Unforgiven (1997)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, Richard Harris
Extras: Commentary Track, Documentary, Featurettes, Maverick Episode, Theatrical Trailer

It is almost as if time is repeating itself – in a good way. Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" was one of the first DVDs that Warner Home Video released when the format launched in 1997. Here we are, 9 years later and Warner is giving us "Unforgiven" as one of their first HD-DVD titles. And what a disc it is.

"Unforgiven" is a remarkable film in many aspects and it is reflected in the fact that it received four Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture. Clint Eastwood produced, directed and starred in the film that takes a long, hard look at the Wild West myth. After countless years of representing the glorified West himself, an older Clint Eastwood returns to the Wild West in a part that is the exact opposite of what he used to play. Finally he is giving us a glimpse at what the West really looked like. A filthy and dirty world in which people get shot and feel the pain of their wounds while they slowly bleed to death. A world where even gunslingers grow old, weary and weak. Where people are near-sighted, stumble and fall. A world in which no one and nothing is perfect or romantic at all.

More importantly however, in "Unforgiven" Clint Eastwood reevaluates the value of life, after countless times of playing the trigger-happy one-man-army, and best of all, he plays and presents it with sincerity and believability.

Set in the late 1800s, the movie starts in the small town of Big Whiskey with a drunken cowboy cutting up a woman at the local whorehouse. When the town's Sheriff Little Bill Bragget (Gene Hackman) decides that the owner of the whorehouse has to be compensated while the victim herself remains ignored, the women unite, scrape up some money, and put up a bounty on the head of the cowboy and his fellow. A young wanna-be gunslinger by the name of "Schofield Kid" decides it is his chance to make a name for himself. He tries to enlist the aid of a once-famous bounty hunter, William Munny (Clint Eastwood).

After years of tracking down people, killing them in cold blood for bounties, Munny is now a totally changed person. Pious, haunted by nightmares of the people he killed, widowed with two children to raise and a pig farm that barely produces enough money to survive, he is only a shadow of the hero he once was. Although his skills are rusty and he is plagued by the signs of his age, he eventually gives in to help the young hotshot and sets out with him and his former partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) to once again kill… if only to make the money he so desperately needs. Soon enough however, they collide with Sheriff Bragget, who not only serves the law, but also has a tendency to shape it his way.

Beautifully photographed, masterfully directed and edited, and featuring a stellar cast that gives its very best, "Unforgiven" is arguably the best Western that was ever made. Its strength comes from the fact that it tells a story that is uncompromising and sobering, while still using the beautiful, expansive scenery of the West with its golden sunsets. In this film every single moment has significance. Whether the scene picks up a simple conversation during the ride west, or shows us the inner conflict the people go through, at every moment there is a subtext that plays very strongly – a subtext that makes you think. When the film enters its third act and we know the inevitable is going to happen, Eastwood's character becomes larger than life without for a moment losing his vulnerability, agony or believability. We see a real Wild West hero, a myth in the making.

"Unforgiven" also teaches us a lesson in humanity without ever becoming preachy in that way. Again, the subtext makes you constantly think as you watch the film, allowing the viewer to evaluate his own ideals on any given situation and in the end we can see very plainly, that violence is no solution to anything. It only furthers pain.

On a sidenote it may be interesting to note that Eastwood picked up the rights to this movie in the late 70s and let it sit without touching it because he felt he was too young to play the part of William Munny and needed some maturing. A wise decision if you ask me, because Munny is portrayed in absolutely convincing perfection, as are all other characters in the movie; they come across as believable as actors in cinema can get.

I put in the HD-DVD and was anxious to see what the transfer would look like, not sure what to expect. From the first seconds I was simply blown away. The level of detail in this transfer is absolutely amazing. From the first show, in which Munney buries his wife in the sunset, you know that this is a spectacular rendition of the film. Every little branch in the tree is visible and when the opening text begins to roll, it is so amazingly sharp it looks like it were printed on a sheet of paper. Frankly, I think I have seen for the first time just how good high definition video can get.

Like the Special Edition DVD version – which presumably uses the same transfer – the image is absolutely clean and clear without even a hint of grain. But ultimately it is the level of detail that you see in this transfer that will take your breath. Whether it is the most subtle wood texture or the peeling bark on the wood fence, the wide shots of the grass in which you can see every singly leaf of grass, the golden fields of wheat waving in the wind, the shots of the actors riding with their hair flying in the wind or the dusty, dirty streets of Big Whiskey, every shot is so loaded with detail that I guarantee you that upon first viewing this disc you will be constantly distracted by your own amazement as to just how detailed the picture is.
The colors are equally strong and impressive but always look natural and never over-saturated. The picture is razor-sharp and yet, not a hint of edge-enhancement is evident anywhere. The fantastic color reproduction is complemented by equally impressive black levels and contrast, making "Unforgiven" a real showstopper and clearly one of the best HD-DVDs in the market right now.

[Note: have some serious problems running chapter 17-19 of the disc as the film would continuallly lock up the HD-A1 Toshiba HD-DVD player. I do suspect however that this is a problem with Toshiba's shoddy player and has nothing to do with the actual HD-DVD disc.]

The disc features a 5.1 channel Dolby Digital Plus mix that is lively and benefits from the increased bitrate, it seems, as the audio presentation has a wonderful clarity and very good separation that I do not remember like this from the DVD. Making very good use of the surround channels, the mix is mostly using surrounds for ambiance, but does so in an extremely effective way. When it is raining, it is literally raining all around you and when a gunshot echoes through a canyon, it does so with superb reflections from all directions.

The release contains all the same extras from the Special Edition DVD, presented in the same 480i standard definition format. So, you will get a commentary track by filmmaker, critic and Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel. It is an informative commentary that contains a lot of information about the production of the movie, as well as plenty of insight in to Eastwood's working and his approach to the material. While a commentary by Eastwood himself would certainly have been the most desirable addition, Schickel delivers a commentary that does indeed add to the release, though it does contain a good number of lengthy pauses.

The disc also contains four documentaries. It starts with "All On Accounta Pullin' A Trigger" a 20-minute featurette hosted by Morgan Freeman, that revisits the stars of the movie, 10 years after its making, giving them the chance to reflect on the film. Especially Eastwood's recollections are very exciting to watch. The featurette is padded quite a bit with footage from the film, but still contains a good amount of information.

"Making Unforgiven" is next on the disc. It is the original 1992 featurette that was used to promote the film during its theatrical run. The third one is "Eastwood… A Star", a featurette that takes a brief look at the making of the film, but also covers some of Clint Eastwood's previous movies.

The undisputable highlight of this disc is the one-hour documentary "Eastwood on Eastwood" from 1997, directed by Richard Schickel. It is the best documentary made about the filmmaker, covering his life and career in many pictures, interviews and footage from home movies, films, TV appearances and the likes. It chronicles his rise as an actor, and his progression to becoming a multi-talented – almost auteur – filmmaker.

As another gem bonus, the release contains the 1959 episode "Duel At Sundown" from the legendary James Garner TV series "Maverick." The episode is included in its entirety and presents us with a very young Clint Eastwood in his first TV role.

I may sound like a broken record but, wow, does this film look amazing in high definition! If you don't believe me, go to a store – one that actually has a HD-DVD demo display – and ask them to put in "Unforgiven" for a test ride. You will love what you see and you will want to own this disc, there I have no doubts. For me, "Unforgiven" is the best HD-DVD out right now and will be my very first reference disc of the format.