Arriving under the banner of the BFI Modern Classics range, Edward Buscombe’s new entry on Unforgiven (1992) could not have come at a better time. With 2004’s The Missing and Open Range reviving interest in the Wild West, Buscombe’s affectionate address is topical and nourishing because it looks back at the last period of certainty for the Western, when Eastwood’s film made the genre relevant again. The film was the popular and critical success story of 1992 and drew vast amounts of praise as a ‘revisionist’ Western. An exemplary piece, the film inverted the genre’s age-old approach to violence and masculinity and debunked its notions of glorious heroism. For Buscombe however, the revisionism tag is too dismissive and he centres his book around the search for a more detailed explanation of the film’s themes and influences.
In a movie that apparently spills over with modifications on Western tone and ideology, Unforgiven, according to Buscombe, actually relies very strongly on traditional tropes. The author sees the sunset, which opens and closes the picture, as a prime indicator of the traditional framework within which the film works. He ties the sunset’s elegiac resonance to the sense of regret and melancholy that has accompanied the Western throughout its screen history, and even lists titles that pay direct reference to this theme, such as the Maverick episode Duel at Sundown (1959) and Robert Aldrich’s The Last Sunset (1961).
The book traces very clearly Eastwood’s imprint on his material and the development he has made as a star and director, in order to reach this point. Buscombe elucidates on Eastwood’s entry into the Western lexicon in Hang ‘Em High (1968) and the manner in which his subsequent works saved the genre from obscurity. These introductory segments are well written and structured, and bring together the various strands that pre-empt Buscombe’s treatment of the film itself. The tone and style of his writing is incisive and exploratory without being overly analytical, and he does well to avoid the convoluted and cluttered analysis of other entries in the BFI series (namely Yvonne Tasker’s volume on The Silence of the Lambs (2002).
One of the book’s best moments is a chapter examining the scene where Munny and The Schofield Kid swig whiskey under a lonesome tree. Though a short chapter, it nevertheless illustrates Buscombe’s understanding of the film’s use of the traditional dynamics of revenge in the Western, and its revisionary approach to violence. ‘With icy determination he [Munny] demands the Kid hand him his Schofield revolver, an act redolent with all the significance that the Western genre can impart. The Kid gives it up readily: ‘I don’t kill nobody no more”. This chapter condenses and augments Buscombe’s argument in much the same way that the scene reinforces the whole film.
This is yet another top-brass entry in the BFI’s outstanding series. The book and its central critical stance – that Unforgiven is an amalgam of tradition and revision – is deeply persuasive and, right or wrong, succeeds where any good film analysis should: it encourages its readers to revisit the movie and see for themselves.