‘We All Have it Coming, Kid’: Looking Back on 1992’s Unforgiven (Spoilers Ahead)

While the foregoing title implies the fate of many characters of director Clint Eastwood’s 1992 feature film, Unforgiven, it also suggests something much more explicit: everyone has their first Eastwood Western, and as atypical as Unforgiven may be made out to be, and this was ours.

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Director and star Clint Eastwood photographed at the 1993 Oscars with his awards for Best Picture and Best Director for his 1992 feature film, Unforgiven (TheAcademy.Tumblr.com Photo and Caption)

There were a few things, apart from distinct trademarks, that 1992’s Unforgiven‘s direction  has:  a focus on the building conflict between Gene Hackman’s Sheriff Little Bill and Clint Eastwood’s Bill Munny, as noted even when the main plot is fulfilled; the stillness (even in violence) that looms over the film, à la 2016’s Sully sans the violence; and the use of shadows to signify the duality, ours or the  protagonists beliefs therein, relative to their eventual fate, as noted by the silhouette’s perpetually crossing Munny’s face or Little Bill’s figure.

That being said, there are some other Eastwood-isms that, as discussed in our prior review of 2016’s Sully, are also present in 1992’s Unforgiven:

  1. Protagonists in conflict with authority figures: much like in 2016’s Sully, Bill Munny is brought into indirect and later direct conflict with Sheriff Little Bill.
  2. Similar locations repeatedly figuring in the film’s story: there are, almost circularly in the Munny farmhouse’s case, a few used several times in Unforgiven: Greely’s Billiards Hall, Sheriff Little Bill’s house, the Munny farmhouse and sty,
  3. Efficient editing: Edited by editor Joel Cox, Unforgiven clips by at a brisk pace, its 2 hours and 15 minutes and several supporting roles and subplots notwithstanding.
  4. Consistently low placement of cameras: there is a lot of behind-the-shoulder and behind-the-back photography in Unforgiven, more so than the Steven Spielberg films that we spoke about last week.
  5. Having similar crew members even earlier on: later cinematographer Tom Stern is here as a chief lighting technician, James J Murakami as a set designer and Joel Cox as editor.
  6. Given my limited experience with Eastwood films so far, a focus on human relationships and their consequent (or not) moral complexities: Munny’s relatsionships – with the likes of his late wife, Claudia; his old friend, Ned; the upstart, the Scofield Kid; and later Sheriff, Little Bill – resurrect his notions about moral rectification (‘my wife she cured me of that‘), comeuppance for criminals (‘we all have it coming, kid‘), killing and the killed (‘you take away all he’s got and all he’s going to have‘) and un/deserved retribution (‘I don’t deserve this… to die like this. I was building a house,’ followed by Munny’s ‘deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.’)

Here’s to more Eastwood-isms to be found over the next week and more.

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Screenwriter David Webb Peoples speaking at an edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (ClintEastwoodArchive.org Photo and Caption)

With respect to the screenplay, used in its original un-rewritten form, by director Eastwood, the script by David Webb Peoples is noteworthy superficially for two things: its world-building with many supporting characters in societal roles (writer, farmhand children, proprietors and the like) and that the plot – Munny’s quest to claim the bounty – is only the spine of the story (there are powerful moments on either end of that plot, when it gets going.

There was also some interesting use of metaphor, which we’ll revisit in the cinematography commentary, in that Munny is pictured often in fences and enclosures (allusions to his restraint, perhaps?), caked in mud and dirt at the film’s start (allusions to his more grounded nature), the use of a rifle over Ned’s head in his hallway (lending to his earlier and resurgent violent profession) and the use of partial or total shadows for Munny and Little Bill (alluding to their variably violent and honourable natures).

That was a bit of a shot in the Unforgiven-esque dark but that said…

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(from left background to right foreground) Clint Eastwood’s Munny and Morgan Freeman’s Ned in a scene from 1992’s Unforgiven (Bolsamania.com Photo)

The acting pairs, in context of the relationship and moral complexity comment cited above, are Munny and his late wife, Claudia; Munny and his new partner, the Scofield Kid; Munny and his old partner, Ned; and Munny and the antagonist, Little Bill. Given Munny’s protagonist role, everyone else cited above, including Claudia, via the grave, are used as sounding boards to develop, repetitively so, in Claudia’s case, Munny’s backstory and traits.

The others are themselves developed, visibly or not in nearly each above case: Claudia fixes Munny’s morality prior to her death of smallpox; the Scofield Kid turns his back on murder and crime (‘better blind and ragged than dead‘); and Ned and Little Bill are led to their deaths, the latter discussing the undeservedness of his death (‘I don’t deserve this… to die like this. I was building a house.’)

That said, Sheriff Little Bill functions in a near-protagonistic role at the start given his own issues in working with and against public demand and his own ideas of what should be done to protect the town of Big Whiskey. This lends itself in particular scenes when he’s obscured by shadow in the town jail and later with a wall of people backing him up during the Munny-manhunt.

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Composer Lennie Nielhaus (Ranker.com Photo and Caption)

The score by composer Lennie Nielhaus uses a singular theme (Claudia’s Theme, in eight version) to soothing effect between the film’s tense-r scenes. The music, given a standalone listen of the film’s album, is generally very restrained with Claudia’s theme being the standout piece.

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(from left to right) Director and star Clint Eastwood and Director of Photography Jack N. Green at an event for the American Society of Cinematographers (ClintEastwoodArchive.Blogspot.ae Photo and Caption)

The cinematography, courtesy of Director of Photography Jack N. Green, is fairly heavy on silhouettes and allusions to metaphor: Munny being seen in fences at the start of the film, the shadows criss-crossing Little Bill’s mien alluding to his unadmitted villainy or even the flickering of the candlelight over the faces of the bounty-hunting party, misleadingly suggesting who might survive. There is an at par with The BFG-level of shoulder-shot cinematography and shot-from-the-back level of cinematography in addition to a lot of earthiness and dirt.

With a tad more simplification than Unforgiven warrants, Unforgiven is a pleasantly-scored (à la Claudia’s theme), silhouette-heavy Western with enough unclear morality to be engrossing outside of its genre appeal. Quite a way to start your experience with Westerns if you haven’t started already.

(While the opinions and observations cited above are the author’s own, the following sources were used to acquire facts: IMDB.com, RogerEbert.com, SensesOfCinema.com, TheClintEastwoodArchive.Blogspot.ae)

Plot and Act-by-Act Breakdown:

Plot: a former outlaw must track down and kill the cowboys who disfigured a prostitute to claim a bounty.

Prologue: a silhouetted William Munny tends to his wife’s grave; Madame Strawberry Alice issues a bounty of $1000 for whomever can kill Delilah’s attackers.

Act 1: The Scofield Kid approaches Munny with a partnership offer over the contract; despite his coolness, Munny later chooses to ride off to join him.

Act 2: Munny chooses to visit Ned’s farm; Munny impliedly convinces Ned to join him.

Act 3: Munny and Ned manage to track down the Scofield Kid; they decide to jointly head down to Big Whiskey.

Act 4: Munny is beaten up by Little Bill after reaching town; Munny, the Scofield Kid and Ned later choose to escape to shelter with the help of ‘billiards’ house’ workers.

Act 5: Munny manages to catch up with the Scofield Kid and Ned; Munny manages to shoot one of the assailant cowboys.

Act 6: Munny and the Scofield Kid decides to track down the last assailant cowboy alone due to Ned’ departure; Munny has the Scofield Kid kill the last cowboy and they escape to Big Whiskey.

Act 7: Munny learns of Ned’s death at the hands of Little Bill; Munny decides to head to big Whiskey alone, sending the Scofield Kid on with their bounty.

Act 8: Munny shoots (and kills) Little Bill and his company; Munny warns the town against their ways and rides off.

Epilogue: The Munny farmhouse is pictured abandoned from afar.

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