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FILM / An end to the Perrier western: Eastwood returns on a horse and on form

When Clint Eastwood is preparing a western, he wears the gear around for a while. He pretty much lives in the shirt and pants. He spends time in the hat. This sounds like a standard American film-star approach, until you realise that Eastwood is at the opposite extreme to say, Robert De Niro in his preparation. It's not that he needs to practise how it feels to wear a cowboy hat, if he's to get properly inside his part. It's a method acting lesson all right, but it's for the benefit of the wardrobe not the actor. The shirts and pants have to feel right about what they're doing. The hat needs to get used to being worn by Clint Eastwood.

With his new film Unforgiven (15), Eastwood comes close to pulling a wholly successful modern western out of the hat. Only the last reel stands in the way of its attaining classic status. Eastwood directs a script, by David Webb Peoples, which was written in the 1970s and benefits from that period's uncertainties, before revisionism became a dogma.

A more recently conceived project, Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves, removed everything from the form that could make people uncomfortable, leaving nothing but vicarious guilt and a palpable self-righteousness. After the spaghetti western, the Perrier western. Unforgiven is full-blooded by contrast, unashamed of its classic themes: justice, in a place and time where people must make their own and take the consequences, and myth, the lie that casts a longer shadow than the truth.

The novelty of the film lies in the nature of the characters who first withhold their forgiveness - women, and whores at that. When a cowboy cuts up the face of the whore whose favours he has bought, none of the parties wants a court-case, and the sheriff, Little Bill (Gene Hackman), has to decide on punishment informally. The owner of the establishment wants compensation, as if the mutilated woman were his property and damaged goods, while the Madam wants a hanging. This scene is perhaps the most carefully composed in the film, with the perpetrator and his young sidekick - who tried to intervene but must share the blame - tied back to back in the foreground, Hackman looming behind them, and the women arguing for blood from the stairs and the balconies.

Little Bill tries for a compromise between approaches to justice that have nothing in common: he settles on compensation rather than revenge, but compensation on what is, at that time and place, a handsome scale. The cowboy must bring the defaced Delilah five ponies come the spring; the sidekick who failed to prevent the violence must bring two. The women are not satisfied by this piece of judicial mathematics. The working girls pool their savings to offer a bounty to anyone who will kill the offending men.

The whores may be on the margins but they have power. Unforgiven is full of women's judging looks - in fact, the whole plot could be said to unfold from a woman's judging look, since inexperienced Delilah made the mistake of laughing at her first sight of the equipment of the cowboy who hired her. In one scene, Eastwood as director emphasises the horrified reactions of the women when Little Bill brutalises English Bob (Richard Harris in a cameo of sly vigour), a veteran gunman drawn to the town of Big Whiskey by the smell of that bounty. But these are not the standard reaction shots of the genre, conveying female horror at male brutality. What the women are registering is not a higher moral code but dismay that their project of revenge should be thwarted.

Virtue in Unforgiven is represented only by a tombstone. Cold-hearted killer Will Munny (Clint Eastwood) was redeemed by his wife, Claudia, the only respectable woman in the film and already dead by the time it starts. At the Munny hog farm, there is only drudgery, child-rearing and swine fever, not enough to stop Will from joining with his old partner Ned (Morgan Freeman) and a short-sighted youngster who calls himself the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), to do what they have to do to claim the bounty.

Though the only angel in the film is a dead angel, for a while it looks as if scarred Delilah (Anna Thomson), who nurses Will when he is wounded, is being groomed to take her place, and to provide the film's love interest. But then Delilah allows the revenge being taken in her name to go ahead, and Unforgiven makes do without either redemption or love interest.

In the two strands of the film's plot, innocence, which tends to mean blood- thirstiness, has to deal with experience, which amounts to blood-weariness. 'Was you ever scared in them days?' asks the Schofield Kid, and Will answers, 'I can't remember. I was drunk most of the time.' Meanwhile Little Bill takes a similarly debunking line with W W Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), who arrived as English Bob's biographer but has since gone freelance, telling him what the Old West was really like. In one memorable sequence, he describes the reality of one of English Bob's exploits, revealing it as an ignominious mixture of accident, savagery and, again, drunkenness. The violence that we see, up to the last reel of the film, bears him out.

Little Bill is the real hero of Unforgiven, and in many ways the film belongs to Gene Hackman. As sheriff, Little Bill imposes gun-control on Big Whiskey, and tries to replace lynching with arbitration. His decisions are as ramshackle as his carpentry, which lets in the rain, but he is the only character who is even trying to be constructive. His last words, fittingly, are 'I don't deserve to die like this. I was building a house.'

David Webb Peoples' script has many virtues, but calling his two leading characters Bill and Will comes across as a distinctly crude way of indicating that they are two sides of the same coin. Both are trying to live down the past, but their ways of doing so could hardly be more different. It would have been interesting to see Eastwood, the former mayor of Carmel in California, attempting the role of the more civic- minded character.

It's ironic that Eastwood, without whom a film like Unforgiven could not be made, should end up by over-balancing the whole enterprise with something he can't help bringing with him, a persona built up over decades. In theory, what happens at the end of the film is that his character, Will Munny, reverts to what he had been before he met his wife. In practice, what we see is Clint Eastwood reverting to type, reinstating - after all the film's debunking - a familiar nihilistic charisma. He kills people with great efficiency, whether they are armed or not, and makes the occasional laconic wisecrack to keep the audience on his side. Even drink changes its character, when it is Will doing the drinking. It has no dulling effect on him. It lets the genie of violence out of the bottle.

After what has gone before, Unforgiven could hardly go for an upbeat ending - but much of what the film has achieved is endangered when it turns out that Clint Eastwood has been wearing, all along, The Hat With No Name.

(Photograph omitted)