On Rewatching Unforgiven
In actuality, it did help me organize my thoughts a bit more. Lately, I've been watching a lot of Westerns and Vampire movies, helping to get in the right frame of mind for Hell on Wheels. And so yesterday, I rewatched the excellent Unforgiven (Directed by Clint Eastwood, written by David Webb Peoples) on DVD. I'd probably seen it 2 or 3 times before, but not for a good five years, at least.
I doubt that any of the things I'm about to say are groundbreaking, when it comes to reviewing this film, but I haven't looked back at the old reviews, so I'll mention my opinions here anyway. What struck me most about the film this time around was how strongly the theme really ran through the entire thing. Most people viewed Unforgiven as a sort of "revisionist" Western, and in a sense, I see this as the overall theme.
The Old West was not the place of heroism and adventure that it has been mythologized into. It was a harsh, ugly, cowardly life, and one with many aspects of which we should be shameful.
So one of the most significant tropes (if we can call it that) of the screenplay is the unreliability of the stories people tell. The film opens (following the opening epigraph over Munny burying his wife) with an inciting incident that we see with our own eyes. Mike cuts Delilah's face, but good. We've seen exactly what happened, and yet, at the first retelling (The Kid to Munny) it is already exaggerated:
They cut up her face an' cut her eyes out, cut her ears off an' her tits too.Munny himself adds to the tale when he tries to hook Ned into joining him:
Cut her eyes out, cut her tits off, cut her fingers off... done everythin' but cut up her cunny, I guess.So we see the way a Wild West story can get blown out of proportion, in just a short span of time, let alone 150 years.
This thematic element comes back up via W.W. Beauchamp, the writer doing a biography of English Bob. Little Bill "corrects" the details of Bob's story, but as Beauchamp sticks around with Bill, we realize that Bill himself is prone to exaggeration as well. Who knows if his retelling was any more accurate? Beauchamp also admits to a bit of "poetic language" and taking license for the express intent of selling a more racy story. By the end, however, when Beauchamp witnesses when Munny guns down Bill (or at least is present, though in hiding, so even his so-called eyewitness account will be literally hearsay), he tries to get the details from Munny. But Munny isn't interested in telling stories. He represents the ugly truth, scars and all. And it is unknowable via stories and accounts.
And what of that ugly truth? For starters, we subtly learn that the truth about William Munny is in fact darker than the stories. The Kid asks Munny about an event from his past, in Jackson County. The way the kid heard it
[T]here was two deputies up close pointin' rifles at you... had you dead to rights... an' how you pulled out a pistol an' blew them both away to hell... an' only took a scratch yourself.Munny tells him he doesn't "recollect." But later, on the trail, Ned turns to Munny and tells it how it really was.
I remember how there was three of them deputies you shot... not two.And Munny just dismisses it.
There's more as well. Other spots where we see the true ugliness of the era. All the killings we see in the film are ugly, rough affairs. First, they shoot at Davey, and break his leg. Then it takes three shots until Munny finally hits him in the gut. Davey lays there slowly bleeding to death, in tremendous pain, and we stay there with him. Then, Mike gets his due, gunned down while he's "in the shitter." And it also takes three shots against an unarmed man caught literally with his pants down.
Finally, we have Munny's final shootout in the saloon/whorehouse. The first man he kills is Skinny, the owner of the joint, and he blows him away with a shotgun. Little Bill points out that Skinny was unarmed, showboating in front of Beauchamp by calling Munny a coward. This of course gives the opportunity for one of the prototypical Clint lines:
He should have armed himself if he was gonna decorate his saloon with the body of my friend.Then, there is the shootout that ensues, due to the ugly roughness of a misfire by Munny's gun. This leads to four or five other deaths. And though Little Bill has been shot, he still lives. How does he meet his final end? In truly rough and ugly fashion. Blown away from point blank range by a shotgun blast to the face.
Okay, so what do I get from all this? Theme, theme, theme. It is in the dialogue, the stories people tell and the way they tell them. It is in the action -- the way people are killed, most notably. It is in character -- the way Munny has lost a lot of steps, in his gunplay, his eyesight, even riding his horse. He is the dark past, but he is the truth.
While I have some good thematic material in HoW, I've got to find more ways to bring it through, building a more cohesive screenplay overall. I also looked at the screenplay online, as you could see from all of the quotes in here. It helped me get a better idea of the style I might want to use in my action descriptions throughout the film. One thing I noticed was that Peoples never simply referred to such things as a gun. It was always a Navy Colt, or a Starr .44 pistol. It's not a horse, but an Albino mare. It isn't a lantern, but a coal oil lamp. Basically, I'm talking about details.
I guess that's about it for now, but I'm hoping that things like this are what help you develop as a screenwriter. So I encourage you to find films that are top notch and relate in some way to your screenplays. Watch them and study them. Read the scripts, and analyze them. Then think about how you can improve your own writing!
Tags: screenwriting, Unforgiven, Clint+Eastwood, David+Webb+Peoples