Unforgiven killed the western – and revived Clint Eastwood’s career

·14 min read
Clint Eastwood as William Munny in Unforgiven - Alamy
Clint Eastwood as William Munny in Unforgiven - Alamy

Clint Eastwood holstered Unforgiven – his final Western – for the best part of a decade. Though he first optioned the script in 1983, the film didn’t ride into cinemas until August 1992, winning four Academy Awards and earning Eastwood, as both its star and director, overdue acceptance from the film industry’s inner circle.

Eastwood plays William Munny, a repentant killer who’s coaxed back into the saddle for one last bounty. As the yarn from the Old West (well, Hollywood) goes, Clint sat on the script until he was grizzled enough to do this outlaw justice. That’s how screenwriter David Webb Peoples heard it from the man himself. “He mentioned that it was a part he needed to grow into, that he wasn’t ready to do it,” says Peoples. “I never knew if that was serious or not serious.”

Certainly, the passage of time is crucial to Unforgiven. Eastwood trades off his most bullet-proof persona, the Man with No Name – the wily, sardonic, savage crack-shot from the Sergio Leone-directed Dollars trilogy – and professes, “I ain’t like that no more”.

David Peoples didn’t have Eastwood’s Spaghetti Westerns in mind when he wrote the script. He was more influenced by the grit of Taxi Driver than A Fistful of Dollars. “The Man with No Name was bigger than life,” Peoples says. “I wouldn’t know how to write that character.” But the presence of Eastwood, the Western’s greatest living icon, imposes a layer of context: a reflection on the world – and crimes – from which the legend of these outlaws sprang.

It’s perhaps reductive to label Unforgiven as simply a “revisionist Western” – that edgier subset of films, including the Dollars trilogy and The Wild Bunch, which blasted hot lead into the classic morality of white hats versus black hats. “They’re all shades of bad instead of being good,” says Howard Hughes, author of numerous books on Westerns, about revisionist gunmen. As Hughes notes in his book on Eastwood’s films, Aim for the Heart, Clint took the role of The Man with No Name to escape his clean-cut cowboy, Rowdy Yates, from the TV series Rawhide. “I did get awfully tired of playing the conventional white hat,” Eastwood said in 1971. “The hero who kisses old ladies and dogs and was kind to everybody. I decided it was time to be an anti-hero.”

Richard Schickel, film historian and Eastwood biographer, described Unforgiven as “re-revisionist”. Indeed, Unforgiven isn’t about muddying the track between good and evil. Rather, it humanises and moralises about the Western and its violence, as personified by Eastwood’s character, Will Munny. He is the Man with No Name made real, given both an actual name and a sense of crippling remorse. Munny wasn’t just an outlaw, but a cold-hearted, whiskey-slugging murderer – a killer of men, women, and children. “I’ve killed just about everything that walks or crawls at one time or another,” he confesses. He’s now ghost-like – skeletal even – haunted by the memories of his long-since-dead victims.

Alongside Eastwood’s Munny are a posse of inverted Western figures: Ned (Morgan Freeman), Munny’s old killing partner-turned-mild mannered sage; the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), a Billy the Kid-a-like braggart who claims to have killed five men, but who’s too short-sighted to hit the target; English Bob (Richard Harris), a much-feared gentlemanly assassin, soon outed as a coward and a fraud; and “Little” Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), the sheriff of Big Whiskey, Wyoming – ostensibly a man of law and order, but corrupted by his own sense of justice. There are no true white hats or black hats in Big Whiskey. But Munny is the only man in Big Whiskey who plays down his own legend.

David Peoples wrote the script, originally called The Cut-Whore Killings, in 1976. “I couldn’t write movies like James Bond,” he says. “I didn’t have that mentality. I had no facility for writing about someone who blows up ten people and then sits down to have a good breakfast. It wasn’t comfortable for me to have people die in my scripts – until I saw Taxi Driver. I said, ‘Holy smokes, this is an entertaining, audience-pleasing picture, yet it’s got a darkness and toughness and it doesn’t seem unreal.’ That opened the door for me to write different things.”

(Peoples equates the respective gunslingers from Taxi Driver and Unforgiven several times: “I personally wouldn’t want William Munny to come to my house for dinner any more than I’d want Travis Bickle to come to my house for dinner!”)

Peoples also cites Glendon Swarthout’s 1976 novel, The Shootist, and the 1950 film The Gunfighter, starring Gregory Peck, as influences. Peoples saw The Gunfighter around the age of 10. It wasn’t until he saw The Gunfighter again decades later that he realised how much it had unconsciously inspired elements of Unforgiven.

Clint Eastwood on the set of Unforgiven - Alamy
Clint Eastwood on the set of Unforgiven - Alamy

Generally, Peoples wasn’t a fan of the classic John Ford-style Western or the genre’s trademark gunplay. “I thought gunfighting was kind of nonsense,” he says. “I sort of resented all that fast-draw s––t. I didn’t believe it.” Peoples wasn’t trying to deliberately dismantle the Western, but found himself veering towards its more offbeat frontier lines.

As his story begins, Will Munny’s killing days are far behind him. Tamed by a young wife who has since died of smallpox, he’s now a pig farmer and father.

Meanwhile, in Big Whiskey, two cowboys mutilate a prostitute for poking fun at their penis size (machismo, ego, and the fear of emasculation run rampant through Unforgiven – what we might now call toxic masculinity). The town’s prostitutes – not big-hearted floozies nor damsels in distress, but vengeful agents of retribution – are incensed by the meagre punishment doled out by the sheriff, Little Bill. They offer a bounty of $1,000 for the cowboys’ deaths, drawing a number of gunmen to Big Whiskey. Among them is the Schofield Kid, who invites Munny to partner up and split the reward. Like everything else in the West, the mutilation of the Delilah the prostitute – while horrific – has been wildly exaggerated. Munny takes the bait – either to stave off poverty or as a penance for his past crimes.

Francis Ford Coppola had the script at one stage, before it passed to Clint Eastwood. Clint’s story editor, Sonia Chernus, hated the story (“Get rid of it FAST,” she warned him) but Eastwood swiftly optioned Peoples’ script. As Eastwood later said, speaking in a retrospective documentary, the story was “everything I wanted to say in a western”.

“He had held [the script] quietly to himself,” wrote Richard Schickel in his Eastwood biography. “Not because he had any doubts about it, but because he knew that a day would come when he would need to draw on its redemptive power.”

Finally put into production in late 1991, Unforgiven came at an opportune moment for Eastwood. His recent films – Pink Cadillac, White Hunter Black Heart, and The Rookie – had been duds. “Critics wondered aloud if [Eastwood] was about to follow Burt Reynolds and Charles Bronson to the commercial fringe,” wrote Schickel. And Eastwood, though a star since the early Sixties, had never been embraced by industry snobs, particularly within the Academy, as a critically-worthy filmmaker. “I'm popular with the public,” Eastwood once said, “but that doesn't make me popular at the country club.”

Gene Hackman as Sheriff ‘Little’ Bill Daggett confronts Eastwood’s Will Munny - Alamy
Gene Hackman as Sheriff ‘Little’ Bill Daggett confronts Eastwood’s Will Munny - Alamy

The Man with No Name persona was also ripe for reclaiming. In 1990, Michael J. Fox rode into Back to the Future III wearing pink tasselled cowboy gear, calling himself Clint Eastwood, and borrowing the bulletproof breast-plate shtick from A Fistful of Dollars.

Unforgiven would play off the Leone classic, too, when Munny is called back into action after years of not shooting his gun. “In A Fistful of Dollars, there’s a bit where he’s in a cave, recovering from being beaten up, and doing target practice,” says Howard Hughes. “The target practice is repeated in Unforgiven, but he can’t hit anything this time. He has to get his shotgun – he needs an edge now. He’s not the shootist he was in those earlier films. It’s about demythisation.” (Amusingly, Richard Harris was watching another Clint Eastwood classic – the 1973 film High Plains Drifter – when Eastwood called to offer him the role of English Bob. Harris thought somebody was playing a joke on him.)

Production was based in an isolated location in Alberta, Canada, 60 miles from the nearest city. Big Whiskey was constructed for real – actual buildings, including a saloon and jailhouse, with fully practical interiors. For added authenticity, Eastwood banned motorised vehicles between the set and the crew’s base camp.

David Peoples spoke occasionally with Eastwood on the phone, but he mostly kept up with production via the trade papers. “I had no idea what to expect,” he says. When Peoples finally saw the film, he had a rare distinction of seeing his script put on the screen almost unchanged. “It’s very, very close to the script I wrote in the Seventies,” says Peoples.

Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven - Alamy
Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven - Alamy

Richard Schickel credited Peoples’ relative lack of screenwriting experience. (At the time of writing, that is. Peoples later co-wrote Blade Runner and 12 Monkeys.) Unhampered by Hollywood formula, Unforgiven strolls freely into rough, almost literary territory. See one sequence in which Munny spikes a near-fatal fever and is plagued by horrifying visitations – past victims and the Angel of Death.

One of the Peoples’ smartest creations is WW Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), a dime novel writer who accompanies English Bob to Big Whiskey. Writing Bob’s biography – “The Duke of Death”, based on Bob’s tales of his own legend – Beauchamp is the mythmaker of the Old West. (For Hughes, the character recalls The Wild Bunch director Sam Peckinpah, who cameoed in China 9, Liberty 37 as a dime novelist.)

In shooting down myths, murder hangs heavily over Unforgiven. It’s a frivolous act in classic Western – the natural order of crime and punishment. But Unforgiven is a film about killers who no longer have the stomach for death: the sharpshooting rifleman, Ned, who can’t bring himself to trigger the kill-shot; blowhard gunslinger English Bob, who bottles it when he’s offered a free shot at the sheriff; and the Schofield Kid, who lies about killing five men, and is traumatised when he finally shoots a man for real.

“It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man,” says Will Munny. “You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.” David Peoples jokingly agrees: “Every time I kill a man, I always have trouble eating dinner afterwards… after I shoot a few people, I’m just ruined for the day!”

The act of dying itself is neither dramatic nor Hollywood-like in Unforgiven. Rather, it’s unceremonious – a harrowing peer into the abyss of mortality. One cowboy – shot in the stomach by Munny and left to bleed out – fades slowly and painfully, wailing that he’s thirsty. Even Munny – the notorious outlaw who once shot a man’s teeth through the back of his head – can’t stand it, and demands the dying man be given some water.

A second cowboy is shot while he sits on the toilet – a miserable end. Peoples almost removed the scene after seeing the Jack Nicholson-starring Western, The Missouri Breaks, which also features a killing in the outhouse. “I thought, ‘S––t, everybody’s going to think I copied that scene!’” laughs Peoples. “I tried to take it out but it really was an important scene. It was just a cute joke in The Missouri Breaks… Everybody has to take a s––t.”

While the film belongs to Clint Eastwood – even David Peoples calls it “Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven” – Gene Hackman, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, gives Clint a run for his silver dollars as Little Bill Daggett.

For Peoples, Little Bill personifies the civilising of the Wild West. Bill spends his days building a roof for his house (“That’s civilisation!” says Peoples) and looks like a soft touch, keen to keep the peace. But staunchly pro-gun control, Bill enforces a zero-tolerance ban on firearms in his town, which erupts into the savage beating of anyone he doesn’t like the look of. “I do not like assassins, or men of low character,” Bill says. Little Bill and his men have absolute power. “It’s basically early organised crime,” says Howard Hughes. “He runs the town and the law to his own advantage. They can just kick anybody they don’t like out of town.” Later, Bill flogs and kills Munny’s old partner Ned.

Peoples had intended the character to be less overtly villainous. “As violent as he was, he was not a bad man,” says Peoples. The casting of Morgan Freeman as Ned, originally written as a white character, changed the dynamic. “Once he’s whipped an African-American,” says Peoples, “it’s hard not to see him as the racist problem that we have – because this is a racist country.”

Hackman was initially reluctant to star in a violent Clint Eastwood film, but Eastwood persisted and persuaded him. Eastwood also pointed Hackman towards Daryl Gates, Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department during the Rodney King beating, for inspiration. Hackman even referred to beating Morgan Freeman as “my Rodney King scene”.

Some critics have labelled Little Bill as a sadist, but there’s something else – something more complex – that shoots through the heart of Unforgiven. Bill delights in tearing down the myths of the Old West, dispelling the wild yarns that English Bob feeds his biographer, W.W. Beauchamp. Bill brands every legendary, self-inflated gunman as either a charlatan, coward, or a lucky shot. But Bill, also boasting to Beauchamp, gets hyped on being the real deal. Bill emerges as the reality of the Old West: vicious, volatile, a law unto himself.

Eastwood flanked by Jack Nicholson and Barbra Streisand - Corbis via Getty
Eastwood flanked by Jack Nicholson and Barbra Streisand - Corbis via Getty

David Peoples recalls seeing the film for the first time at a rough-cut preview. “I wasn’t used to seeing something I’d written like that, almost exactly, up on the screen,” he says. “It was shocking. When you write a movie, you have this stuff in your head, but I could not believe how good Gene Hackman was. He was better than what was in my head!”

Peoples – like Little Bill – was blown away by the film's climactic, staggeringly tense standoff. Munny, driven by the murder of his old pal Ned, returns to kill Little Bill and his men – a resurrection of his old ways. “When Munny puts the shotgun in Little Bill’s face, I was horrified,” says Peoples. “It was so powerful! I had imagined the scene, but what I imagined was so weak compared to what was happening up on the screen.”

“I don’t deserve this, to die like this,” says Little Bill. “I was building a house.” Munny is unimpressed. “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it,” Munny says, before pulling the trigger.

David Peoples wasn’t prepared for the success of Unforgiven. “I was moved emotionally by seeing it,” he recalls. “I also thought, ‘It’s wonderful that Clint Eastwood made a movie just for me, but nobody else is going to understand it… poor Clint!’”

Released on August 7 1992, Unforgiven was so powerful that it may have killed the myth of the Western for good. Relatively few straight-up Westerns have been made since. Certainly, it laid to rest Clint Eastwood’s outlaw persona, as Clint alluded to during production. “If there’s going to be a last one,” Clint would say, “this is a perfect one.”