As a kid growing up in the '70s, I would say that the western was probably my least favorite genre (well, aside from musicals, but that's a subject for a different review). I can remember my grandfather obsessively watching old reruns of 'Bonanza,' 'Maverick' and 'The Lone Ranger' every night on our little B&W tee-vee, and me just not getting it. I loved horror and sci-fi and drama, and wanted something that wasn't about "old people" -- why should I care about Lorne Greene in a cowboy hat, shooting at Indians?
And that's the attitude I clung to up and through the '90s wave of "revisionist" westerns, led by such blockbusters as 'Dances with Wolves' and Clint Eastwood's 'Unforgiven.' Even after both films took home the Oscar for Best Picture in their respective year of release, I still refused to give in. It was only when I stumbled by chance upon an airing of 'Unforgiven' on cable a few years later, on one of those lazy Sunday afternoons when you have no energy to even change the channel, that I reluctantly gave it a try. And to my great surprise, there I ended up sitting transfixed for the film's entire 131-minute runtime. I suppose the biggest compliment I can pay 'Unforgiven' is that even for a western-hater like myself, it was the first film I ever saw that finally gave me if not a passion for the genre, then at least a genuine sense of respect.
'Unforgiven' is classified as "revisionist" (though technically it should be "post-revisionist," as 1967-1978 saw the first wave of revisionist westerns, but nevermind) because it challenges and subverts all of the cliches and conventions we've come to expect of the genre. Gone or severely undermined are the hallmarks of westerns past -- black and white heroes and villains, gunfights at high noon, the steadfast women who stand by the sides of their men, and the relentless racial stereotyping. The Old West of 'Unforgiven' is untamed and morally ambiguous, with characters of conflicting and complex motives, who kill not out of righteousness but for money, revenge or just plain indifference.
Eastwood's Bill Munny, the protagonist of 'Unforgiven,' is a far cry from "The Lone Ranger." A hired assassin, a remorseless killer, a dedicated family man, he hung up his gun a long time ago, but with his wife now dead and his kids nearly grown, he agrees to one last job. Hired by the madam of a local brother (Frances Fisher) looking to avenge the maiming of one of her prostitutes, Munny accepts the job not of moral obligation or a quest for justice, but for profit. He teams up with his loyal partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) as well as "The Schofield Kid" (Jaimz Woolvert), an all-too-eager would-be killer whose talk is much bigger than the size of his gun. But none of the trio is counting on Sheriff "Little" Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), who is so bloodthirsty and amoral he will render the line between right and wrong indistinguishable. By the film's climax, what was supposed to be a simple "hit" will turn into a violent tragedy of mythic proportions.
I like 'Unforgiven' because it shatters all of the most beloved conventions of the western. In fact, you could argue it desecrates them with relish, however respectful. Eastwood is nothing if not an elegant cinematic anarchist. His vision of America's lawless past is not painted in the broad strokes of cherished populism and unfettered patriotism. Instead, it is an ugly, messy place, where justice can only be accomplished with a gun and morality is a relative term. By the time of the film's climactic bloodbath, Eastwood has managed to turn the film's slow burn into an explosion of such fury it practically rewrites cinematic history with one single parting image. Bill Munny may ride off into the night like every other western "hero" before him, but the legacy he leaves remains unduplicated in the history of the genre.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 20th anniversary edition of 'Unforgiven' comes packaged in one of Warner's attractively designed digibooks. The hefty, 54-page volume is packed with an array of striking production photos (all in full color), as well as reproductions of sketches, annotated script pages, a pre-production itinerary, and studio correspondence. Tying these elements together is an in-depth essay by film critic and Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel that chronicles 'Unforgiven' from its inception all the way through to its Best Picture win at the Academy Awards. There's also an introduction by Eastwood himself, a listing of various awards and nominations, mini biographies of Eastwood, Hackman, Freeman, and Richard Harris (along with select filmographies), and a couple of pages of trivial facts. As digibooks go, this one is classier and more substantive than most, and fans of the film will appreciate the text and layout.
What they won't appreciate is the fact that the Blu-ray itself is the exact same one they probably already own. The 1080p/VC-1 transfer is identical to the previous high-def version of 'Unforgiven,' and, even more distressing, so is the lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. (More on that below.) There is no main menu; when the disc is inserted into the player, the film begins immediately following the Warner Home Video logo. Use your remote to access a pop-up menu that allows you to jump to various scenes, engage subtitles, and watch supplements.
The exact same VC-1 encoded transfer that appeared on the 2006 Blu-ray release has been recycled here. Peter M. Bracke had this to say about it at the time:
As I originally wrote in my review of 'Unforgiven' on HD DVD, I was actually quite surprised by how good that 1080p/VC-1 transfer looked. The 2002 standard-def DVD reissue was already excellent, so I just wasn't expecting that significant of an upgrade. I'm glad to say that that same boost in quality has carried over to this Blu-ray release, which is minted from the same master and is again presented in 1080p/VC-1 video (and on a BD-50 dual-layer disc, no less).
The most noticeable area of improvement with both high-def releases is the level of detail. I know, that should be an obvious observation -- but after reviewing Warner's 'Full Metal Jacket' a while back, it is clear that the quality of the source material can play just as big of a part in how much better a high-def transfer version looks versus standard NTSC video than just the format's resolution. Thanks in part to 'Unforgiven's many panoramic vistas, it is now possible to spot fine details in even the widest shots, from leaves blowing in the wind that previously looked like a mass of green, to more discernible fine textures like the fabric pattern of Eastwood's jacket to the grain direction on a wood wall. Colors were also a bit richer and more distinct, with luminous deep oranges, rich nighttime blues and lush natural greens.
What I also quite appreciated about watching 'Unforgiven' is that it was produced before the era of computer-assisted editing and photography -- as everything today is so tweaked electronically in post-production to give it that perfect sheen. Which may be eye-popping, but isn't particularly natural or subtle. 'Unforgiven,' however, has a truly timeless, very film-like look that is superbly rendered here. Shot quickly in only 39 days, visual style of 'Unforgiven' is traditional yet not dated. Frequently, director of photography Jack Green uses sparse natural light (especially in the nighttime scenes) to bath his actors half in light and half in shadow. Sure, that means less visible detail in the black areas (as the fall-off is so steep), but it feels authentic and sets the tone for the film perfectly -- you certainly wouldn't see this kind of technique used today. So props to this Blu-ray for preserving Eastwood's aesthetic so wonderfully, and what a noticeable improvement over the standard DVD release.
However, nothing is perfect, and I was a bit disappointed on the Blu-ray (as with the HD DVD) I could still spot some slight edginess to the image during a few scenes -- primarily a ringing effect around sharply contrasted objects. This is likely indicative of the master, and it is most irritating in outdoor shots featuring someone standing in front a pretty horizon, leaving a slight "halo" noticeable. I would have hoped this dreaded effect would be completely eliminated on next-gen high-def releases, but so it goes.
While I can understand - from a cost standpoint - the rationale for not upgrading the 2006 video transfer of 'Unforgiven' for this 20th anniversary commemorative edition, it is unfathomable that Warner would have the gall to market this title again with the same lossy audio track that graced the previous release. Dolby Digital 5.1? Really, Warner? In this day and age, that's like reissuing a Frank Sinatra album on 78rpm shellac! Most consumers won't read the fine print on the packaging, and will simply (and rightfully) assume the disc features high-def audio, and will be shocked to discover otherwise after popping the disc in their player. And those who already own the 2006 Blu-ray release have no reason whatsoever to upgrade. I mean, who's going to shell out $25 or more just for digibook packaging? I sure wouldn't. Studios may not feel audio is as important as video, but they are dead wrong in that regard, and Warner missed a golden opportunity here to enhance a catalogue title, please fans, and boost its bottom line.
All that said, here's what Peter M. Bracke had to say about the lossy track six years ago:
Presented in English Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, this Blu-ray release is comparable to the HD DVD's Dolby Digital-Plus counterpart, both of which are encoded at 640kbps despite any format designators. However, unlike the video transfer I didn't find the soundtrack offered much of an upgrade over the standard DVD release. Still, if 'Unforgiven' features a solid if unspectacular mix, it certainly suits the film just fine.
More or less subdued throughout the film's entire 131-minute runtime, the mix for 'Unforgiven' is primarily dialogue-driven, enlivened only by sparse atmospheric effects, the minimalist score by Lennie Niehaus, and gunshots. It does have a nice, warm feel to it, with very pleasing dynamic range. I especially liked the natural, warm tone to the score and the very clear and distinct dialogue reproduction. Bass response was also hefty and supple, but never overpowered the rest of the mix. Admittedly, surround use is effective in terms of atmospheric sounds and subtle effects, but directionality is only sparingly employed. Generally, this mix is not consistently enveloping, but it does have its moments.
All the supplements from the 2006 Blu-ray edition have been ported over to this release. For a review of the contents of the digibook, see the Vital Disc Stats section above.
Warner should be ashamed. Repackaging existing discs for anniversary editions is bad enough (and all studios are equally guilty of that reprehensible practice), but missing an opportunity to replace a lossy audio track with a high-def counterpart is nothing short of criminal. If you've never owned 'Unforgiven' before and you don't care about lossless audio (though I can't imagine any HD enthusiast who doesn't), by all means pick this disc up, but no one who owns the previous Blu-ray should even mildly consider purchasing this bogus "upgrade." Sure, the digibook possesses some nice content and is handsomely designed, but it's not worth $25 (or more) by itself. 'Unforgiven' remains a stellar western and a rightful Best Picture winner, and it deserves to be properly feted on its 20th anniversary, not merely recycled to make a quick buck. This severely disappointing reissue is like opening a fancily wrapped package and discovering the pretty box is empty.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.