Unforgiven HD DVD

"It was whiskey done it, much as anything else." So says William Munny (Clint Eastwood), a man of notoriously vicious and mean disposition, when asked how he killed so many men so easily in his younger years. Unforgiven deconstructs the myth of the western gunman, a character Eastwood himself played to such great effect earlier in his career. This is a bleak film to be sure, one in which the kindest characters are inflicted with the cruelest fates. In westerns we typically see some rough form of justice meted out by the gunman/hero, and we cheer when the bad guys "get what's coming to them." According to Eastwood's Munny, "we all have it comin."

The characters in this film are complex, and their morals and choices even more so. It's extremely violent, although the violence is repugnant, not glamorized, and if the movie has a theme it's that violence and killings exact a heavy toll on the perpetrators as well as the victims. There are no black and white characterizations here. The prostitutes of Big Whiskey haven't a heart of gold, but instead pursue vengeance relentlessly, whether the victim of the crime wants it or not. The film's central lawman, Gene Hackman's Little Bill, is by far the cruelest and most violent man in the movie, and he performs every act of viciousness with both forethought and a degree sadistic pleasure. Eastwood's William Munny isn't a loner standing up for justice, he's an alcoholic wreck of a man who's only good at one thing: killing. And that he does for blood money, unable to earn a living for his family in any other way.

Darkly brilliant and uncompromising, Unforgiven challenges, in the most un-romanticized terms, our fascination with men of notoriously vicious and mean disposition like William Munny, and by extension William Bonny, Jesse James, and even Eastwood's own "man with no name."

Among Unforgiven's greatest strengths are the acting performances, which are astounding from the smallest roles to the most prominent. Standouts include Gene Hackman, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Little Bill, Eastwood himself as Munny, and Morgan Freeman as his partner Ned Logan. Richard Harris is at his most charismatic as the preening, boastful shootist English Bob, and perhaps the most overlooked role in the film is Saul Rubinek, who's as smarmy as can be as the fawning western "biographer" W.W. Beauchamp.

Unforgiven stands tall among the greatest westerns ever made, and according to the AFI is one of the 100 best American films. The film was nominated for several Oscars, and in addition to Hackman's Supporting Actor win it took home statues for Best Editing, Best Picture, and Best Director. This is one the rare movies that got what it deserved from the Academy and others.

This HD DVD of Unforgiven needed to be strikingly impressive visually to separate itself from the excellent 10th anniversary DVD transfer, and it simply knocks it out of the park. Unforgiven boasts some of the finest imagery in Warner's burgeoning HD DVD catalog. As excellent as that 10th anniversary DVD is, the HD DVD just blows it up. And keep in mind that while I saw this first on Marantz's 1080p VP-11S1, I also saw the HD DVD's superiority just as convincingly with a million fewer pixels on the 720p VP-12S4.

While the nighttime indoor sequences are lit very naturalistically, and even dim, the outdoor sequences are simply eye-popping, as sharp and crisp and 3D as can be without even a hint of being "too sharp" or overenhanced. And of course, since this is HD DVD the motion and compression artifacts that are inevitable with even the best DVDs are simply non-existent here. Pure and pristine only begin to describe it.

This VC-1 encoded HD DVD is so good that during one of the daylight interior sequences I found myself engaging in an unsavory practice that HD DVD has inflicted upon me- watching wallpaper during a movie. The patterns and textures were so "reach and touch it" there I just couldn't help myself. This is among the best film-sourced HD I've yet seen, with a solidity and depth that has to be seen to be believed. Hurrah to Warner for such quality being coincident with such a great, deserving achievement in the art of filmmaking. Bravo, Warner!

Unforgiven isn't a surround sound demo by any stretch, but nevertheless the DD+ soundtrack here (transcoded to PCM and then DTS via SPDIF on the Toshiba HD-XA1) is quite credible. Excepting some very impressive thunderstorms that feature loud, concussive bass and rain that effectively heightens the drama in some key scenes, the surround effects are subtle but convincing, and the strings in Lennie Niehaus' sparse score are sweet and focused. Excellent sound without being showy.

Unforgiven highlights one of HD DVD's early strengths- like so many HD DVDs there's a wealth of extra features. This HD DVD has all of the features of the Two-Disc Special Edition DVD that marked its 10th anniversary. The extras here are so good that while my intent was to watch a few minutes of each to report on here, I ended up spending over two hours watching almost all of them one night!

The best by far is movie critic Richard Schickel's 68-minute retrospective of Eastwood's career as both actor and director called "Eastwood on Eastwood." It expertly interweaves clips and biography with interviews with Eastwood himself, and is narrated by actor John Cusack. This documentary is so good that I'd have been happy to pay the price of this disc for it alone. Eastwood is incredibly open and revealing, and just as much so about his failures in film as well as his successes. Extraordinary for Eastwood fans.

Three other shorter documentaries are included as well. "All on Accounta Pullin a Trigger" lasts 22+ minutes and features interviews with Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and screenwriter David Webb Peoples. "Eastwood and Co.: Making Unforgiven" lasts 24 minutes and is narrated by Hal Halbrook, and focuses on Eastwoods long running collaborations with his crew members (decades in many cases). The worst of the bunch is "Eastwood…A Star," which features some oddly bouncy music and makes pretend that is just another Eastwood vehicle.

The theatrical trailer is included, a running commentray by Schickel, and last, but not least is another real treat. The Duel at Sundown" episode of the TV show Maverick in which a very young Eastwood plays a hotshot gunslinger intent on gunning down James Garner's Bret Maverick. That's a real kick.

In virtually every respect, not the least of which is its cinematic stature,Unforgiven is one of the most compelling HD DVD releases to date. An early treasure.

Video reviewed on Marantz VP-11S1 1080p and VP-12S4 720p DLP projector, 80" wide Stewart Filmscreen Studiotek 130 screen, and Toshiba HD-XA1 HD DVD player via HDMI. Audio sent via SPDIF to Theta Casablanca III pre/pro with Six-Shooter, Theta Citadel and Dreadnaught power amps, and Vandersteen loudspeakers.