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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

On Rewatching Unforgiven

This movie log is already paying off! ;-)

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!

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Blogger Patrick J. Rodio said...

You make good points, and UNFORGIVEN is an excellent film to watch to see how it all comes together.

The scene with Munny and the Kid on the hill after the Kid kills his first.......
"Hell of a thing killin' a man....."

Amazing stuff.

8:03 AM  
Anonymous Leif Smart said...

Do you worry that you might take too much from the screenplay you study into the one you're writing? Even if its subconscious, there must be the temptation to mold your own screenplay into something that is closer to the ones you've chosen to study.

10:04 AM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Patrick -- yeah, that's another of the more classic lines from this film. And so thematic as well.

Leif -- a good question. All I can say is that I've always been one to watch as many "related" films, and read as many related books, etc, as possible. Of course, you run the danger of doing what you mention, but to my mind, all it takes is being aware and actively working against that. Bottom line, I make sure to differentiate between specific things I like and think worked, and a study of why they worked. If you focus on the latter, you'll be in good shape.

10:10 AM  
Blogger William said...

Some nice observations here. It is a great film that I always try to watch when it's on, I don't own it but I should. The theme of senseless violence is timeless and just bleeds from the film. Very well crafted. Good stuff.

On the subject of "related" films and material, you will, on some level, be absorbing information that is going to find itself into your screenplay. It's how you use it. Are you just going to lift it or are you going to craft it into your story? There's nothing new under sun but if you have a good bullshit detector, which all writers should have, you'll be able to sniff out traces of all things derivative. What you start out with in your first draft won't resemble your final draft. The drafts in between is where you will find YOUR story.

4:24 PM  
Blogger Jeff in NY said...

It was a harsh, ugly, cowardly life, and one with many aspects of which we should be shameful.

Either the acts were shameful or we should be ashamed of the way we glorify them, I'm not sure we can be shameful of the aspects though.

10:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

one of my New Year's Revolutions is indeed to read more scripts... I shall put this one up to the top of my Reading Queue

3:27 PM  
Anonymous Phillip Vargas said...

Funny... I just saw Unforgiven this weekend. Excellent insight, Joel.

Theme is the glue that binds what would otherwise be simple daisy chained events.

I'm attempting, with my current script, to have every scene, character and action resonate with theme. Not an easy task, but well worth the effort.

12:56 AM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Jeff --

Good to see you reading the blog, buddy. I'll accept your distinction (though I could probably argue it if I felt like it). When I blog, I'm not as careful with my language as I would be with an article or something else I write seriously. I write quickly and rarely edit!

Phillip -- welcome to you as well! :-)

5:02 AM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Phillip -- one more thing. I clicked through to your MySpace page and see your a comic book writer. Would love to chat about that. Get in touch, if you see this, okay?


5:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're correct that Unforgiven is a movie that revolves around a theme. However, I think you missed the central theme. It is about justice.

The question is raised in the opening scene: is there such a thing as justice? It is explored in every scene, from every angle. What is the answer the film comes up with? As Munny says: "Deserve's got nothing to do with it."

Here, from a letter I wrote to Roger Ebert a few years back, after his shoddy review of the film for his "100 best films ever" got me all riled up:

Mr. Ebert,

At various times I have had great respect for you as a film critic. I remember when I was back at _________ College in 1989, I saw your review for "The Hitcher," a film which I had greatly enjoyed. You said that the film fell short because it didn't own up to the homosexual relationship between the protagonist and the antagonist. I thought it a ridiculously forced interpretation, until I later watched the movie a second time and realized that you were entirely correct.

Your essay about Unforgiven (as part of your 100 Best Films), however, is far off the mark.

First let me way that you're not alone. Last year, while working on a project of my own, I studied this film and its script very closely. I've since read many of the critics responses to it, and have noticed that in the great majority of cases, they entirely miss the point. But it's crucial to understanding this film, a masterful subversion of its genre, and without understanding it you're missing the film's genius.

You're right when you say that the key line in the film is "deserve's got nothing to do with it." That, indeed, is the film's overriding theme. It takes the the notion of justice, a central concept in all Westerns, and rigorously examines it in scene after scene, finally demonstrating that in fact the entire concept is flawed. From the very first actions, where a whore laughs at a cowboy's underendowment, which leads to him cutting her, which in turn has the sheriff impose a fine on them, which causes the whores to put a reward on the cowboy's head, which brings Munny into the picture - one action after another is undertaken as an ultimately failed attempt to bring about justice.

It's a perfect subversion of the genre. The gunfighter starts off having foresworn his previous unjust ways. Nevertheless, he undertakes a journey which we understand to be wrong - to go kill these cowboys. At the midpoint, he gets badly beaten for this, and wakes up renewed, noticing the trees and the beauty of the high country. Yet, instead of suddenly changing his ways, and acting justly, he continues on his immoral quest - which is exactly what the structure of the genre calls for! Because in fact Eastwood (and more importantly, David Peoples) is using the structure of the genre to subvert the morality of the genre - to call into question its usual notion of justice. At the end of Act II, when Munny's friend Ned is murdered for Munny's own actions, Munny sets off to kill the Sheriff. Does the Sheriff deserve it? Did Ned? Do the half-dozen other 'innocent' deputies deserve it? No thoughtful person who has seen this film could answer in the affirmative - but Munny kills anyway. We are horrified at his killing, but at the same time we want him to do it - just as the genre calls for. Ultimately, it's all used to serve the central theme, which is in perfect opposition to the genre's usual conceit about justice: for as Munny says, "deserve's got nothing to do with it."

The film is replete with examples. The Sheriff who lives by a structure of rules, represented by his building a house - which leaks terribly. The biographer, who wants to take reality and turn it into a story where justness and right exist, but who time and again is told the truth - that in fact English Bob was drunk, and shot the unarmed man in the back. The countless discussions of who deserves what - do the cowboys deserve death? What about the nice one? Would a whipping have been enough? Is a pony justice for the whore's cut up face? How do we feel about the Sheriff beating English Bob within an inch of his life? Most centrally, it plays out in the arc of the hero: the man who has denied the hard truths of the world by trying to accept his wife's morality, but who sets off on this journey that ultimately demonstrates the flaws in her simplistic beliefs, and reveals his own true nature - one beyond morality or justice - as a killer. The theme of the specious notion of justice is played in endless variations, and it is entirely the point of the film.

You say that "Actually, deserve has everything to do with it, and although Ned Logan and Delilah do not get what they deserve, William Munny sees that the others do." I'm sorry, but that's just plain wrong. Do you remember the wrenching sequence that occurs after Munny shoots the kind, younger cowboy? Did he deserve that? The question is meaningless, according to the film, but certainly the answer could never be "yes." You've fallen into the very thinking which the film was begging you to avoid.

You are right when you say that the film presents: "That implacable moral balance, in which good eventually silences evil, is at the heart of the Western, and Eastwood is not shy about saying so." But you must also mention that what Eastwood and Peoples are doing is holding up this construct, at the heart of so many Westerns, as inherently false - otherwise you risk missing the point altogether.

A few more minor objections to your essay. You say that Eastwood chose this period of the gunfighter because it mirrored his own career. Perhaps that was why he was attracted to this particular script (though I doubt that was the primary reason, given how brilliant it is in so many other ways) - but of course it was the writer, Peoples, who chose the period in which to set the story. Peoples said that script floated around Hollywood for 20 years, and I've heard that it was acknowledged as one of the great, unmade scripts before Eastwood ever took it up, and that Eastwood changed very little of it during the filming or editing. Please don't make the mistake of thinking the movie began with Eastwood, as wonderful a director and actor as he is.

At one point you say that the "story was made... all the sharper because [Munny and the Sherrif] have met in the past." They have never met. They know each other's types, and Munny is famous for his previous killings, but there's nothing to indicate that they've ever met.

Finally - and I'll leave you with the most nitpicky of all my comments - the final act is not, as you say, long. It starts after we find out that Ned has been killed. It is essentially one scene, which takes all of 11 minutes. I think it's the picture of economy.

I thank you for the overall goal of your "top 100" list. Many of the films there I have not seen, and I've added them to my list. Thanks.

10:35 PM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Hey there Anonymous! Thank you very much for the insightful and in-depth response. Honestly. Sorry it was anonymous! ;-)

I hear your points, and think they are generally accurate. And my response might be a quibble, and if so, that's fine. I see the theme that you are stating as one of the major aspects of the theme that I mentioned: the Old West was not what we've been told it is. Thus, by questioning the take on "justice" that many standard western films have presented, this is one of the revisions. But, for example, I'd argue that the retelling of truth (as you mentioned with the biographer) has less to do with justice, and more to do with the overall inaccuracies of the popular "record" of the time.

Would you argue that my points are an aspect of the theme you see as overriding? Okay, fine. As I said, maybe it is a quibble. Either way, your points are excellent, valid, and enlightening to me, whichever may be seen as the greater of the two themes!

And btw, as to your point about Peoples not Eastwood being responsible, I;d agree 100%. However, there might be something to Eastwood relating it to his career point. I'll explain. As I heard it (I believe, perhaps, on the DVD extra features), Eastwood optioned the script and held onto them for 10 years before making Unforgiven because he felt he was not yet old enough to play the role properly. Thus, he might have seen something in Peoples' marvelous script that he knew would be him in 10 years.

Thansk again! :-)

10:51 PM  

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