formerly a feared murderer and outlaw, he has retreated to living as a farmer to make ends meet, and appears to be resentful of his existence. Visited by a brash young gunslinger named The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), he is offered to kill a couple of prostitute-defacing outlaws. Reluctantly, he accepts this one final job in order to give his children a better life, and enlists the help of his old friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman). Meanwhile, in the town of Big Whiskey, the location of the alleged abuses, Sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) is imposing a restriction on firearms. He makes an example out of English Bob (Richard Harris), who attempts to take the same bounty presented by the prostitutes. Bob’s accompanying author, W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), witnesses the downfall of his initial subject for the book he is writing, and switches over to Little Bill as his new inspiration.

Munny, Logan, and the Kid arrive at Big Whiskey late at night. While Ned and the Kid enjoy the prostitutes’ services, a feverish Will confronts Little Bill in the saloon and beats him to within an inch of his life, telling him never to return to this place again. They successfully kill one of the perpetrators after nursing Will back to health, but Ned decides to leave. The surviving outlaw is subsequently killed by the Schofield youngster, who says that it shook him. Will and the Kid are informed, in the midst of their epiphany, that Little Bill has slowly and brutally killed Ned. This infuriates Munny. He takes a huge swig of whiskey, and prepares to avenge the death of his friend, setting the stage for one of the most exhilarating sequences in Western history.

Armed with a double-barreled shotgun, an intoxicated Munny bravely enters Greely’s. Soaking wet from the rain, he cocks the gun and asks who owns the place. Skinny Dubois (Anthony James) bravely answers, and he is subsequently shot. In the ensuing shootout, Munny critically wounds Little Bill, and eliminates all those who chose to stand in his way. With one final shot, he kills Little Bill and sends a chilling warning to those who wish to stop him.

The Significance of the Shootout at Greely’s

The shootout at Greely’s encapsulates what the western genre is all about, basking in the glory of Clint Eastwood’s distinctive machismo and his great appeal as a gun-slinging cowboy. Simply put, it’s the best sequence of events in a Western film, and it’s not even close. The torrential rain pelting Munny and the thunderous thunderclaps accompanying this angel of death as he approaches his eventual victims are symptomatic of its alluring gloom.

If one were to talk about the artistic patterns of a Western, they would immediately come to several ideas: tough rugged men engaging in quick-draw duels, saloons filled with gambling, and a penchant (or even romanticization) of the notion of violence. There have been many westerns that have presented this, with the versions in the world of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci immediately coming to mind, but there is a certain fluidity in Eastwood’s brushstrokes. While the other versions of these final duels present the characters as having dead shot accuracy, Unforgiven lends a bit of realism. Guns are jamming, shots are missing, and the presence of hesitancy in those involved presents a life-like picture of how rough and gritty the West truly is. The cold-blooded killers will come out on top, and those who think twice will be pummeled by lead. Munny is the victor. He owns up to killing women and children, and he makes no qualms about it. There is no greater fear than standing in front of a man who simply does not give a damn.

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There is also a reflexive nature in how this finale is presented. Using a Hitchcockian allure, expanding the figurative rubber band of suspense until it eventually breaks, Eastwood deconstructs and ultimately destroys the notion of his own past. Little Bill figuratively represents his old Dirty Harry persona: a lawman who willingly goes out of the rule book and abides by his own set of policies. Once audiences realize this, it invites them to revisit his own body of work, and asks them to ponder on their importance. By brutally killing Little Bill, Eastwood is shedding his own skin, representative of his patented auteurial characteristics. He does this while coming full-circle. He uses a Western to destroy the image of his old characters, directly or indirectly being Western characters themselves. Beauchamp’s attempts to approach Munny as his new subject of writing, only to be met by genuine fear, exemplifies this destruction. There isn’t anything fun out of all of this. Rather, the actions of his old portrayals, and Munny’s rampage, is suggested to be re-appraised with a condemning lens. It’s a magnificent piece of meta-cinema, urging callbacks and fascinating re-watches of his films.

A Commentary on American History

Perhaps even more significant than its subversion of the genre is its clever commentary on American history. While there is an enhanced focus on the shootout itself, the moments that come after it are equally essential. When Munny comes out of the saloon armed with Ned’s Spencer Rifle, he sends a strict message of caution to all the survivors: they better not hurt any more prostitutes, or he will come back and kill every last one of them. All this occurs while the American flag is behind him. This may be construed as a critique on the country’s history. The story of America is filled with instances of bloodshed. While some may consider the carnage to be borne out of necessity, particularly in establishing the USA’s freedom and independence, it upholds that the examination of the country’s development will always be riddled with tales of gruesome violence. Him riding into the darkness on a pale horse, like the grim reaper, is the poetic cherry on top. Violence, like Munny himself, will always be there. If the circumstances call for his appearance, then it shall come back with a fury like no other. Sometimes it is rightful, and sometimes it is not, and much like how Munny has been portrayed, it will always be like walking on the tightrope of morality.

Clint Eastwood takes the magnificence of the Western and uses its flare while turning its conventions on their heads in its deep ending. All while expressing his opinions on the development of his own country. It’s a virtuoso at the pinnacle of his craft, and the result is a monument to his own instincts as a filmmaker. Eastwood had already made excellent Westerns, but in Unforgiven, he demonstrates that killing a guy is a terrifying experience. It has nothing to do with deserve; it is simply the championing sequence of a genre that has built, and continues to build, one of the foundations of American film.

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