At 30, ‘Unforgiven’ Is Aging Very Gracefully

There is, in my experience at least, one moment in every great movie where it swings from entertaining or engrossing to something that lasts forever.

In The Magnificent Seven, it comes early, as Yul Brynner’s Chris Adams and Steve McQueen’s Vin Tanner volunteer to drive a hearse to carry a passenger to Boot Hill who is now forbidden burial there by the newly “civilized” townsfolk. That ride lets the audience know that this isn’t going to be just another oater. In Dr. Strangelove, it comes toward the beginning, too, as Peter Sellers’ Group Captain Lionel Mandrake is told that if his bid to avert a nuclear holocaust fails, “You’ll have to answer to the Coca-Cola company.” In The Shawshank Redemption it is when Tim Robbins’ Andy Dufresne takes over the prison PA system with the duettino from the Marriage of Figaro.  

Not that these necessarily wouldn’t have been great movies without these particular scenes, but these are the kinds of moments that encapsulate the message of the movie—courage in the face of cruelty, the absurdity of an orderly apocalypse, that hope is a thing with fighting for, etc.—and swing the viewer into the right emotional place to make other parts of the movie bearable that are too corny, ugly, violent or weird.

Fantasy and science fiction movies demand lots of “suspension of disbelief” to not get hung up on how many dilithium crystals it takes to go to the wookies’ home planet. Great movies have meanings beyond the action on the screen. So they require a kind of suspension of emotional disbelief in which we open ourselves up to the suggestions of the filmmakers that we would in real life see as manipulative. Those hinge scenes smoothly swing us into the right emotional space to put the rest of the picture in the frame.

As we mark the 30th anniversary of the release of Unforgiven, one of the greatest pictures of them all, I am reminded of how long it makes its audience wait for the hinge. It is not until the next-to-last scene that we are really told why we are here, in the saloon below a whorehouse on the eastern front of Wyoming in 1880, watching a stone-cold killer who had renounced his trade for a decade return to it with ruthless efficiency. 

Of all the characters we have met, only a few are truly sympathetic, and one of those, the prostitute whose slashing by a humilated cowboy is the first in a series of tragic events, barely says a word in the entire movie. The only real good guy we have met is Morgan Freeman’s Ned Logan, and he’s dead already. Indeed, it was his murder that brought us here on a stormy night.

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