Unforgiven is about as far from the fantasy mythos of A Fistful of Dollars as Clint Eastwood could get. No pin-point accuracy with 19th century technology, no desire to 'play fair' and face the enemy on even terms. If you can shoot him in the back...then do it.
Eastwood puts in an astonishing performance as the retired killer Muny, saved from his life of thievery and murder by his late wife. Now, desperately trying to support his children with no income, he is tempted back to his killing ways by the bounty offered by the women of a brothel, one of whom's number has been savagely beaten and disfigured by a drunken ranch-hand.
The film follows Eastwood as he wrestles with his desire to honour his wife's memory and his need to feed his children by returning to the killer that, he fears, is his true nature. Meanwhile word of the bounty has spread and the events spiral out of control as the sheriff (Gene Hackman) deals with the guns for hire that ride into town.
While all the supporting cast are excellent Gene Hackman's Oscar winning performance even manages to eclipse Eastwoods as the brutal Sheriff. He beats one of the bounty hunters, English Bob (Richard Harris) almost to death and then explains to a journalist, in one of the film's stand out scenes, how men like he and Muny are so successful at killing. The mood moves from light banter to life threatening seriousness...and back again, with just one move of his head.
One of the greatest Westerns ever made? Certainly. Although the fact it's a western is really secondary. In truth it's a tale of the nature of evil and the nature of man. Eastwood uses the gap between the western myth and reality as an arena to play out his story and does so with consummate style.
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