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He fires up his winners with a western

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When head coach Brian Billick of the Baltimore Ravens pondered which movie to introduce at the Maryland Film Festival, one picture jumped to mind: Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven," which won the best picture Oscar for 1992 and earned Eastwood the award for best director.

"People around here know that I occasionally use film clips to communicate with my team," Billick said by phone as he waited for his turn to pick in the NFL draft two weeks ago. "I've used 'Unforgiven' on several occasions. I'm a big Clint Eastwood fan, and I think it's a great movie, with a lot of emotion and poignancy."

In these days of shrinking posterity, a movie that retains its power after a decade is already close to immortal. And a movie that reveals different facets to varied audiences in that space of time deserves to be called a contemporary classic. "Unforgiven" should take on new meaning for festivalgoers when Billick highlights specific scenes after tonight's 6:30 screening -- the kickoff to a closing-night celebration that includes a party at the National Aquarium. The picture's editor, Joel Cox (who also won on Oscar for his work on it), is hand-delivering one of Eastwood's own prints and will also attend the screening.

What's always been striking about "Unforgiven" is how gracefully and naturally it demythologizes what Billick calls "the wheeling gunman" of the Old West. As William Munny, a roaming gunslinger turned Kansas pig farmer, widower and father, Eastwood deconstructs his own persona.

Eastwood once described the figure he cut in spaghetti westerns and dirty-cop flicks as "a superhuman character who has all the answers, is doubly cool, exists on his own without society or the help of society's police forces." Munny spends most of his screen time refusing to become that character. When the superman in him re-emerges, his satanic glow is shocking.

Just as shocking is the screenplay's Marxist-feminist hook. The action begins in Big Whiskey, Wyo., when a cowboy slashes the face of a prostitute named Delilah (Anna Thomson) because she giggles in surprise at his lack of endowment.

The main villain, though, isn't the slasher, but the sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), who lets the cowboy and his partner off with a fine: they must deliver a string of ponies to the brothel owner to compensate for the prostitute's drop in value. Enraged by this response, the prostitutes' leader, a red-headed fury named Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher), pools the group's money and offers a $1,000 reward for the murder of the offenders ($500 per head).

But I've gone and called Little Bill "the main villain" -- and that's true only because, when Munny and his friend Ned (Morgan Freeman) and the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) go after the reward, Little Bill is their antagonist. Actually, Little Bill is more than a petty, pragmatic sadist. A former gunfighter himself, he's obsessed with his newfound authority as the law. The prostitutes try to keep their scheme a secret from him because they know that he preserves order, albeit on his own unwholesome terms.

Little Bill's deputies, the bounty hunters and the prostitutes swim in a tidal pool of cross-purposes. When the Schofield Kid rides onto Munny's Kansas farm to enlist him in the bounty hunt, all Munny knows is that the money is tempting and the varmints apparently worth executing. The Schofield Kid says they mutilated Delilah beyond recognition; the danger of exaggeration is one of the script's motifs.

Listen to the sheriff

So it shouldn't be surprising that the clip of "Unforgiven" Billick screened most recently centers on Little Bill, not Munny -- and that Billick wanted his players to take what the sheriff says to heart.

As Billick recalls, "There's a scene where Gene Hackman just beats the heart out of the Richard Harris character" -- a stylish gun-for-hire known as English Bob or "the Duke of Death." After Little Bill jails the gunman, he explains the true dynamics of killing to the writer who's been building the Duke's legend. "Hackman talks about what it takes to kill a man," says Billick. "He's explaining that the guy who's got the steely nerves is the one who ends up winning. Being 'a genius with a pistol,' because he's quick on the draw: that's all well and good, but 'that doesn't mean much next to being cool-headed.' "

Billick understands "Unforgiven" not just as William Munny's agony, but also as a tale of two teams, Munny's and Little Bill's, operating to the best of their abilities. "They are truly competing with one another," comments Billick, "and obviously, it's for their lives."

Because screenwriter David Webb Peoples balances this dramatic equation so thoughtfully, and Eastwood films it so compellingly, Billick can deploy scenes from either side to convey lessons about competition and intimidation.

Two or three years back, Billick showed his team the penultimate scene, when Munny is leaving the saloon he has littered with dead bodies. Munny yells, "Anyone so much as takes a shot at me, I'm gonna kill him. I'm going to kill his wife, his friend. Burn his damn house down."

As Billick says, "No one budges. And that scene is about how, sometimes, you have to raise the price of poker -- it's not enough that you want to win, you have to make the other side realize that it's not worth the effort not to let that happen." On a softer note, Billick admits to replaying some poignant moments repeatedly in his mind: the Schofield Kid blubbering after what turns out to be his first killing, and Munny musing, "It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away everything he's got and everything he's ever gonna have."

Billick says, "It's not a scene I necessarily share with my players, but as a head coach in the NFL I relate to it whenever I have to cut a player. If you know what it is to dream of playing for the NFL -- and I was once a player who was cut -- you have to have a certain compassion for the person you are letting go."

Attitude toward violence

What Billick responds to in the movie, screenwriter Peoples built right into the screenplay. On the phone from Berkeley, Calif., Peoples says that in his view, "I don't like to write about people I don't understand -- and if you understand them it's hard not to like them."

As Peoples sees it, what makes "Unforgiven" stick out is not that it is anti-violence, but that most Hollywood films are pro-violence. He thinks "Unforgiven" falls into the same category as Martin Scorsese-directed, Paul Schrader-written pictures like "Taxi Driver" and David Chase's cable series "The Sopranos." "They aren't anti-violent, and they aren't pro-violent. You watch 'The Sopranos,' and there's this extraordinary back and forth between the times when the violence is almost a relief and the times when it is so ugly and repellent you can barely watch it. Something from within the characters generates the violence; it comes from people's needs, and it's not necessarily good or necessarily bad. After all, if someone is being violent to you, you love the violent guy who comes to your defense."

In "Unforgiven," Peoples feels, "every human being has value. With the possible exception of Mike, the fellow who did the cutting in the first pace, I don't think anyone is ugly. Little Bill is trying to minimize the violence so people won't come around and shoot other people -- and if he doesn't understand feminism, he isn't alone. He wasn't worse than anyone else at that time, wasn't worse than I am now, sometimes."

According to Peoples, "the whole thing of most Hollywood pictures -- the ones Orrin Hatch doesn't object to -- is that violence is justified because it's a good person doing it to a bad person. The easiest way to make things go is to demonize your villains. But in 'Unforgiven,' you see three men who kill for different reasons. Munny does it because he has some mixture of feelings and anger in him and a lack of governor in his motor.

"There is something primitive in him. He is trying not to be primitive, but at certain points his anger cannot be stopped. English Bob isn't angry at anyone -- he just shoots people and collects money for it. And Little Bill is an idealist: he tries not to have violence in his town and stands for law and order. He represents violence on behalf of the forces of society. Orrin Hatch should love him."

Peoples wrote the script in 1976. He doesn't remember what inspired it. "At one point," he confesses, "I was determined that no one was ever going to get killed in any script I wrote. Then I saw 'Taxi Driver' and thought -- hey, you can deal with the dark side in a real and complicated way on the screen." Peoples also credits, as a catalyst, Glendon Swarthout's novel "The Shootist": "A wonderful book that became, for various reasons, just sort of a pleasant Hollywood movie." Swarthout's book was "darker, tougher."

Script fleshed out

So is Peoples' script for "Unforgiven." It's a canny mix of elements from every type of oater: mythic, psychological, elegiac and "anti." Peoples accepts the label of "revisionist western" -- he says his favorite westerns tend to be revisionist, like Henry King's "The Gunfighter" and Philip Kaufman's "The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid."

He loves the way Eastwood fleshed out the script's moods and depicted those fraught moments before and after violence, when the men ponder the enormity of murder and take each other's measure. Peoples credits the director-star with putting over his plethora of talk. Peoples had been worried about Little Bill's lecture about gunplay -- one of Billick's favorite scenes -- before he saw Hackman deliver it. Then his response was, simply, "Wow."

Little Bill wants to be the last of the gunmen, and to set the record straight on the whole lot of them. And Hackman lets the audience see the cogs grind in the mind of this shrewd manipulator. He uses tricky, ambiguous expressions, like a squinty, shallow smile, to divulge the sheriff's sour, untrustworthy affability.

Eastwood encouraged all the actors to relax without relinquishing tension. And at the peak of Eastwood's own performance, a hint of spiritual intensity bleeds through his trademark taciturnity. He convinces you that Munny is haunted by the men he's blown to kingdom come.

Peoples says he thought up English Bob as little more than "a device" to illustrate the magnitude of Little Bill's brute force. But Richard Harris humanizes the device. With ringing tones and seductive, effortless flamboyance, English Bob becomes an epicure of violence, serene in his bold, superior self-image.

Unlike Bob, Harris knows how far to push his bravura effects. And not everything Bob says is dismissible. His contemptuous comments on the potential for savagery in this wide-open New World and its brave, unfettered democracy carry an undertow of truth.

The May issue of Esquire reprints a letter in which a fan of "Unforgiven" calls this picture "possibly the best movie ever made." The name of the amateur critic is Timothy McVeigh.

"Hackman talks about what it takes to kill a man ... that the guy who's got the steely nerves is the one who ends up winning. Being 'a genius with a pistol ... doesn't mean much next to being cool-headed.' "

Ravens head coach Brian Billick,

on film "Unforgiven," directed by Clint Eastwood (above)

Much more to see

Other festival highlights for Sunday:

11 a.m., Theater 2: Mayor Martin O'Malley introduces a screening of Mike Newell's "Into the West," a fantasy about two Dublin youths who escape their grimy urban life on the back of a magical white horse.

1 p.m., Theater 1: Scott Simon plays host at the screening of an archival print of Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove."

1:30 p.m., Theater 2: "Startup.com" details with startling intimacy one casualty of the roller-coaster dot-com economy.

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