One Great Scene: UNFORGIVEN
In this series of articles, we’re going to do a deep-dive on one knockout scene from a great movie. Today’s movie is UNFORGIVEN. The scene is when English Bob and the Sheriff confront each other in town. Here’s a link to the scene as a refresher (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rsyw13yrRoo). The scene is about establishing Gene Hackman’s character as just as brutal as Clint Eastwood’s outlaw.
The scene is aided immeasurably by the two all-world actors in it, Richard Harris and Gene Hackman. Richard Harris plays English Bob, a hired gun rolling into town. Gene Hackman plays Sheriff Daggett.
Sheriff Daggett insists on English Bob giving him his gun. It’s a classic Western scene that has been in a hundred Westerns. English Bob turns over his gun. This is where the scene turns, as well.
Despite English Bob complying with his request to relinquish his weapon, Gene Hackman’s Sheriff Daggett beats the hell out of English Bob anyway. It’s an unfair fight. English Bob is clearly hurt on the ground and Daggett just keeps on kicking him.
Daggett beats and kicks English Bob until his face is covered in blood, exclaiming that he’s not really kicking him, he’s talking. He’s talking to all the other gunmen that could come out of the woodwork. He insists, “There ain’t no whores’ gold. Even if there was, they wouldn’t want to come looking for it.”
The power of the scene is in its subversion of tropes. Daggett is doing exactly the things that would be heroic in most Westerns. He’s being a tough sheriff, doling out Western justice to a gunman.
But the presentation of the scene leaves no doubt that Daggett’s brutality is cruel, unfair, and excessive. He’s the villain of this film. It gets to the heart of what UNFORGIVEN is doing with the western genre.
Every piece of Western mythology the audience takes as doctrine is challenged. The Sheriff, “Little Bill” Daggett, is both an effective sheriff and a cruel sadist. William Munny is an outlaw, but there’s nothing heroic or charming about him, he’s a killer of women and children (and he’s the hero of the movie).
The casting of Richard Harris, a respected actor who was already into his older years at the time of filming, bolsters this further. What is literally happening in the scene is that Gene Hackman is beating up an old man. In this couple minute sequence, UNFORGIVEN shows the audience this is not their father’s Western.
Is this a great scene to you? Let us know in the comments below.