Unforgiven, released on August 7, 1992, was Clint Eastwood's 16th movie as a director and his 34th as a lead actor. But it was the first one to earn him an Oscar nomination—three of them, actually: for Best Actor, Best Picture, and Best Director. He won the latter two, and was at the time the oldest person to ever take home the director trophy. Despite decades of popular success, both as an actor and a filmmaker, it wasn't until Unforgiven that Eastwood began to be recognized by the esteemed members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Of course, one could argue that it wasn't until Unforgiven that Eastwood deserved Oscar attention. We'll leave that for you to discuss. In the meantime, here are a dozen tidbits to enhance your appreciation for what remains one of Eastwood's greatest movies on the 25th anniversary of its release. Never mind whether you deserve them; deserve's got nothing to do with it.
1. FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA ALMOST MADE IT.
The director of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now optioned the screenplay in the early 1980s, but couldn't get the movie financed. When his option on the script expired in 1985, Clint Eastwood picked it up ... and kept it for another several years before he finally made the movie.
2. THE SCREENPLAY HAD BEEN KICKING AROUND SINCE 1976.
David Webb Peoples was a film editor in the '70s, writing scripts on the side. His first big break in that field came when he was hired to co-write Blade Runner for Ridley Scott, and he subsequently worked on Ladyhawke and Leviathan. (His post-Unforgiven work includes Hero, Twelve Monkeys, and Soldier.) Originally, Peoples' Unforgiven screenplay was alternately known as The William Munny Killings and The Cut-Whore Killings, which might go a long way toward explaining why nobody wanted to make it.
3. TAXI DRIVER CONVINCED THE SCREENWRITER TO GO MEGA-VIOLENT.
The jury's out on how much movie violence inspires real-life violence, but there's no question it inspires more movie violence. Case in point: David Webb Peoples, turned off by the way film deaths tended to be unrealistic and devoid of consequences, had intended to write something murder-free. Then Taxi Driver changed his mind. He later explained: "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, and that was always important to me ... I wanted to write entertainment. Taxi Driver opened up what entertainment could be. It said, 'Yeah, you can write this kind of stuff and it'll be entertaining.'"
4. EASTWOOD WAS INITIALLY STEERED AWAY FROM THE MOVIE.
Sonia Chernus, a longtime associate of Eastwood's (and screenwriter of The Outlaw Josey Wales), read The Cut-Whore Killings in the 1980s and was appalled by it. She wrote Eastwood this memo: "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." (It may be worth noting that Chernus was in her seventies at the time, and the script was full of profanity and violence.) Eastwood took her advice and didn't read the script. Then, while looking for someone to rewrite a different project, he read The Cut-Whore Killings as a sample of Peoples' work, not realizing it was the screenplay Chernus had warned him away from.
5. EASTWOOD PUT OFF MAKING THE MOVIE BECAUSE HE WANTED TO BE OLDER.
True, he had other irons in the fire in the second half of the 1980s—plenty of other movies to work on—but he has said that part of the reason he kept pushing Unforgiven back was that he wanted to wait until he was old enough to play the lead himself.
6. IT WAS FILMED IN CANADA BECAUSE EASTWOOD GOT A "FAMILY" DISCOUNT.
Eastwood is famously loyal to his crew, with a few dozen technicians, designers, and other cogs in the moviemaking machine having worked with him for decades. His longtime cinematographer, Jack Green, was shooting a non-Eastwood project in Canada once when an official for a filmmaking union asked whether Clint was ever going to make a movie in the Great White North. Green told him never, "because he can't bring his 'family.'" (Normally, if you're going to shoot a film in a foreign country, you hire a local crew for all but the most crucial positions.) The Canadian union offered a deal: They'd waive the normal work rules for any Eastwood crew member who could prove he or she had worked on at least five Eastwood movies. That turned out to be most of them—around 50 people. "And that," said Green, "is how Unforgiven came to be shot in Canada."
7. THEY BUILT A PRETTY CONVINCING WESTERN TOWN.
Eastwood's production designer, Henry Bumstead, and his team built the main set for the 1880s town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming on a lonesome prairie in Alberta from which no signs of modern civilization could be seen in any direction. The nearest big city was Calgary, 60 miles away. For authenticity—and since so much of the movie was to be shot on this set—all of the buildings were fully functional (and expensive), not just facades.
8. NO CARS WERE ALLOWED ON THE SET.
Eastwood wanted the painstakingly built set to maintain its Old West feel, so no modern vehicles were permitted.
9. GENE HACKMAN WAS INITIALLY TURNED OFF BY THE FILM'S VIOLENCE.
"I swore I would never be involved in a picture with this much violence in it," he said in a DVD interview. "But the more I read it and the more I came to understand the purpose of the film, the more fascinated I became."
10. HACKMAN'S PERFORMANCE WAS BASED IN PART ON FORMER L.A. POLICE CHIEF DARYL GATES.
Gates, a 40-year veteran of the LAPD, had been criticized for what many considered to be a heavy-handed, militarized, and racist approach to policing. It came to a head with the Rodney King beating in March of 1991, followed by the acquittal of the officers and the ensuing riots a year later. Hackman saw parallels between Gates and Sheriff Daggett, especially since the character most abused by Daggett was to be played by a black actor (Morgan Freeman).
Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel, who was on the Unforgiven set, wrote that Hackman referred to the scene where Daggett oversees Ned Logan's torture as "my Rodney King scene." (Gates resigned from the LAPD about six weeks before Unforgiven hit theaters and passed away in 2010.)
11. THE FINAL PRODUCT SHOWS ALMOST NO CHANGES FROM THE ORIGINAL SCRIPT.
That's a rarity in Hollywood, where even the best screenplays are tinkered with as they're converted from words on a page into images on a screen. Eastwood had some ideas for revising Peoples' script, too, only to discover that "the more I fiddled with it, the more I realized I was screwing it up." All he ended up changing was the title. According to Peoples, Frances Fisher—who plays Strawberry Alice—told him "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."
12. EASTWOOD HELPED WRITE THE MUSIC.
Though the movie's beautiful score is attributed to frequent Eastwood collaborator Lennie Niehaus, who indeed did most of the heavy lifting, the main melody came from Eastwood. The director has subsequently written the scores for several more of his movies entirely by himself.
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