Monday, June 15, 2009

Westerns: Stagecoach and The Unforgiven, Part I

It so happened that over the last week I saw two of the greatest Westerns of all time—Stagecoach and The Unforgiven. I rarely watch Westerns and I had never watched either of these movies all the way through before, so it was an eye opening experience.

For those of you who aren’t movie buffs, Stagecoach is a 1939 John Ford Western starring John Wayne. It was nominated for seven Oscars, including best director and best picture, but won only Best Supporting Actor (William Mitchell) and Best Music. The plot is straightforward. A group of strangers, a sheriff, a wagon master, a pregnant southern lady, a Confederate gambler, a drunken doctor, a traveling whiskey salesman, a prostitute, a banker and an escaped convict all end up on a stagecoach trip together. Complications ensue not only from the interaction of the characters, but because Geronimo is on the warpath and the expected cavalry escort isn’t available.

The Unforgiven is Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Western, which he both directed and starred in. The Unforgiven was nominated for nine Oscars and won four: Best Supporting Actor for Gene Hackman; Best Film Editing; Best Director and Best Picture for Clint Eastwood. Once again the plot is straightforward. Clint Eastwood is retired gunfighter and unsuccessful pig farmer, William Muny, who is raising two children on his own after the death of his wife. He hears about a reward offered by a group of prostitutes to kill a cowboy who has disfigured one of them with a knife. Muny recruits his old partner, played by Morgan Freeman, and sets off to Big Whiskey to earn the reward. At the same time other gunfighters are arriving and the town’s sheriff, played by Gene Hackman, is trying to run the gunfighters out of town.

Even though made more than fifty years apart, the movies share a lot of similarities. Both movies are still very watchable; both have sophisticated character development; both treat minority characters with more respect than you might expect (especially in 1939); and both movies use the western setting for a complicated rumination on the nature of good and evil. In Stagecoach the characters introduced as respectable turn out to be less good than the characters who are not respectable. The whore (of course) turns out to have a heart of gold; the ex-con faithfully keeps his word; and the drunken doctor successfully delivers a baby on the trip, while the banker turns out to be an embezzler and the Confederate gentleman less than honorable.

The Unforgiven does much of the same—the saloon girls unexpectedly band together to avenge one of their own and the sheriff turns out to be a sadistic brute—but most of the drama is played out within William Muny, the lead character. He wants to believe he is not the evil man he once was and honor the memory of his late wife, but he needs money for his family and can justify, at least in part, his actions because the victim deserves his punishment.

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