“Unforgiven” redefined the Western film, breaking down conventions all while incorporating revisionist themes that influenced a new wave of the genre in the nineties. The film’s reflections on age and the ideas of myth and storytelling fit snugly within the context of release year 1992, when the Western was seemingly a relic of the past. Ironically, David Webb Peoples’ original script was written in 1976, much closer to the Western’s heyday, and Clint Eastwood sat on the screenplay for years.
William Munny, the protagonist of “Unforgiven” who is played by Eastwood, is in many ways a reflection of the actor’s own career and his relationship with the Western genre. Both are aging men who, despite having moved on to another type of life, are permanently associated with their past. Munny probably has a lot more demons to conquer considering his history of violent bounty hunting, but there’s certainly a meta element to Eastwood’s direction and performance that enhances the experience of watching the film.
The Cowboy Actor
Revisionist Westerns have been part of the genre’s history long before “Unforgiven,” so it does make sense that the story predates the film’s release by more than fifteen years. Heck, Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns introduced revisionist ideas of frontier morality in Eastwood’s own Man With No Name. The complex explorations of good and evil found in Peoples’ script are arguably a timeless part of the legacy of Westerns. In addition, Eastwood had taken up directing Westerns himself since “High Plains Drifter” in 1973, intermittently returning to the genre as late as 1985 with the box office hit “Pale Rider.” None of his efforts, however, were as critically or commercially successful as “Unforgiven,” which just may be one of Eastwood’s most personal films.
Peoples, who is also known for co-writing “Blade Runner” and “12 Monkeys,” initially sold the script to director Francis Ford Coppola of “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now” fame. However, Eastwood acquired the screenplay some time in the early eighties, though like Coppola, decided not to immediately turn it into a movie. In an interview with NJ.com, Eastwood explains his reasoning for sitting on the script for so long:
“…a lot of people said, ‘Hey, you’re supposed to be a cowboy actor.’ But I want to mix it up. I guess that’s why when I got [the script for] “Unforgiven” in the early ’80s I put it in a drawer for 10 years, I’d done a bunch of Westerns, I thought I should do some other things first. Then 10 years later I picked it up and re-read it and it felt fresh…”
Subverting the Western Hero
The final version of “Unforgiven” mostly follows Peoples’ original 1976 draft except for some crucial differences that reveal Eastwood’s own attitude towards the film. For one, the title was changed from “The William Munny Killings” and, at one point, “The Cut-Whore Killings,” to the more ambiguous but thematically resonant (and less offensive-sounding) “Unforgiven.” The original script overlays the opening crawl during the film’s starting narrative event, but in Eastwood’s vision, the audience gets to soak in a somber landscape shot of Munny’s farm and watch him dig a grave for his wife. He brings this shot back at the end of the film, when Munny looks down on his wife’s grave, and cuts a scene when Munny reunites with his son and lies to him about not killing anyone.
These are important changes, modifying the film’s themes regarding morality and turning Munny into a more morally ambiguous character. They’re touches of direction that may not have been included if it wasn’t for Eastwood’s age and years of self-reflection. “Unforgiven” is ultimately about how Westerns color our views of the Old West with myths and tall tales that glorify killers. The film demonstrates how legendary gunslingers aren’t heroes, but actually cold-blooded murderers. That theme must have particularly resonated with Eastwood, who practically created the archetype of the gruff action protagonist. Even if The Man With No Name is often considered an antihero, the character is still someone people can idolize, a cool, clever figure who kills bad guys. William Munny is ruthlessly violent, even if he tries to escape from that nature. It’s no wonder Clint Eastwood waited all those years to direct “Unforgiven.” He needed to recognize that his Western hero may not have been so heroic.