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Clint Eastwood in his 1992 movie 'Unforgiven'

STARING INTO FLAMES: Clint Eastwood’s William Munny goes on one last killing in Unforgiven. (Warner Bros. / Malpaso Productions)


At 30, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven Needs No Redemption

Aug. 7, 2022, marks three decades since Eastwood’s Western masterpiece rode into theaters. The film’s screenwriter David Webb Peoples looks back at a favorite movie of his career

By Greg Beaubien

By GREG BEAUBIEN     July 1, 2022


BURNT-ORANGE SUNSET FLOODS THE SKY over the plains. Seen from a distance, a man silhouetted against a last burst of molten light swings a pickaxe to dig a grave under a lone tree. To the left of the wide frame, a dilapidated shack barely stands.

Spare, bittersweet notes play on an acoustic guitar, a cowboy melody of loneliness, regret and longing for redemption, with a hint of hope. The music continues as text scrolls up the dark lower half of the screen:

She was a comely young woman and not without prospects. Therefore it was heartbreaking to her mother that she would enter into marriage with William Munny, a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition. When she died, it was not at his hands as her mother might have expected, but of smallpox. That was 1878.

Lennie Niehaus’s orchestra subtly joins the guitar melody of “Claudia’s Theme,” composed by Clint Eastwood and one of the best parts of his best movie, Unforgiven.

Aug. 7, it will be 30 years since that opening sequence was first imprinted on our psyches, from director/producer/star Eastwood’s 1992 Western masterpiece that redefined the genre. Unforgiven was a box office hit and won four Academy Awards: Best Picture and Best Director for Eastwood; Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Gene Hackman’s portrayal of sheriff Little Bill Daggett; and Best Film Editing, for Joel Cox.

Unforgiven’s opening shot fades to black and a new image appears: Thunder cracks over a snowy mountain as last daylight clings to smoking chimneys in the town at its base. Text onscreen says: “Big Whiskey Wyoming, 1880.” The camera moves into the town’s dark streets to show rain pouring down wood-plank walls.

Unforgiven movie 1992

FIRE IN THE SKY: Reformed killer Will Munny buries his wife Claudia, who died of smallpox. (Warner Bros. / Malpaso Productions)

As with the opening scene’s tension between remorse and hope, here Unforgiven will express its recurring theme of the consequences of evil actions and the near impossibility of redemption, as scenes alternate between loss and the behavior that accelerates it. But for the film’s screenwriter, David Webb Peoples, those perceived themes were not conscious or intentional.

“I try not to think about themes,” Peoples told Moresby Press June 28, 2022, in a telephone interview from his home in Berkeley, Calif. “I seldom think about any sort of themes when I’m writing, but organically themes come if you have certain conflicts. If you think about themes when you’re writing, then everything you write becomes subordinated to those themes. A good screenwriter lets a theme take care of itself through the characters and the story.”

While thunder roils the streets of Big Whiskey, in a whorehouse called Greely’s another storm is raging. In the dim lantern light, a half-naked cowboy with a bowie knife slashes the face of a young prostitute named Delilah (Anna Thomson), because she giggled at the sight of his “teensy little pecker.” Just as Will felt punished for his sins as he dug his wife’s grave in the movie’s opening shot, the cowboy who disfigures Delilah will find himself unforgiven, beyond redemption.

Hackman’s Little Bill declines to hang or even whip the cowboy, Quick Mike, or his sidekick Davey, a good-natured young cowboy who at Quick Mike’s command came running and held Delilah while Quick Mike slashed her face. The other prostitutes, led by Strawberry Alice (Francis Fisher), wanting to preserve some dignity for themselves, pool their savings to hire an assassin and have the two cowboys killed. Word of the women’s $1,000 bounty spreads across the West.

Back at Will’s farm in Kansas, a young rider (Jaimz Woolvett) appears. He watches the older man fall in the mud trying to control a fevered hog.

You don’t look like no rootin’-tootin’, son-of-a-bitchin’, cold-blooded assassin,” declares the arrogant stranger, who calls himself “The Schofield Kid,” after his Smith & Wesson, Schofield-model pistol.

Inside Will’s impoverished shack, away from his children, Will tells the Kid: “I thought maybe you was someone come to kill me for somethin’ I done in the old days.”

In Peoples’ story, the Kid tries to lure Will, a “broken-down pig farmer,” back to his former, nefarious ways. The Kid says two cowboys cut up a lady, and he wants Will to be his partner for the killing. They can split the $1,000 reward.

Will insists he’s not like that anymore, that his late wife Claudia cured him of drinking, wickedness and killing. He hasn’t had a drop in over 10 years. And it’s been eleven years since he fired a gun at a man. But after turning down the Kid’s offer, Will again struggles in the mud with his febrile hogs. His hands covered in filth, he stands and watches the Kid ride away over the Flint Hills.

Will wants a fresh start for his two young children, and he’s moved by his tenderness toward Claudia’s memory and women in general (despite, or maybe because of the film’s later revelation that Will had killed women and children by dynamiting a railroad during a train robbery).

The next day he reluctantly rides after the Kid to catch up with him. But first Will stops to ask his old partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) to come along on the killing. Like Will, Ned is a farmer now, but he lives with his wife, Sally Two Trees. Their home is much nicer and more prosperous-looking than the beaten-down shack where Will resides. Thanks to Sally, Ned’s house has a woman’s touch.

Just ’cause we’re goin’ on this killin’, that don’t mean I’m gonna go back to bein’ the way I was,” Will tells Ned, sitting in the campfire light. “I just need the money to get a new start for them youngsters.”

Will remembers with regret the drover he once shot through the mouth, and how the man’s teeth had come out the back of his head. “He didn’t do anything to deserve to get shot,” Will says, hanging his head. “At least nothing I could remember when I sobered up.” Will insists he’s not like that anymore. “I’m just a fella now,” he says.

‘The trick in being a writer is hoping that somebody will understand what you wrote,’ David Webb Peoples said. ‘Clint Eastwood understood everything about Unforgiven.’

Rare in 1992 and rarer still today, Unforgiven managed to be both violent and poignant, brutal and beautiful, with morally ambiguous characters—none more so than Eastwood’s William Munny, an aging man trying to convince others and himself that he’s no longer the vicious killer he once was.

Riding across the prairie, Will and Ned meet up with the Kid, who shoots at them from behind a tree. He has poor eyesight and can’t see who they are. The Kid is instantly hostile toward Ned and threatens to shoot him when the older man says, “He’s blind, Will!

But Will, Ned and the Kid aren’t the only ones coming for the $1,000 bounty the whores have placed on the cowboys who cut their friend Delilah. Another great character Peoples created is English Bob, a professional killer for the railroad. Richard Harris gave a memorable performance as the loquacious British gunslinger, a lowlife who feigns a gentlemanly air.

In the scene that introduces English Bob, he rides aboard a train with his biographer, W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek). The passengers are reading newspapers (including the Cheyenne Gazette) with front-page banner headlines reporting that President Garfield is in critical condition after being shot. English Bob offends the other passengers by saying that the United States would be better off with a king, or even a queen, than a president.

When English Bob and W.W. Beauchamp arrive that afternoon in Big Whiskey, Bob intends to kill the cowboys and collect the $1,000 bounty. But when Bob and W.W. emerge from a barbershop, they find themselves surrounded by Little Bill and his deputies.

A town ordinance forbids firearms, and Bob is carrying two pistols. English Bob and Little Bill know each other from the old days. Bob, like the other men in the story, is unforgiven, beyond salvation. To the horror of the townspeople who look on, Little Bill punches and kicks English Bob into unconsciousness in the dirt street, while proclaiming there is no “whore’s gold” in Big Whiskey.

“Little Bill made a showcase of beating the living shit out of English Bob, to warn off any other killers that might come to Big Whiskey,” Peoples said. “It was a contest between who’s tough and who’s not tough. What Little Bill did to English Bob was crime prevention. From his point of view, he was doing something good for the community.”

Peoples remembered “writing about all these people shooting each other,” and thinking: “Let’s have each one of them kill for different reasons. William Munny was a crazy killer until he met his wife. But now he’s only killing to provide for his family. English Bob killed for money, too, but he enjoyed it. The Kid thought it would be fun and romantic to shoot people. Little Bill did it as a law-enforcement officer. Each of these people had a different point of view, and different motives.”

Rain and thunder at night signal the imminent arrival of violence and the wickedness in men’s souls that will inevitably force them to face what they’ve done. Will is feverish from riding in the rain as he, Ned and the Kid arrive that night in Big Whiskey. Inside Greely’s, as Ned and the Kid are upstairs enjoying the “sportin’ ladies,” Will sits alone at a table in the saloon, shivering and delirious, haunted by visions of a dead man with his head broken open and worms crawling out.

In his enervated state, Will is unable to defend himself as Little Bill and deputies surround him. Little Bill beats and kicks Will for not surrendering his pistol, as he had done to English Bob. At this point in the story, Little Bill doesn’t know who Will really is, or the fate that Little Bill will face for his own actions.

The next night, lying near death in a shack in the high country outside the town, Will tells Ned he has seen the angel of death. “He’s got snake eyes. Oh, Ned, I’m scared of dying. Don’t tell nobody, Ned. Don’t tell my kids none of the things I done, ya hear?”

Morgan Freeman in 'Unforgiven'

HANGING OVER HIM: Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) is lured from wife and home to his old ways. (Warner Bros. / Malpaso Productions)

Two days later when his fever breaks, Will sees not the angel of death, but the angelic face of Delilah, scarred though it is, as she wipes dried blood from his forehead with a white handkerchief. She nurses him with food and water.

His health regained, Will joins Ned and the Kid on a rocky bluff overlooking a valley where the cowboys are working. Ned tries to shoot Davey but hits his horse, which falls on the young man and breaks his leg. Ned can’t bring himself to kill the cowboy.

Will takes the rifle and fires the fatal shot. The scene of the boy slowly dying is drawn out excruciatingly, emphasizing the horror of violence and the regret the assassins feel. Nonetheless, Will’s killer instinct is revived. Ned decides he’s had enough and rides for home.

The Kid, who boasts that he has killed five men in the past, finally gets his chance to kill the other cowboy, Quick Mike, the one who had sliced Delilah’s face. Quick Mike leaves the protection of the ranch where he’s been holed up with his fellow hands and one of Little Bill’s deputies. He walks to the outhouse and sits down inside. The Kid kicks open the door. Quick Mike pleads. The Kid hesitates, but then shoots Quick Mike three times at close range, killing him. Will and the Kid manage to escape.

“It don’t seem real, how he ain’t never gonna breathe again, ever,” the Kid tells Will later that afternoon, as darkness begins to fall where they wait outside the town for one of the young prostitutes to ride up and deliver their reward money. “All on account of pullin’ a trigger.”

In one of Peoples’ best lines of dialogue in Unforgiven, Will says: “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.”

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When the young woman rides up and gives Will the reward money, she tells him that Ned is dead. The cowboys’ friends had found Ned riding the night after Will shot Davey. While extracting the names of Ned’s accomplices from him in the jail, Little Bill tortured Ned to death. And then he propped up Ned’s corpse in front of Greely’s, wearing a sign that says he was a killer, framed by flaming torches.

After dark, thunder and lightning split the night as Will rides into town alone. His old self fully returned, he drops an empty bottle from the whiskey he’s been guzzling.

Inside Greely’s, a festive atmosphere prevails. Little Bill is organizing a posse to locate Munny and the Kid. The sheriff and his deputies raise drinks and hoot and holler as they prepare to ride out in the morning.

Thunder claps as they notice Will has entered the lantern-lit saloon. He levels his double-barrel shotgun at them. In the movie’s dramatic conclusion, the ramifications of the cowboy cutting up Delilah reach their ultimate end. Will shoots and kills Skinny, the pimp and owner of Greely’s, and then points the shotgun at Little Bill.

“You’d be William Munny out of Missouri, killer of women and children,” Little Bill sneers at him.

That’s right,” Will says. “I’ve killed women and children. I’ve killed just about everything that walked or crawled at one time or another. And I’m here to kill you, Little Bill. For what you did to Ned.

Will pulls the trigger. The second barrel of his shotgun misfires. He draws a revolver and shoots Little Bill in the gut, wounding him. In the melee that ensues, Will kills three of Little Bill’s deputies. To avenge his friend’s death, Will finds Ned’s Spencer rifle, which Little Bill had confiscated and now leans against the saloon’s rear wall. Will uses Ned’s rifle to shoot Little Bill in the face at close range, killing him.

The movie’s coda returns to the orange sunset over the plains. In silhouette, Will walks over to take one last look at his wife Claudia’s grave beneath the lone tree, as her theme music resumes. He removes his hat. To the left of the frame, clothing, washed clean, sways in the breeze on a clothesline. The image suggests that Will’s task is complete, that he has achieved some measure of redemption.

Onscreen text reads:

Some years later, Mrs. Ansonia Feathers made the arduous journey to Hodgeman County to visit the last resting place of her only daughter.

William Munny had long since disappeared with the children … some said to San Francisco where it was rumored he prospered in dry goods.

And there was nothing on the marker to explain to Mrs. Feathers why her only daughter had married a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.

Will turns to walk away and the image of him disappears, along with the clothing on the line. As the final credits roll across the dark land and gloaming sky, Munny’s shack now abandoned, the orchestra falls away and the lone acoustic guitar plays its plaintive melody. The audience knows it has seen something extraordinary, something unforgettable, in Unforgiven.

Anna Thomson and Clint Eastwood in the 1992 movie 'Unforgiven'

ANGEL OF MERCY: Delilah (Anna Thomson) appears like an angel after Will almost dies. (Warner Bros. / Malpaso Productions)


Peoples wrote Unforgiven (which he originally called “The Cut-Whore Killings”) in 1976. Francis Ford Coppola, who had directed The Godfather (1972), optioned Peoples’ script in 1984. Coppola shopped the screenplay around to the studios, but couldn’t get financing. Coppola’s option expired and Eastwood picked it up in 1985. But with Eastwood, Peoples’ script would languish for several more years.

“The script sat around for a long time and no one was buying it,” Peoples recalled. “No one was buying Westerns. Clint made the movie in a world in which it normally would not be made. So, God bless him.”

When he finally filmed Unforgiven in 1991, “Eastwood changed almost nothing” in the script, Peoples said. In the scene before Will kills Little Bill, “I had written ‘Deserve don’t mean shit, Little Bill,’ but that sounded too modern. So Clint changed the line to: ‘Deserve has got nothing to do with it.’”

As a writer, “What you always hope for is a character that says something that startles you, but is the right thing to say,” Peoples said. “You hope for a character that’s gonna talk to you, not you talking to him.”

Peoples’ other produced scripts include Blade Runner (1982), Hero (1992) and 12 Monkeys (1995). He cites several influences for his Unforgiven script. “The story came from a lot of places,” he said. “I wrote Unforgiven based on the book The Shootist by Glendon Swarthout.” In the novel, the hero is afraid of death.

Unforgiven was also influenced by the movie Taxi Driver. “Travis Bickle, who just wanted to be like other people, inspired the character of William Munny, who was a pig farmer trying to raise two kids, but he had this horrendous past,” Peoples said.

Another influence was the 1950 Gregory Peck movie The Gun Fighter. “When I was 10 years old, that movie knocked me dead,” Peoples recalled. “But I was never able to see it again until years later, when they sent it to me, after I had written Unforgiven. The Shootist and Taxi Driver were conscious influences.”

The colloquial, period language in Unforgiven, the way the characters talk, “was almost completely influenced by the movie True Grit,” Peoples said. “But I have to give enormous credit to the actors for the way they spoke the lines. Actors just do magic.”

Clint Eastwood was 62 years old when he produced, directed and starred in Unforgiven, widely considered his best film. He “was just brilliant,” Peoples said.

“I feel very lucky that Clint Eastwood took something I’d written and made it into a great Western,” Peoples said. “The trick in being a writer is hoping that somebody will understand what you wrote. Clint understood everything about Unforgiven.”

Unforgiven is “absolutely one of my favorite movies that I’ve written,” Peoples said. “I was thrilled that Clint made the movie and I was thrilled that it worked. They stuck to what I wrote, and it turned out good.”


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