"The script's not playing with the tropes as much as lighting them on fire and watching them burn away."
Twenty-five years ago, in August 1992, Clint Eastwood unveiled his classic western Unforgiven. The film has held up as one of the best of its genre, mainly due to its ability to take the tropes of the western and flip them all on their heads. Instead of giving audiences a hero to cheer, the film holds up a mirror to reflect their horror when the killings they usually root for in a western come to bear. Critics adored the film, which went on to win Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director for Eastwood, Best Editing for Joel Cox, and Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Gene Hackman's brilliant turn as sadistic Little Bill Daggett.
Unforgiven takes the tropes of the western and flips them all on their heads.
The script, written by David Webb Peoples (who lost the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay that year to The Crying Game), was actually completed in 1984. Legend has it that Eastwood read the script and loved it, but believed he needed to be older to play the role of William Munny, so he tossed the script in the proverbial drawer and waited. Eight years later, the film Eastwood shot was almost exactly as scripted in 1984.
In a recent episode of the Scriptnotes podcast, screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin deconstruct this deconstructed western, comparing script page to screen, and illuminating why the story works so well both in written and visual forms. You can listen to their discussion here or, if you don't have time to listen now, read our five key takeaways below about how Eastwood subverted the genre. [Note: If you're discovering this post after the podcast episode is no longer available for free, check out the complete transcript here, or subscribe to the complete Scriptnotes back catalog for only $1.99/month.]
To follow along with the discussion, you can download a copy of the script for Unforgiven here.
1. Tearing apart a conventional genre to create an original story
When we see Clint Eastwood in a western, we immediately think of The Man With No Name from Sergio Leone's films, we think of The Outlaw Josey Wales, we think of a badass with the quickest draw and a confident sneer. When we meet William Munny in Unforgiven, he is old, broken, failing pig farmer—anything but a cold-blooded killer. Even when other characters tell us Munny was once the "goddamndest meanest sonofabitch" there was, Munny doesn't own up to the legend, and we're not exactly buying it either. We almost wonder what the hell we're watching: is this really a Clint Eastwood western?
"[The script's] not playing with the tropes as much as lighting them on fire and watching them burn away."
August summarizes exactly why Peoples' script works so well by defying the western genre's prescriptions:
The script takes our expectations of what a western is supposed to do, what the hero of a western is supposed to do, and what the tropes of a western are supposed to do. It explores them and ultimately rips them apart and lays bare the pain and the suffering that’s underneath all of that and tries to get back to the common humanity that underlies all the mythic heroes that we have coming out of the western genre. I don’t think you can make Unforgiven without a good knowledge of all of the westerns that came before it, and the audience’s expectations about what’s supposed to happen in a western. It’s not playing with the tropes as much as lighting them on fire and watching them burn away.
2. Using theme to drive the story
When writers get stuck in their stories and don't know what to write next, the theme should be their guide. Mazin uses Unforgiven as a prime example of this lesson: "We talk about thematic unity of a movie. Over and over and over, this is a movie about stories and truth. And Peoples never lets off that gas pedal on it. It’s just brilliant. You know, when you ask the question, well, what am I supposed to be writing here, the theme will tell you... Most importantly, I think, the script is incredibly instructive on theme and character and how they intertwine and how all characters are like spokes, all leading to the hub of the wheel of the theme."
"The script is incredibly instructive on theme and character and how they intertwine and how all characters are like spokes, all leading to the hub of the wheel of the theme."
Mazin continues to explain how the characters of Little Bill, English Bob, and The Schofield Kid all revel in telling their tales of killings, and W.W. Beauchamp, a writer constantly looking for the meanest killer of the West, can't get enough of these tales, even when most of them are fabrications. The one character who refuses to indulge in the legend is Munny, the only character who eventually lives up to his legend, which is worse than we even imagined. Peoples' script never loses sight of the theme of legends and truth, returning to the theme over and over to move the story forward.
3. Inverting the maxim "show, don't tell" for dramatic effect
The first thing all new screenwriters and filmmakers are told is "show, don't tell." This maxim is drilled into our brains. Unforgiven not only deconstructs the tropes of the western, the film inverts "show, don't tell" to great effect, revealing that every filmmaking rule can be broken, even the most fundamental ones. In the film, William Munny's partner Ned Logan, played by Morgan Freeman, can no longer stomach the killings and rides off to return to his wife. What we don't see is his capture at the hands of Little Bill and his minions. Instead, we only discover Ned Logan's capture when we see Little Bill whipping him to get information on the names and whereabouts of Munny and The Schofield Kid.
But we never see the end of Ned's torture. Instead, we only learn what happened to Ned when Munny learns what happened to his friend. When Little Sue, one of the town's prostitutes, comes to deliver the bounty to Munny and The Kid for killing the men that cut up Delilah's face, she reveals that Little Bill tortured Ned to death. Withholding this information and choosing to tell the audience at the same time as telling Munny has a profound dramatic impact on the story. This is the moment when Munny finally turns toward the legend he refuses to acknowledge, grabs The Kid's bottle of whiskey, and fuels up for the storm he is about to bring down on Little Bill and his men. If Eastwood and Peoples had decided to show Ned's killing rather than tell, the story would suffer greatly as a result.
4. Exploring the horror of killing another man instead of celebrating it
Curiously, just prior to Munny regressing into his former cold-blooding killing self, he utters this line as The Kid struggles with the aftermath of his first killing: "It’s a hell of a thing, ain’t it, killin’ a man. You take everythin’ he’s got… an’ everythin’ he’s ever gonna have…"
This line is a perfect setup for the news that Little Sue is about to deliver to Munny, which then sets him on his inevitable path. More importantly, though, this line strikes at the core of what audiences believe a western should be. Mazin explains, "[This line] is profound, particularly within the context of a western, which is a genre in which people are constantly being killed. And in which we, the audience, are constantly cheering or meant to cheer. And suddenly here’s somebody who again refuses to go along with the legend. And he doesn’t have to because as it turns out he really is a terrible person."
Mazin continues that we as audiences want to see the final showdown, guns ablazin', our hero victorious, but in the case of Unforgiven, Munny is no hero, and his final showdown with Little Bill and his men is no feat of glory. It's bloody, cruel, and downright disturbing. If you're cheering for Munny at the end of Unforgiven, you're cheering for the Devil.
Two of the biggest changes between the script and the finished film are the beginning and the ending.
5. Knowing when to cut scenes, even from a potentially perfect script
Mazin starts the podcast by declaring that Unforgiven may be a perfect script, or as close as a script can be to perfect. Throughout the discussion, August and Mazin point out just how close Eastwood sticks to the script in the final film. And yet, even with a possibly perfect script, Eastwood knew when to make changes. Two of the biggest changes between the script and the finished film are the beginning and the ending.
In the script, the beginning superimposes the lengthy title sequence explaining William Munny's backstory on top of the terrifying scene of Delilah getting slashed by the cowboy whose masculinity she insulted. August points out that Eastwood's decision to open the film with the titles over Munny silhouetted by the sunset on his pig farm lets the true horror of Delilah's attack register for the audience. Reading titles about Munny while watching Delilah get slashed would have ruined the dramatic moment, not to mention confuse the audience.
Similarly, Eastwood departs from the script at the end of the film. Peoples includes a scene with Munny and his son upon Munny's return. Munny's son asks his father if he earned the money he has brought home by killing a man. Munny struggles to lie to his son, telling the boy that he didn't kill anyone, once again turning away from his truth and trying to distance himself from his legend. Eastwood cuts this scene, and decides to bookend the film with a reprise of the opening shot of the film, Munny at his wife's grave at their home, the sun setting behind him as titles tell us about Munny's future in San Francisco. Once Munny has shown us that he truly is the Devil, Eastwood won't let us see this man try to redeem himself in his son's eyes.