Unforgiven is acclaimed as one of the greatest westerns ever made, and one of Clint Eastwood’s greatest roles. We’ve got the story behind the scenes on a classic movie via 20 great, enlightening facts.
Released in 1992, Unforgiven came decades after the cinematic heyday of the western but is widely acclaimed as one of the greatest examples of the genre. Directed by and starring Clint Eastwood it is a story of ageing, regret, revenge, and redemption.
We’ve got the story behind the scenes on Eastwood’s classic in the form of 20 fun, fascinating facts about Unforgiven.
1. It took two decades for the film to get made
Unforgiven was written by David Webb Peoples. An acclaimed writer responsible for classic movies like Blade Runner (1982), Webb Peoples had actually written the screenplay for Unforgiven back in the 1970s. The script had been sent to Clint Eastwood but he didn’t read it at the time. Eastwood’s script reader was Sonia Chernus, a writer known for penning the Eastwood-starring western The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). Chernus told Eastwood that Webb Peoples’ Unforgiven screenplay wasn’t very good. She said: “We would be better off not to accept trash like this piece of inferior work … I can’t think of one good thing to say about it. Except, get rid of it FAST.”
David Webb Peoples – the writer of Unforgiven
2. Another big-name director wanted to make the film
In the early 1980s, Francis Ford Coppola was sent the script for Unforgiven. He loved it, and optioned it. Coppola struggled to get the finances together though, and the project fell through.
Eventually, after it sat in his drawer for 10 years, Eastwood did read Webb Peoples’ script, and instantly loved it. It took a few years to pull it all together but Eastwood was making Unforgiven.
Francis Ford Coppola could have made the movie
3. The film originally started differently
Clint Eastwood didn’t make many changes to Webb Peoples’ script, but one of the amends he did make was to remove opening voice-over and replace it with the title text we see at the start of the movie.
The introductory title text in the film
4. Eastwood’s mother almost had a cameo
Clint Eastwood’s mother was in her 80s at the time and was almost in the film. Ruth Wood was going to appear as an extra in a scene where she boards a train. Eastwood had her working a full days’ shooting in a heavy dress. But in the edit, he cut the scene out of the film.
Eastwood and his mother, Ruth Wood
5. The film won Eastwood a long-awaited Oscar
With a career already spanning decades by this point, maybe one of the most surprising things about the movie is that it was the first that Clint Eastwood won any kind of Oscar for. Having never been so much as nominated before (despite appearing in numerous classics), Eastwood held a longstanding belief that he would never win an Oscar. He made quite a famous (and controversial) quote about the reasons why he’d not been nominated before:
“First, I’m not Jewish. Secondly, I make too much money. Thirdly, and most importantly, because I don’t give a f*ck.”
Unforgiven was a darling at the Oscars, though. Eastwood was nominated for Best Actor and won Best Director. And the film itself took home the Best Picture award.
Eastwood at the Oscars
6. Another actor could have been cast in the lead role
Clint Eastwood plays William Munny, an ageing former outlaw and killer called out of retirement for one final job. It’s difficult to imagine anybody else in the role now but, back when Francis Ford Coppola wanted to make the movie, he had somebody else in mind to play Munny.
Coppola wanted John Malkovich as Munny and actually met with him to discuss it. Malkovich himself says about that meeting:
“The offer was not very serious, thank God! I say that for myself and the poor public, and for Clint, absolutely! I would have been a total, total failure. Total! Who would’ve wanted to see that? I wouldn’t! I would’ve just been acting-schmacting.”
John Malkovich at that time
7. Eastwood wore some special footwear
The cowboy boots that Eastwood wore in Unforgiven are the same boots that he wore in the 1950s US TV show Rawhide. They’re now part of Eastwood’s private collection.
Rawhide is where Eastwood started out, so those boots book ended his career in Westerns.
Clint Eastwood in Rawhide
8. Gene Hackman had to be persuaded to be in the film
Once Eastwood was making the film, he only ever wanted Gene Hackman for the role of Little Bill Daggett, the Sheriff who proves the nemesis of Eastwood’s Munny. Hackman took some convincing, though.
Eastwood sent Hackman the screenplay and told him he wanted him to play the sheriff character. Hackman was impressed with the script but turned the part down. Hackman is famously anti-gun violence and was concerned that Unforgiven glorified that too much.
Eastwood then called Hackman up and said, “that’s the opposite of the film I want to make. Unforgiven isn’t going to be about the heroics of gunslingers, I want to show the inglorious, and dark side of the wild west. The brutality of that time and place – I think we could make something that shows that side of gun violence.”
After that conversation, Hackman made some notes on the script that Eastwood approved, and changed his mind about being part of it.
Gene Hackman as Little Bill
9. A political incident was an inspiration on the film
In 1991, a Los Angeles citizen, Rodney King, was beaten by several LAPD officers for resisting arrest, with all officers acquitted of any wrongdoing. The incident was captured on camera and led to a public outcry and outrage for perceived police racism and brutality. The L.A. Chief of Police at that time was Daryl Gates, and Eastwood asked Gene Hackman to model the character of Little Bill on Gates.
Hackman later referred to the moment in the film where Bill oversees Ned Logan’s (Morgan Freeman) torture as, “my Rodney King scene.”
Morgan Freeman as Ned Logan
10. Morgan Freeman asked to be in the film
Ned Logan is Munny’s old friend and right hand man, who joins him on this last job. Ned is played by Morgan Freeman. There were no other major names up for the part of Ned, but Freeman wasn’t approached by Eastwood, it was actually the other way round.
When Freeman was filming Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves (1991), Kevin Costner, who played Robin, told him about Unforgiven and said he thought there was a part in there he’d be great for. Freeman’s agent got him the script, and he called up Eastwood to say he wanted in. Eastwood thought he’d be great so cast him as Ned.
11. The film boasts some incredible production design
Unforgiven is mostly set in the fictional town of Big Whiskey. Going for realism, Eastwood wanted the town to be created as one huge set. The Production designer was called Henry Bumstead, and he and his team built the whole Big Whiskey set in 32 days.
Big Whiskey as seen in the film
12. A legendary hellraiser worked on the film
A secondary character in the movie is English Bob. A gunslinger with a fearsome reputation, it turns out Bob has been inventing stories about himself to enhance his image. Bob is played by Richard Harris – an actor almost as well known for his notorious drinking antics as for his brilliant acting.
In the film, Bob speaks with a refined upper class English accent, hence his nickname, but Richard Harris said to Eastwood: “It would be great if I could play this man as a very sort of upper-class fake, and at the end – when he gets the hell beaten out of him – all of that drops, and you see behind it all he’s really sort of a low life and speaks in a lower-class cockney accent.” Eastwood loved it and told him to go for it, and that’s what we see in the film.
Richard Harris as English Bob
13. A classic from a different genre had an influence on Unforgiven
As mentioned above, Unforgiven was originally written back in the 1970s – 1976, to be exact. Writer David Webb Peoples cited two major influences when he wrote Unforgiven. One was the western novel The Shootist, written by Glendon Swarthout in 1975 (turned into a 1976 movie starring John Wayne), and the other was a movie. Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). Webb Peoples said:
“I see Taxi Driver, and people are getting killed, and the characters maintained how they would be in real life. But at the same time, it’s an entertaining movie. Taxi Driver opened up what entertainment could be. It said, ‘Yeah, you can write this kind of stuff and it’ll be entertaining.'”
Robert De Niro as loner Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver
14. The title was originally very different
When Eastwood first read Webb Peoples’ script he had some ideas for changing it but said, “The more I fiddled with it, the more I realized I was screwing it up.”
All he ended up changing was the title. Before it was called Unforgiven, it was originally called ‘The Cut-Whore Killings’ and then ‘The William Munny Killings’.
15. The film is pretty much exactly what Webb Peoples wrote
Shooting scripts are often multicoloured – red and blue markings and notes signify script changes. That wasn’t the case with Unforgiven, however. Frances Fisher, who plays prostitute Strawberry Alice, said this was the first time she saw a shooting script that was entirely in white.
Frances Fisher as Strawberry Alice
16. The composer had a big jazz background
The composer on Unforgiven was Lennie Niehaus. Known originally as a saxophonist and jazz composer, Niehaus moved into movies in the 1970s and worked on films like Straw Dogs (1971), and Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). He knew Clint Eastwood after serving in the US Army with him. They shared a love of jazz music, and Niehaus had scored Eastwood’s previous few films, starting with Pale Rider in 1985.
Lennie Niehaus received no awards recognition for his Unforgiven score (the Oscar that year went to Alan Menken for Aladdin) but didn’t put Eastwood off. In total, he hired Niehaus 13 times as composer, and six times as orchestrator.
Sadly, Lennie Niehaus left us in May 2020 at the age of 90 and, on his passing, Clint Eastwood said:
“Lennie was not an extrovert. He expressed himself through playing, and he could play pretty damn good. He was a humble guy. If you were just talking in general, you’d think he worked at a bank or something. But if you started talking music, he came alive. I’ll miss him.”
Claudia’s Theme from the film
17. The DP was also a long time Eastwood collaborator
Jack N. Green was the Director of Photography on Unforgiven. It marked the 5th time he’d worked with Eastwood after Heartbreak Ridge (1986), Bird (1988), White Hunter Black Heart (1990), and The Rookie (2002).
Unforgiven was filmed in Canada, and Green played a part in how that came to be. A few years earlier, Green had been shooting a film in Canada and somebody asked him if Eastwood would ever make one there. Green said, “No, because he can’t bring his family” – by family he meant the crew Eastwood liked to work with. (If you work in a different country a filmmaker would usually hire local crew members). But the Canadian Union offered Eastwood a deal – they said they’d waive the normal rules for any crew member who could prove they’d worked on at least 5 Eastwood movies. That ended up being 50 people, and that’s how the film came to be shot in Canada.
Clint Eastwood and Jack N. Green
18. The film was a major hit
Unforgiven is regarded as a classic movie, and that’s the way it was right from its release in 1992. On a very small budget of $14.4m, Unforgiven grossed $159.2m at the box office. One of Eastwood’s most commercially successful movies.
19. It was also a critical darling
In terms of critics, the film fared incredibly well on its release. The LA Times said: “Unforgiven is the finest classical western to come along since John Ford’s The Searchers in 1956.”
Empire Magazine gave the film 5 stars out of 5 and said: “This is a must-see if one cares for the Western or not, and an extremely satisfying one for all Eastwood fans Ironically, the ultimate Western of all was made decades after its heyday.”
Famous movie critic Roger Ebert initially criticised the film for being overlong and having unnecessary characters like, he said, English Bob. But Ebert still gave the movies 4 stars out of 4 and put it in his Great Movies list.
Today, on Rotten Tomatoes, Unforgiven has a critics approval rating of 96% and an audience approval rating of 93%. And on IMDb, it has a score of 8.2 out of 10. So it’s a classic across the board, basically.
20. There was a Japanese remake
There were no sequels to Unforgiven of course, but did you know there was a Japanese remake?
In 2013, Ken Watanabe starred in Unforgiven, directed by Lee Sang-Il. It’s a remake of Eastwood’s film, but the wild west is exchanged for early 20th century Japan. In terms of the narrative, it’s beat for beat remake in terms of the original. Also, it has 94% on Rotten Tomatoes, and is worth checking out.
The trailer for the Japanese remake of Unforgiven
And that’s that – 20 wild, fun facts about Unforgiven – one of the great western movies. Please share on your social media channels, and subscribe to our YouTube channel for lots of great video content.
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