Clint Eastwood is one of the few who keep that promise. In Pale Rider, High Plains Drifter and The Outlaw Josey Wales, he gave us the chance to get out and about on the big screen. Unforgiven is his most acrid and unrepentant yet; it returns us to the hard-bitten pleasures of the genre, then makes us wonder why we should admire them so. We start in Big Whiskey, a neat little dump in Wyoming, trying to grow civilised in 1880: no guns in town. There a hooker called Delilah (Anna Thomson) laughs at a client and pays with her looks; she spends the rest of the film half-mute and mapped with knife scars. The local sheriff, Little Bill (Gene Hackman), makes her attackers pay not with their lives, nor even with lashes; to him, a cut whore is no more than lost property, and a few good horses will do for compensation.
But the brothel wants revenge, and will pay a bounty-hunter to carry it out. First off the mark is the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), a young but myopic gun who can hardly shoot anything further away than his own foot. Woolvett looks like the young Jeff Bridges, but can't quite match him for dumb brio - think of Bridges on his scruffy jaunt through Bad Company, his illusions wilting away in mud-and-leather landscapes. That hangdog comedy of disappointment feeds into Unforgiven, not least when the Kid goes looking for a partner and finds William Munny, played by Eastwood himself.
Munny is a pig farmer deep in the shit. His swine have got fever and his children have got nothing; his hair is a rasp of grey bristles, as if he just had it cut to match the hogs, and the creases on his face are there to stay, chiselled in deep like fault-lines. God knows, there are enough faults. 'My wife cured me,' he says, 'of drink and wickedness', but then she died - of smallpox, the story goes, but it could have been the effort of curing him. Go further back, however, beyond the drink, and you come to his days as a killer - women, children, men wanted and unwanted. The Kid tells him, 'you were the worst', then adds quickly, 'meaning the best'.
That sets up the mood of the whole movie - its pulse both quickens at the thought of legend, and falters with repulsion at what it must have cost. 'I've killed just about everything that walks or crawls,' says Munny, an admission of sins disguised as a thin-lipped boast. That high Biblical flavour seeps right through the dialogue - 'I seen the angel of death,' he says, though whether in a fever or a mirror it's hard to say. The movie doesn't so much revise our notions of the western, which is all that some people want westerns to do nowadays, as lead them to a logical extreme and strip them bare.
The life of a screen cowboy traditionally urged him to pursue his instincts, steering him to a sense of his own nature. This being America, that meant good sense, a kind of raw moral health, at least until the films of the 1950s. The anxieties that rose up then, especially in the work of Anthony Mann, now cloak the landscape of Eastwood's film. He reminds me of James Stewart in Bend of the River or Gary Cooper in Man of the West, their assurance whittled down by ghosts of a vicious past, and transformed by Mann into something close to mania. The same compulsion, to hit the trail wherever it leads, rides through Unforgiven. The title tells all: to be the fastest gun in the West guarantees you nothing, apart from the slowest burn in Hell.
It might still earn you dollars on the way, though. Munny enlists the help of Ned Logan - his oldest friend, and thus played by Morgan Freeman, the only actor around who can do solid wisdom and not make it look like stodge. They ride towards Big Whiskey, but the plot gets there before them. English Bob is in town - Richard Harris, last seen out West in Triumphs of a Man Called Horse, now returned as a depraved dandy who sticks up for monarchy ('why not shoot a president?') and slaughters men for pleasure, like pheasant. He rides in, cocking his fingers into a fleshy pistol and firing at the citizens. But he rides out less comfortably, booted and bloodied by Little Bill. Exit of a Man called Trash.
This episode ties in only lightly with the rest of the film, but no matter; if anything, the story needs to broaden out and take its ease, away from the hard drive of the central characters. You find yourself drinking in the inessential things, those leisurely moments when characters just clop along and talk. Unforgiven is a well-weathered movie, shot in crisp autumnal light; when the clouds finally open, the rain is so drumming and silvery that it brightens a night sky. And winter is so sudden it drives you snowblind - a burst of wide country, with the focus reaching to the mountains, and Munny set down in the right-hand corner like the ruminating figure in a classical landscape.
The camera then switches to intense close-up, two heads trying to guess each other's thoughts. This is pushing it a bit, and I sometimes felt that Unforgiven was stirring up almost too dense a brew; everything is planned up to the hilt, everything herds us into the moral conflict. It brings on a pulp writer called Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), for instance, whose tales of derring-do are gradually unpicked by his realisation that very little derring was ever done. His presence is a fine running gag, but the audience doesn't really need him: we can see for ourselves how western myth and reality got divorced.
At the start of the film, Little Bill pleads: 'ain't we seen enough blood for one night?' It sounded practical at first, then cynical and deeply unjust; by the end it's simply nave. He ain't seen nothing yet. As the night comes down and the editing picks up speed, myth gets back together with reality for one last fling. The shoot-out feels desperate yet thrilling, although no thrill comes cheap in Unforgiven. The West that it shows is Wild all right, but more like a dog than a party. That doesn't mean we can't enjoy being dragged along for the ride; the rougher the better, in fact, as every action zings with ricochets. As Eastwood says, 'it's a hell of a thing, killing a man'. His 10th western is his most brutal, but also his most reflective; all in all, it's a hell of a thing.
A League of Their Own is a bright idea that turns into a pile of mush. The story is a gift - the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, established in 1943 when the male players were sent off to war. The opening scenes have guts and gags, particularly when a scout (Jon Lovitz) goes looking for rural players and leads them to a major stadium: 'Hey, cowgirls, see the grass? Don't eat it.' Lovitz has a true Groucho snarl, but the film is more of a simper. Anything starring Geena Davis (as the leading player) and Tom Hanks (as the bleary coach) will have its great moments; but the director is Penny Marshall, who can't be bothered to build up a team of characters, and doesn't know how to end a film except in tears. I wanted to run round behind the camera and shake her. Hey, cowgirl, see the sentiment? Don't milk it.
'Unforgiven' (15): Empire (437 1234), Camden Plaza (485 2443), Coronet (727 6705), Screen on Baker St (935 2772), Whiteleys (792 3324), MGM Haymarket (839 1527), Fulham Rd (370 0265), Oxford St (636 0310) & Trocadero (434 0031). 'A League of Their Own' (PG): Odeon West End (930 7615) and on general release. All nos 071.
In today's fashion supplement, inside 'The Sunday Review': Anthony Lane on clothes in the movies.