20 Things You Never Knew About Unforgiven
1992 Western film Unforgiven is one of the most successful films ever made. With four Oscars, a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a spot on TIME’s list of the best movies of all time, the film – directed by and starring Clint Eastwood – is without a doubt a cinematic masterpiece.
Following the exploits of ageing outlaw William Munny, the film is a quintessential and genre-defining Western classic. Arguably Clint Eastwood‘s magnum opus, the film was his 16th as a director and his 34th as a lead actor, and it’s fair to say that he thoroughly deserved his Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director.
An uncharacteristically realistic and gritty Western for Eastwood, the film showcases him as an older man, and posed a stark contrast to the more sensational films of his youth. Here are some facts about Unforgiven which you might not have known.
20. The filmmakers built a fully functioning Western town for the set
The Unforgiven production team did not cut corners when it came to designing a set for Eastwood’s film.
The movie’s production designer, Henry Bumstead, built the 1880s-style town Big Whiskey on an isolated prairie.
The location was chosen specifically because of its distance from any signs of modern civilisation.
Bumstead’s ambitious set didn’t use any facades: all of the buildings in Big Whiskey were fully functional.
Somehow, it didn’t even take Bumstead and his team that long to create the set – everything was constructed in 32 days, a record speed for Bumstead.
The production designer (whose other credits include the classics Vertigo and To Kill a Mockingbird) deliberately kept the set minimal, only adding a few surrounding farms for authenticity.
19. The screenplay had been around since 1976
The original script which ultimately became Unforgiven was written by David Webb Peoples in 1976.
Peoples landed his first big job as a screenwriter when he was hired to work on the screenplay for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
He went on to work on films such as Ladyhawke and Leviathan before making headway with his old western script.
Peoples’ screenplay, then entitled The Cut-Wh*re Killings (or The William Munny Killings), first crossed the desk of Clint Eastwood in the early 80s.
It would be a further 10 years before Eastwood committed himself to the project, during which time it was first renamed The William Munny Killings before ultimately becoming Unforgiven.
18. Eastwood’s screenwriter friend initially dissuaded him from reading the “trash” script
Unforgiven is arguably Eastwood’s magnum opus – but many of his peers and associates tried to put him off the project.
Screenwriter Sonia Chernus, who penned Eastwood’s 1976 classic The Outlaw Josey Wales, wrote to the actor and director to strongly warn him off it.
Chernus wrote, “We would have been far better off not to have accepted trash like this piece of inferior work … I can’t think of one good thing to say about it. Except maybe, get rid of it FAST.”
Eastwood heeded Chernus’ advice – but years later, he ended up reading the script as a sample of writer David Peoples’ work.
The actor and filmmaker did not realise that it was the same script Chernus had tried to warn him off earlier.
Eastwood didn’t immediately commit to the project but could see the obvious potential in the script and revisited it a few years down the line.
17. Gene Hackman almost turned the film down because of the violence
Gene Hackman dazzles in Unforgiven, but he had to be persuaded by Clint Eastwood himself to take the role.
“I swore I would never be involved in a picture with this much violence in it,” Hackman said in a DVD interview about the film.
“But the more I read it and the more I came to understand the purpose of the film, the more fascinated I became.”
According to an AFI interview with Eastwood, Hackman was “in a mood” at the time and was against starring in any more gory films.
Eastwood explained, “I said [to Hackman]… I know exactly where you’re coming from, but read it again, because I think we can make a great statement against violence and killing if we do this right.”
Heeding Eastwood’s advice, Hackman ultimately reconsidered, and signed on to play the role of Little Bill Daggett.
16. The film could have starred John Malkovich, with The Godfather’s Francis Ford Coppola directing
Unforgiven wouldn’t have been the same without Clint Eastwood’s direction and acting skills – but it nearly was a Francis Ford Coppola production.
The legendary director of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now optioned the screenplay back in the early 80s, and planned to give the lead of William Munny to John Malkovich.
Coppola struggled to finance the movie, however, and his hold on the filming rights expired in 1985.
It was in the wake of this that Eastwood first acquired the rights to the script, although he didn’t start work on the film until the early 90s.
Film fans may longingly daydream about what that version of Unforgiven would have been like – but John Malkovich is glad it didn’t happen.
Malkovich (who would later appear alongside Eastwood in In the Line of Fire) believes he would have been a “total failure” as Munny.
15. Hackman based his performance on disgraced LA Police chief Daryl Gates
Daryl Gates was a chief of police in Los Angeles, notorious for promoting brutality and racism.
Most infamously, he was running the LAPD when four officers viciously assaulted African American man Rodney King in 1991.
This ultimately led to Gates’ resignation, but when all the officers involved were acquitted this sparked off the infamous LA riots in 1992.
When it came to portraying Sheriff Daggett, Hackman believed Gates would be the perfect person to draw inspiration from.
In one scene, Daggett oversees the beating of Ned Logan, an African American man portrayed by Morgan Freeman – a moment with a clear parallel with Gates’ beating of King.
According to Eastwood’s biographer Richard Schickel, Hackman went as far as calling the scene “my Rodney King scene.”
14. The screenplay was inspired by Taxi Driver
Initially, David Webb Peoples didn’t want to write a screenplay that included much violence.
Apparently, Peoples believed that having too many killings in a film was unrealistic and overblown.
It was only when Peoples sat down to watch Taxi Driver in 1976 that he realised violence could be used effectively in films.
Director Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed but controversial film famously concludes with Robert De Niro’s character Travis Buckle going on a murderous rampage.
Peoples explained in an interview: “All of a sudden 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.”
The writer felt, “Taxi Driver opened up what entertainment could be. It said, ‘Yeah, you can write this kind of stuff and it’ll be entertaining.’”
13. Clint Eastwood cut his mother out of the movie
Clint Eastwood originally gave his own mother, Ruth Wood, a small acting role in Unforgiven.
Admittedly, it was only a minor role: then then-83-year-old was an extra who was seen boarding a train.
It seems the son’s affection for his mother only stretched so far, though, as the scene ended up being cut out of the finished movie.
Unfortunately, it seemed as though Wood had gone through an uncomfortable and tiring day of filming in a heavy dress for nothing.
Explaining why he cut the scene later, Eastwood said that the movie was “too long and something had to go.”
However, the actor and director made amends by bringing his mother to the 65th Academy Awards with him.
He then thanked her in his acceptance speech for the Best Director Oscar, calling her “the greatest woman on the planet.”
12. Eastwood wears the same boots in Unforgiven as he did in Rawhide decades earlier
One of Eastwood’s first major acting roles was in Rawhide, a Western TV series which ran from 1959 to 1965.
The popular show helped cement Eastwood’s position as one of the leading lights in the Western genre.
Interestingly, the boots Eastwood wears as William Munny in Unforgiven were the same boots he wore as Rowdy Yates in Rawhide.
These boots are currently part of Eastwood’s private collection of memorabilia from his career.
They’re undoubtedly worth a lot of money given their importance in Eastwood’s life and in the history of the Western genre as a whole.
The boots essentially bookend Eastwood’s career – worn for his first-ever Western role, and for what he has maintained will be his last ever role in a Western movie.
11. The film only took just over a month to shoot
Unforgiven scooped four wins at the Academy Awards and has since gone down as a quintessential Western.
However, as major film productions go, it doesn’t necessarily seem to have been a painstaking effort.
Principal photography on the film began on August 29, 1991, and wrapped on November 12, 1991.
Not counting the days filming didn’t take place during that time, cameras rolled for a grand total of just 39 days.
It’s fair to say that while production was wrapped up quickly, the quality of the movie wasn’t compromised.
It just goes to show what an old hand Eastwood was: Unforgiven was his 16th feature film as director, and he’s directed 23 more films in the 28 years since.
10. Kevin Costner gave Morgan Freeman the script during the making of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
Unforgiven was one among a number of westerns made in the wake of 1990’s Dances with Wolves.
Kevin Costner‘s directorial debut was a huge critical and commercial success, netting the Best Picture Oscar and Best Director for Costner.
As Costner had an interest in Westerns, the script for Unforgiven also crossed his desk whilst the film was still in development.
Freeman first read the Unforgiven script while shooting the 1991 blockbuster adventure, and would soon thereafter contact Clint Eastwood to ask for the role of Ned Logan.
Not only did Eastwood give Freeman the role, he would later cast him a second time in 2004’s Million Dollar Baby, for which Freeman landed a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
9. Clint Eastwood was Oscar-nominated for the first time for the film
Clint Eastwood had been one of the biggest movie stars in the world for more almost three decades when he made Unforgiven.
On top of that, Eastwood had also been a prolific, successful director for more than 20 years as well.
Despite this, Unforgiven wasn’t just the first time Eastwood won Oscars – it was the first time he’d been nominated for any.
Eastwood was nominated in three categories at the 1993 Academy Awards: Best Actor, Best Director and Best Picture (as the producer).
In the years since, Eastwood has received another eight Oscar nominations, including two wins (Picture and Director) for Million Dollar Baby. He’s also been given an Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for lifetime achievement.
8. Richard Harris was watching a Clint Eastwood movie when Eastwood called to offer him a role
Unforgiven features the late Irish screen legend Richard Harris in the supporting role of English Bob.
Harris was enjoying a career resurgence at the time, having recently been Oscar-nominated for his performance in 1990’s The Field.
The way Harris told it, there was a sense of fate playing its hand when the offer of Unforgiven came in.
At the time he got the call, Harris was at home watching High Plains Drifter, Eastwood’s surreal 1973 Western.
The next thing the actor knew, he was on the phone with Eastwood himself, being asked to appear in his latest movie.
In the years that followed, Harris would famously appear in Gladiator and the first two Harry Potter movies before he passed away in 2002.
7. Eastwood delayed making the film for a decade until he was the right age
As we’ve established, Clint Eastwood didn’t end up making Unforgiven until many years after first reading the script.
In part, this delay was down to how busy Eastwood was at the time; the 80s saw him play the lead in 11 movies, in addition to him directing seven of his own.
However, as an actor Eastwood had a good artistic reason to hold off on shooting Unforgiven: his age.
Speaking about the film at the American Film Institute in 2009, Eastwood said that he first bought the Unforgiven script in 1981, a full decade before starting work on the film.
The filmmaker explained, “I took the script… and put it in a drawer. I figured, ‘maybe I should be just a little bit older.'”
Eastwood was 51 when he bought the script, but didn’t start shooting the movie until shortly after turning 61.
6. Almost no changes were made to the script Eastwood originally read
It’s commonplace in major movies for us to see numerous names listed under the ‘written by’ credit.
It’s also well established that many more rewrites are often made by professional ‘script doctors’ who work without credit.
In the case of Unforgiven, however, Eastwood and company made almost no changes to David Peoples’ screenplay, beyond the title (which, as you may recall, was originally The Cut-Wh*re Killings).
Peoples told the LA Times, “[Eastwood] and I were enough in sync that he didn’t feel it necessary to ask for rewrites.”
“One of the stars, Frances Fisher, told me that this was the first time she saw a shooting script that was entirely in white. Most of them are multicolored, full of blue and red pages or whatever representing various changes in the screenplay.”
Interestingly, despite Eastwood’s respect for Peoples’ script, the two men never met until the film was already complete.
5. Eastwood initially said it would be the last film he would ever direct and star in
Clint Eastwood made his feature directorial debut with 1971 thriller Play Misty for Me, in which he also played the lead role.
In the years that followed, Eastwood took both the big roles behind and in front of the camera on many more occasions.
The films Eastwood both directed and starred in include High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Firefox and Sudden Impact.
When Unforgiven first hit screens, Eastwood declared it would be the last time that he pulled double duty.
However, it didn’t take too long for the actor and director to have a change of heart.
Eastwood has both directed and starred in a further ten films since, including Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino and The Mule.
4. Eastwood also composed some of the film’s music
On top of being a great actor and director, Clint Eastwood is also quite the musician.
Eastwood has written and performed songs in his movies dating all the way back to A Fistful of Dollars in 1964.
He repeated this duty on Unforgiven, composing Claudia’s Song, the main theme in the movie.
The overall score of Unforgiven, however, was the work of Eastwood’s longtime collaborator Lennie Niehaus.
Niehaus composed and conducted the music for many Eastwood movies, from 1976’s The Outlaw Josey Wales to 2008’s Gran Torino. (Sadly, Niehaus passed away in May 2020, aged 90.)
Eastwood has also composed the full score for several of his films, including Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby and J. Edgar.
3. It was only the third (and to date is the last) Western to win the Best Picture Oscar
The Western is one of the most enduring cinematic genres, dating back to the earliest days of Hollywood.
Countless movies have been made set in America’s Old West, although since the 80s the genre’s popularity has waned somewhat.
It may come as a surprise, then, that very few Westerns have been recognised by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The first Western to take home the gold was Cimarron, all the way back in 1931.
After that, it would be another 60 years before another Western was named Best Picture: Dances with Wolves.
This means Unforgiven is only the third Western to be awarded the Best Picture Oscar – and, to date, it’s the last.
2. The snow was unplanned
Despite its American Old West setting, Unforgiven was actually shot just outside Calgary, Alberta in Canada.
As the film went before cameras from late August into November, the filmmakers hadn’t necessarily anticipated wintery weather.
However, as Canada is prone to such conditions, the set was at one point covered in an unexpected snowfall.
While this had not been planned, the filmmakers continued to work regardless, shooting a scene in which Eastwood’s William Munny is nursing his wounds after a severe beating.
The unanticipated weather conditions ultimately worked in the scene’s favour, lending it a suitably chilly atmosphere.
Outside of this, the conditions on set were largely dry; as such, all the rain seen in the movie was produced artificially.
1. The film is dedicated to Eastwood’s mentors Sergio Leone and Don Siegel
Eastwood dedicated Unforgiven in honour of the two directors from whom he learned the most: Sergio Leone and Don Siegel.
Leone directed Eastwood in the films that made him a movie star: A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Siegel, meanwhile, directed Eastwood in Coogan’s Bluff, Two Mules for Sister Sara, The Beguiled, Dirty Harry and Escape from Alcatraz.
Both directors had passed away before cameras rolled on Unforgiven; first Leone in April 1989, then Siegel in April 1991.
Eastwood credits these men with giving him his career, particularly as a Western icon – and to this day, Eastwood has not made another Western as director or actor.