Clint Eastwood and John Wayne may be Western icons but they didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye on the genre that made them both superstars. Back in the early ’70s, B-movie maestro Larry Cohen (“Q: The Winged Serpent,” “The Stuff”) wrote a screenplay called “The Hostiles,” intended as a vehicle for both Wayne and Eastwood to co-star. It was an appropriate title; Wayne didn’t want to be in a movie with the younger actor, writing a poison pen letter to Eastwood citing his hatred of “High Plains Drifter” as one of the reasons.
Cohen never fulfilled his dream of a film starring Wayne and Eastwood, and it is perhaps little surprise that the two legends didn’t hit it off. They represented very different eras of the Western; Wayne was the old guard, an indomitable screen legend of Hollywood’s Golden Age and star of dozens of straightforward good guys vs bad guys horse operas, a totem of a certain vision of American manliness and ideals.
Eastwood, on the other hand, was a generation younger and made his name playing far more ambiguous figures in Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy,” laconic antiheroes who were only the protagonist because everyone around them was even more unscrupulous or just plain villainous. “High Plains Drifter,” Eastwood’s second directorial feature, took his “Man With No Name” persona into even darker territory, an early sign that Eastwood was interrogating the tropes of the genre and his own screen image.
Eastwood went on to make his defining statement on the western with his revisionist “Unforgiven,” which, ironically, owes far more to The Duke than you might first expect.
So What Happens In Unforgiven Again?
“Unforgiven” opens in the roughneck frontier town of Big Whiskey, lorded over by its stern sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman). When two no-good cowboys slash the face of a sex worker, Bill lets them off with a fine, enraging the other women in the brothel. Seeking their own justice, they club together to put forth a $1000 bounty on the cowboys’ heads.
We then meet William Munny (Clint Eastwood), an aging former gunslinger and widower now scratching out a meager living on his pig farm with his two children. Munny once was a very bad man but hung up his pistols at the behest of his wife before she passed away, and initially shows no interest when he is approached by The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), a big-talking young bounty hunter who wants to partner up to claim the prize. Munny is repentant and haunted by some of the terrible things he did in the past, but he sees the bounty as a way of ensuring a better future for his kids. Needing backup, Munny recruits the help of Ned (Morgan Freeman), a former outlaw friend from the bad old days.
Arriving in Big Whiskey, Munny falls foul of Little Bill, who runs the town on a strict no-guns policy and wants to dissuade anyone seeking to claim the women’s bounty. Bill severely beats him, leaving it to Ned and The Kid to nurse him back to health before tracking down the cowboys. Ned realizes he is unable to kill again and leaves for home, but is captured by Bill and his men and tortured to death. Now the sheriff of Big Whiskey is about to see the old Will Munny, who strides into town seeking vengeance for his friend.
The Origins Of Unforgiven
“Unforgiven” started life as a screenplay entitled “The William Munny Killings,” written by David Peoples in 1976. That was the same year that John Wayne made his final screen appearance in “The Shootist.”
Wayne plays J.B. Books, an aging gunfighter with terminal cancer who has thirty kills to his name, although he maintains he never shot anyone who didn’t have it coming to them. Given just a few weeks to live, he becomes an unlikely father figure to Gillom Rogers (Ron Howard), the young son of widow Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall) who runs the guest house where Books decides to live out his last days.
Rather than withering away in pain, Books arranges to meet three men who have a beef with him for a final shootout, taking the challengers down before he is shot in the back by a cowardly bartender. Gillom arrives on the scene and shoots the bartender with Books’ pistol before throwing the weapon away. Before he dies, Books smiles in approval.
It was a fine final performance from Wayne, who himself was diagnosed with cancer in 1964 before having one lung removed. He changed the script so he would get shot in the back, because “no man could ever take John Wayne in a fair fight” (via TV Tropes). Wayne had died onscreen several times before, but no one had bettered him in a shootout in over 80 westerns unless it was by cowardly means.
“The Shootist” was a fitting end to Wayne’s career and the end of an era, as the straightforward narratives of classic westerns were giving way to darker revisionist takes like “High Plains Drifter” and “McCabe & Mrs. Miller.” Books’ final gesture to Gillom, rejecting the violent ways of the Old West, was at least a passing nod to modernity.
One Key Scene In Unforgiven Was Influenced By The Shootist
Clint Eastwood bought the rights to “The William Munny Killings” in the early ’80s but it wouldn’t become “Unforgiven” until a decade later when he would use the screenplay to bring his formidable western screen presence low. When we first see Munny he’s scrambling around in the mud trying to catch a pig, and when he reluctantly decides to chase the bounty he has trouble even mounting his horse.
There are clear parallels between Munny and Books although Eastwood’s character is far more regretful and haunted by the past; Wayne perhaps never needed to repent for his screen violence because he almost always played upstanding, righteous characters. Both men are aware that the end is drawing near, although that knowledge is far more acute for Books with only a few weeks to live. The one scene in “Unforgiven” that links them the most arrives after Munny’s beating at the hands of Little Bill when he admits he is scared of death; it correlates closely with the moment in “The Shootist” when Books says, “I’m just a dying man, scared of the dark.” Screenwriter David Peoples saw the scene as the film’s key moment (via Yahoo):
“When I started writing the film, the crux of it for me was the scene where Munny is lying there thinking that he’s dying. I just thought that no one had ever seen a tough guy like this be scared of dying unless it’s some kind of last-minute thing. So that scene was important for me to write, and was very much influenced by The Shootist.”
Eastwood and Wayne may not have worked together, but given both actors’ stature in the western genre, it feels fitting that their careers were intertwined in this small but significant way.
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