12 Surprising Facts About Unforgiven

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

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. 


Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

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.


Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

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. 

Additional Sources:
DVD/Blu-ray commentary and special features

11 Fun Facts About Them!

Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Warner Home Video

In the 1950s, Elvis was king, hula hooping was all the rage, and movie screens across America were overrun with giant arthropods. Back then, Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), and other “big bug” films starring colossal insects or arachnids enjoyed a surprising amount of popularity. What kicked off this creepy-crawly craze? An eerie blockbuster whose impossible premise reflected widespread anxieties about the emerging atomic age. Grab a Geiger counter and let’s explore 1954's Them!.

1. Them!'s primary scriptwriter once worked for General Douglas MacArthur.

When World War II broke out, the knowledge Ted Sherdeman had gained from his career as a radio producer was put to good use by Uncle Sam, landing him a position as a radio communications advisor to General MacArthur. However, the fiery conclusion of the war left Sherdeman with a lifelong disdain for nuclear weapons. In an interview he revealed that upon hearing about the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, he “just went over to the curb and started to throw up."

Shifting his focus from radio to motion pictures, Sherdeman later joined Warned Bros. as a staff producer. One day he was given a screenplay that really made his eyes bug out. George Worthing Yates, best known for his work on the Lone Ranger serials, had decided to take a stab at science fiction and penned an original script about giant, irradiated ants attacking New York City. "The idea appealed to me very much,” Sherdeman told Cinefantastique, "because, aside from man, ants are the only creatures in the world that plan to wage war, and nobody trusted the atomic bomb at that time.” (His statement about animal combat is debatable: chimpanzee gangs will also take organized, warlike measures in order to annex their rivals’ territories.)

Although he loved the basic concept, Sherdeman felt that the script needed something more. Screenwriter Russell S. Hughes was asked to punch up the script, but died of a heart attack after completing the first 50 pages. With some help from director Gordon Douglas, Sherdeman took it upon himself to finish the screenplay. Thus, Them! was born.

2. Two main ants were built for the movie.

Them! brought its spineless villains to life using a combination of animatronics and puppetry, courtesy of an effects artist by the name of Dick Smith. He constructed two fully functional mechanical ants for the production, with the first of these being a 12-foot monster filled with gears, levers, motors, and pulleys. Operating the big bug was a job that required a small army of technicians who’d pull sophisticated cables to control the ant’s limbs off-camera. These guys worked in close proximity and often crashed into each other as a result, prompting Douglas to call them “a comedy team.”

The big insect mainly appears in long shots, and for close-ups, Smith built the front three quarters of a second large-scale ant and mounted it onto a camera crane. During scenes that required swarms of ants, smaller, non-motorized models were used. Blowing wind machines moved the little units’ heads around in a lifelike manner.

3. Them! features the Wilhelm Scream.

Fifty-nine minutes in, the ants board a ship and one of them grabs a sailor, who unleashes the so-called "Wilhelm Scream." You can also hear it when James Whitmore’s character is killed, and the sound bite rings out once again during the movie’s climax. Them! was among the first movies to reuse this distinctive holler, which was originally recorded three years earlier for the 1951 western Distant Drums. Since then, it’s become something of an inside joke for sound recording specialists. The scream has appeared in Titanic (1997), Toy Story (1995), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Batman Returns (1992), the Star Wars saga (1977-present), all three The Lord of the Rings movies (2001-2003), and countless other films.

4. Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance.

In one brief scene, future Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy plays an Army man who receives a message about an alleged “ant-shaped UFO” sighting over Texas. He then proceeds to poke fun at the Lone Star State, because, as everybody knows, insectile space vessels are highly illogical.

5. Many different sounds were combined to produce the screeching ant cries.

Throughout the movie, the monsters announce their presence with a haunting wail. Douglas’s team created this unforgettable shriek by mixing assorted noises, including bird whistles, which were artificially pitched up by sound technicians.

6. Sandy Descher had to sniff a mystery liquid during her signature scene.

Like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Them! has a deliberate pace and the massive insects don’t make an onscreen appearance until the half hour mark. Douglas took credit for this restrained approach, saying, “I told Ted, let’s tease [the audience] a little bit before you see the ant. Let’s build up to it."

So instead of showing off the big bugs, the opening scene follows a little girl as she wanders through the New Mexican desert, listlessly clutching her favorite doll. That stunning performance was delivered by child actress Sandy Descher. Later, in one of the most effective title drop scenes ever orchestrated, a vial of formic acid is held under her character’s nose. Suddenly recognizing the aroma, the traumatized youngster screams “Them! Them!” Descher never found out what sort of liquid was really sloshing around in that container.

“They used something that did smell quite strange. It wasn’t ammonia, it was something else,” she told an interviewer. Still, the mysterious brew had a beneficial effect on her performance. “They tried to create something different and it helped me a lot with that particular scene,” Descher said.

7. Them! was originally going to be filmed in 3D and in color.

To hear Douglas tell it, the insect models looked a lot scarier in person. “I put green and red soap bubbles in the eyes,” he once stated. “The ants were purple, slimy things. Their bodies were wet down with Vaseline. They scared the bejeezus out of you.” For better or for worse, though, audiences never got the chance to savor the bugs’ color scheme.

At first, Warner Bros. had planned on shooting the movie in color. Furthermore, to help Them! compete with Universal’s brand-new, three-dimensional monster movie, Creature From the Black Lagoon, the studio strongly considered using 3D cameras. But in the end, the higher-ups at Warner Bros. didn’t supply Douglas with the money he’d need to shoot it in this manner. Shortly before production started on Them!, the budget was greatly reduced, forcing the use of two-dimensional, black and white film.

8. The setting of the climactic scene was changes—twice.

Yates envisioned the final battle playing out in New York City’s world-famous subway tunnels. Hughes moved the action westward, conjuring up an epic showdown between human soldiers and the last surviving ants at a Santa Monica amusement park. Finally, for both artistic and budgetary reasons, Sherdeman set the big finale in the sewers of Los Angeles.

9. Warner Bros. encouraged theaters to use Them! as a military recruitment tool.

The film’s official pressbook advised theater managers who were screening Them!& to contact their nearest Armed Forces recruitment offices. “Since civil defense in the face of an emergency figures in the picture, make the most of it by inviting [a] local agency to set up a recruiting booth in the lobby,” the filmmakers advised. Also, the document suggested that movie houses post signs reading: “What would you do if (name of city) were attacked by THEM?! Prepare for any danger by enlisting in Civil Defense today!”

10. The movie was a surprise hit.

Studio head Jack L. Warner predicted that Them!, with its far-fetched plot, wouldn’t fare well at the box office. So imagine his surprise when it raked in more than $2.2 million—enough to make the picture one of the studio's highest-grossing films of 1954.

11. Them! landed Fess Parker the role of TV's Davy Crockett.

When Walt Disney went to see Them!, he had a specific objective in mind: Scout a potential Davy Crockett. At the time, Disney was developing a new television series that would chronicle the life and times of the iconic frontiersman, and James Arness, who plays an FBI agent in Them!, was on the short list of candidates for the role. Yet as the sci-fi thriller unfolded, it was actor Fess Parker who grabbed Disney’s attention. Director Gordon Douglas had hired Parker to portray the pilot who ends up in a psych ward after an aerial encounter with a gargantuan flying ant. And while his character only appears in one scene, the performance impressed Disney so much that the struggling actor was soon cast as Crockett.

By the Texan’s own admission, his good fortune may’ve been the product of bargain hunting. “Walt probably asked, ‘How much would Arness cost?’ and then ‘This fellow [Parker], we ought to be able to get him real economical,” Parker once said.

George R.R. Martin Doesn't Think Game of Thrones Was 'Very Good' For His Writing Process

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

No one seems to have escaped the fan fury over the finals season of Game of Thrones. While likely no one got it quite as bad as showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, even author George R.R. Martin—who wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series upon which the show is based, faced backlash surrounding the HBO hit. The volatile reaction from fans has apparently taken a toll on both Martin's writing and personal life.

In an interview with The Guardian, the acclaimed author said he's sticking with his original plan for the last two books, explaining that the show will not impact them. “You can’t please everybody, so you’ve got to please yourself,” he stated.

He went on to explain how even his personal life has taken a negative turn because of the show. “I can’t go into a bookstore any more, and that used to be my favorite thing to do in the world,” Martin said. “To go in and wander from stack to stack, take down some books, read a little, leave with a big stack of things I’d never heard of when I came in. Now when I go to a bookstore, I get recognized within 10 minutes and there’s a crowd around me. So you gain a lot but you also lose things.”

While fans of the book series are fully aware of the author's struggle to finish the final two installments, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, Martin admitted that part of the delay has been a result of the HBO series, and fans' reaction to it.

“I don’t think [the series] was very good for me,” Martin said. “The very thing that should have speeded me up actually slowed me down. Every day I sat down to write and even if I had a good day … I’d feel terrible because I’d be thinking: ‘My God, I have to finish the book. I’ve only written four pages when I should have written 40.'"

Still, Martin has sworn that the books will get finished ... he just won't promise when.

[h/t The Guardian]

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