Dissecting Clint Eastwood’s Prison Shooting Scene in The Unforgiven
Let’s start with the obvious: unforgiven is a masterpiece. Clint Eastwood’s gritty deconstruction of the Western genre easily stands as one of the genre’s best. From beginning to end, we are captivated by this dangerous world populated by men and women who have used violence as a means to achieve their ends.
Starring Eastwood (who also directed), Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris, the epic galloped into theaters in August 1992 to quick acclaim from critics and moviegoers alike. In all, unforgiven earned $159 million against a budget of $14.4 million and won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Hackman), and Best Film Editing. You could say two more awards were due – for Eastwood’s performance (he lost to Women’s perfume “hoo-ah” screaming Al Pacino) and stunning photography by Jack N. Green (the Oscar went to Philippe Rousselot for A river crosses it).
No matter. Eastwood doesn’t need pint-sized Hollywood awards. The iconic director/actor is aiming for something bolder and grander, which is why I think unforgiven stands as his masterpiece; the piece de resistance of a storied career that continues to this day. And for an artist with a resume full of classics like The good the bad and the ugly, Outlaw Josey Wales, dirty harry, High Plains Wanderer, Kelly’s heroes, The mystical river, and Million dollar baby … it means something.
I could go on and on unforgiven and echo the sentiments of Peter Travers who, in his review for Rolling Stone magazine, called it “the most provocative western of Eastwood’s career” and noted: unforgiven a tragic stature that places his own cinematic past in critical and moral perspective. In three decades of riding in the saddle, Eastwood has never ridden so high.
You’ve probably read all of this already.
Instead, I want to focus on my favorite scene from unforgiven. No it is not this scene, but rather a smaller, quieter moment that occurs in the middle of the film and serves as a turning point in the story.
unforgiven mostly functions like a traditional western throughout its first hour. We are immersed in a familiar revenge story, meet a colorful cast of characters, and are swept away on a grand adventure filled with campfires and atypical rural landscapes. That all changes about 50 minutes into production when Gene Hackman’s Little Bill beats up the ever-loving crap of Richard Harris’ English Bob and drags him to jail. It is here that Eastwood unveils the true purpose of this tale. Here, the director deconstructs the cowboy mythos, blurs the line between good and evil, and sets the tone for the remaining film while laying the groundwork for the dark finale.
It also offers us one of the most intense clashes in modern cinema. Let’s rewind.
Englishman Bob is a notorious gunman who travels to the town of Big Whiskey in hopes of reaping a bounty on a couple of cowboys who cut up a local brothel employee. Bob, we quickly learn, has sniper skills and a knack for embroidering the truth, but has clearly let fame go to his head, as evidenced by the biographical writer (Saul Rubinek) currently attached to his nobody. The people of Big Whiskey treat Bob as a kind of English Elvis; his legend precedes him at every turn. All it takes is a gentle game of “shooting the pheasant,” which Bob easily wins, for the challengers to sheathe their handguns and take a step back; so famous is the myth of the Englishman.
Except that in truth, English Bob is just a man who rose to fame largely through serendipity. We learn as much when Little Bill gleefully tells Bob’s “legendary” story that it actually happened:
The conversation gives way to “my favorite scene”, or the showdown between Little Bill and English Bob:
I have watched this scene thousands of times and each viewing makes my heart race. There’s a lot to unpack here, from how Bill debunks the legend of shooters by demonstrating how difficult it is to draw a weapon, aim and kill a moving target; how Mr. Beauchamp tries to create his own “iconic scene” which he hopes to exploit through his books.
Take note of Eastwood’s use of sound in the clip above. There is no music. Rain and thunder invade the soundtrack. Old Westerns often scored gunfights with dramatic orchestrations filled with catchy themes for the good guys and darker melodies for the bad guys. Check out this clip from the classic high noon in which Gary Cooper takes on dastardly villains and hears how Dimitri Tiomkin’s explosive score highlights the action:
The difference between high noon and unforgiven is that the former features clearly drawn heroes and villains operating on very distinct sides of the law, while unforgiven dips its toes into murkier waters. During Bill’s confrontation with Bob, there’s no need for music because, well, we don’t know who to cheer for. Little Bill wears a badge and certainly seems to have good intentions, but isn’t much better than the murderers he abuses. It’s no coincidence that, as tensions rise in the prison, Eastwood lands Bill behind bars in several shots, making it seem like he deserves to be locked up alongside the criminals he so despises:
I always saw Bill as a desperate man trying to be the good guy, who too often confuses violence and abuse with justice. His treatment of the Englishman Bob, for example, is a misguided attempt to condemn a man who has done nothing wrong:
After Bill’s mistreatment of Bob, the film escalates into a series of violent confrontations and confrontations.
At one point, Bill comes face to face with a weak and sick William Munny and takes the opportunity to beat up the old cowboy. His directive is to scare away the bejesus of bounty hunters who come to town aiming to kill for a fistful of money. I must point out that Bill’s violent actions have little impact. William and his partner, the Schofield Kid, end up murdering the two wanted cowboys and reap the bounty. Ironically, if Bill had acted like a proper lawman rather than a violent psychopath, he might have saved both boys’ lives. Instead, his actions incite more needless violence and ultimately lead to his own death.
Ironically, in the prison, Bill calls Bob’s Englishman a pathetic coward for shooting one of his victims in the back. He’s not wrong. Bob is an impostor and a coward. However, Bill spends half of the film smashing helpless people to a pulp. He literally murders Ned (Morgan Freeman) – a character who adamantly refuses to kill – after a violent interrogation goes awry and later exposes his corpse for all to see.
Ultimately, Bill is more ruthless, cowardly, and cold-blooded than the men he tries to keep from entering his town. It doesn’t matter, Little Bill ends up getting what he deserves. The Unforgivables amazing final scene:
What is great is that Bill’s death is foreshadowed during his long conversation with Mr. Beauchamp in the prison: “Listen son, he says, being a good no harm done, but it doesn’t mean much next to having a cool head. A man who will hold his head and not get jerked around under fire, like nothing happened, he will kill you.
We see two examples of this game. First, when Bill takes on Englishman Bob, and second, in his final showdown with William Munny. In the first, Bill is calm and steady – he even smiles! It’s because Bill knows the truth about Bob. He does not accept the lies surrounding his person and knows that the Englishman will back down after a fair fight or end up dead. Bob represents the false legend whose myth is quickly undone when you peel back the layers and look just below the surface.
In the second example, Bill comes face to face with a real gunman with a known reputation – Munny has killed women and children, after all – and panics. By contrast, William Munny keeps his cool and manages to take out half a dozen men (including Bill) with relative ease. Munny is the legend we all yearn to see, but the cold truth is that he is a miserable old man haunted by his past deeds. Mr. Beauchamp will probably embellish his story and paint Munny as some sort of mythical character, but we know the truth.
In the end, I could have chosen any number of scenes from the Eastwood classic to explore. However, the prison shooting has always been the moment when unforgiven went from a very good western to perhaps the greatest western ever made. In the end, it might not be the old-school Hollywood cowboy adventure we all wanted, but it’s the movie we deserved.