He fires up his winners with a western

Ravens' Billick will introduce one of his favorite teaching tools 00 'Unforgiven' -- at the Maryland Film Festival.


May 06, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

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.

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