With Clint Eastwood’s film “American Sniper” receiving a flurry of attention, both bad and good, it might be time to examine his most famous Western movie, “Unforgiven,” made in 1992.
How good is it?
The American Film Institute ranks it #68 on its list of Top 100 Movies.
Yet I can think of at least one Western movie with similar themes that’s better than it. Namely, Marlon Brando’s 1961 flick “One-Eyed Jacks.”
“One-Eyed Jacks” is a better movie than at least half of those listed on the AFI list. As a work of art it’s better than all but a handful of them. Even that statement is modest. Is “One-Eyed Jacks” as deep in its subtexts and undercurrents as Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”? Yes.
“One-Eyed Jacks” is a better film than “Unforgiven” on many levels, in many aspects. I’ll discuss here only one of them.
“One-Eyed Jacks” contains a scene when Sheriff Dad Longworth, played by Karl Malden, brutally whips Marlon Brando’s Rio in the center of town, with the community looking on. The sudden violence from the lawman comes as a surprise.
“Unforgiven” mimics this scene in two of its own. First, when Gene Hackman’s Sheriff beats up gunfighter English Bob, played by Richard Harris. The presentation is similar—a host of rifles and shotguns tell the gunman he has no chance. Hackman exhibits the power of authority over the cocky gunslinger.
Later in the movie, Hackman beats up protagonist Clint Eastwood, another aging gunfighter, in similar fashion, which sets up the film’s violent conclusion.
The scene in “One-Eyed Jacks” is superior, because it brings together several of the subtexts and themes that have been floating beneath the narrative. For the Malden character, his action is not simply a demonstration of authority. The beating is personal. It’s an explosion of tension which has been building between the two men from the film’s beginning.
There’s the self-hatred Malden feels for having betrayed his friend—hate which is projected onto Brando. There may be a deeper subtext, given that Brando was in effect his protege, having started riding with Malden from a young age. As the dialogue states, from when Brando’s character was little more than a kid. Is something psychosexual going on? It’s possible.
There’s the father-son dynamic, as expressed even in the characters’ names-- “Dad” and “Kid.” Adding to this is the fact that Rio has entered Dad’s stepdaughter, Louisa—transcendentally played by Mexican actress Pina Pellicer—and Dad knows or at least suspects this.
The beatings in “Unforgiven,” however powerful, contain none of this, and so carry less discomforting force. The greatest art will work its themes and meanings through every part of the narrative. “One-Eyed Jacks,” a true American movie masterpiece, accomplishes this.
For more discussion of these two movies and other great Western films, pick up my ebook, ABOUT WESTERN MOVIES, available through Nook Books and Kindle.