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Unforgiven: 10th Anniversary Edition (DVD)

Of the extra features included on the new DVD version of Clint Eastwood's landmark 1992 Western Unforgiven, the one least related to the film proves the most telling. Thrown in seemingly because Warner Bros. owns the rights to the show, a 1959 episode of the James Garner TV series Maverick features a fresh-faced, gravel-voiced Eastwood playing a no-good fortune-hunter named Red. Wearing an uneasy smile and not averse to settling his differences with a pistol, Eastwood is undone by Garner's quick-witted, violence-averse card sharp as the final commercial break arrives, and no one sheds a drop of blood in the process. Coming from the same decade of Westerns that produced Anthony Mann's tortured heroes and John Ford's increasingly reflective works, Maverick was light stuff even for its time, but more than decades divide the West Eastwood visited in 1959 and the one he called home in Unforgiven. The latter is another world, one he helped create, first with the pop operas of Sergio Leone, and then in films of his own that put the white-hatted Western hero to bed for good. David Webb Peoples' script for Unforgiven floated around Hollywood for years before Eastwood found it. He then held it like an unplayed ace until he aged into the role of William Munny, a reformed outlaw still trying to live by the principles established by his dead wife. Gentle with children and animals, careful with his speech, and forgoing the comforts of alcohol and prostitutes, Eastwood lives the life of the good man he learned to be after decades of thoughtless cruelty. Desperation has a way of chipping away at good intentions, however, and when Jaimz Woolvett, a young man of untested bravado, offers to cut the financially strapped Eastwood in on the bounty for two cowboys responsible for the mutilation of a prostitute, Eastwood justifies his decision to resume his old profession, at least temporarily. Reuniting with Morgan Freeman, an old partner for whom virtuous living has become more of an acquired habit than a way of life, Eastwood plunges into the moral swamp of Big Whiskey, a town overseen by sheriff Gene Hackman, whose unwavering vision of law and order has already reconciled the mutilation with an exchange of goods, and has no intention of entertaining bounty hunters. Eastwood is always a commanding director of actors and visuals, but his films tend to succeed or fail on the strength of their screenplays. With Peoples' script, Eastwood found the perfect balance of elements to tell a universal story that could only take place in the American West. Some characters may be more virtuous than others, but they all inhabit a world of shades, and all participate in acts of violence that make no discrimination between the innocent and the damned. As one of many well-realized supporting characters, Saul Rubinek plays a Ned Buntline-like pulp chronicler, a maker of myths who comes from the first generation to tell the story of an Old West tamed by quick-on-the-draw heroes. By the climax of Unforgiven, Eastwood has brought that notion to its inevitable end, turning himself into a brutal icon and framing it against an American flag. He may ride off to the horizon, but not without leaving a piece of his soul behind.


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