Scene Description Spotlight: “Unforgiven”

I remember reading the script to Unforgiven (1992) and being struck by two things: It was a clean read and it was a compelling read. This scene, which takes place in Act Three, is a great example of both.

VIEW on Little Bill in the crowded bar and he is shouting to
make himself heard over the din.
Alright, I'm gonna say just one more
time so it's all clear an' then don't
ask me no more.
The place is packed with tired, dusty men and they are not
really jubilant so much as they are excited by the hysteria
of events.
Now each of you that posse'd today
has got one drink comin' off the
county budget...
LITTLE BILL' whoever rode yesterday, gets
one drink for that...
I told yuh two, I...
Hold it hold it. After them two,
it's outta your own pocket... hear
me, Skinny?' we're pullin' out
early tomorrow an' chase these fellas
clear to Texas so I wouldn't spend
much of your own money.
There is a general whoop and hubbub as Little Bill turns
back to his conversation at the bar with Charley, Fatty,
Clyde, Andy and WW Beauchamp.
Now if we divide up into four parties
an' hit all the farms an' trails in
a circle, we're bound to find some
one who seen them skunks an'...
Little Bill is suddenly conscious of his own loud voice in a
sudden silence that has swept the bar like a brushfire and
turning he sees what everybody is staring at.
Munny, with his ten-gauge shotgun leveled from the shoulder,
is standing thirty feet away in the doorway. Taking a couple
of sideways steps to get the door from behind his back and
sweeping the twin barrels in an ominous arc, he surveys the
(a little drunk)
Which fucker owns this shithole?
Nobody says a thing. Skinny stares pop-eyed from behind the
bar and the sweat starts on his forehead and Little Bill is
thinking coolly and everybody else is swallowing hard and
looking at the shotgun.
(to Fatty)
You there, fat man, speak up.
Fatty gulps and then Skinny screws up his courage and steps
from behind the bar and gives it every bit of dignity his
fear will permit.
I... I own this establishment. I
bought it from Greely for a thous...
(to the men round
Better step clear, boys.
And Skinny looks from side to side as people step away from
him and he wants to say something desperately, he wants to
live, he wants...
Hold on, mist...
BAH-WHOOM! Munny fires and smoke belches and...
Skinny is blown back against the wall and falls to the floor
a bloody mess and...
Little Bill is reaching for the Spencer which is leaning
against the bar near his leg but he freezes because...
Munny has turned the shotgun on him and Munny sees Ned's
Spencer there and his eyes show how he feels about it.
For a moment while the smoke clears the bar is silent and
there are nervous glances cast at the bloody body of Skinny
but Little Bill keeps his eyes on Munny.
Well sir... You are a cowardly
sonofabitch because you have just
shot down an unarmed man.
It has become a very formal moment and there are, figuratively
speaking, only two people in the room, Munny and Little
Bill... and WW Beauchamp is watching them, scared to death,
but this is it, what all those Easterners dreamed about, the
showdown in the saloon.
(the shotgun pointed
right at Little Bill)
He should have armed himself if he
was gonna decorate his saloon with
the body of my friend.
I guess you are Three-Fingered Jack
out of Missouri, killer of women and
(a little drunkenly)
I have done that... killed women and
children... I have killed most
everything that walks or crawls an'
now I have come to kill you, Little
Bill, for what you done to Ned.
(to the others)
Now step aside. boys.
And as the deputies nervously move aside Little Bill helps
to isolate himself by stepping forward boldly.
He's got one barrel left, gentlemen.
After he has used it, pull your
pistols and shoot him down like the
cowardly, drunken scoundrel he is.
Little Bill looks back at Munny bravely and...
Munny looks down the barrel at Little Bill and after a tense
moment he pulls the trigger.
CLICK. The hammer falls but it is a misfire and what happens
next happens in maybe five seconds as all hell breaks loose.
Misfire! Kill the sonofabitch!
And Little Bill aims carefully and...
Munny hurls the shotgun at him and...
BLAM!... Little Bill fires wildly as the shotgun hits him
Clyde has his pistol out and is pointing it at Munny and...
Munny is pulling the pistol from his own belt and he drops
to one knee and...
BLAM!... Clyde fires and misses and...
Little Bill is about to squeeze the trigger when...
BLAM!... Munny shoots him and...
BLAM!... Little Bill shoots just as he is hit in the chest
BLAM! BLAM!... Fatty fires wildly and...
Munny is aiming too and BLAM!...
Clyde gets it in the face and...
BLAM!... BLAM!... Fatty isn't even aiming while...
Andy aims carefully, he can kill Munny but...
Munny turns and points his weapon at Andy and...
Instead of firing Andy panics and tries to turn his body
sideways to ward off the blow and...
BLAM!... Munny fires and...
Andy gets it high in the rib cage and...
Charley turns and runs for the back and...
BLAM! BLAM!... Fatty is backing up and firing from the hip
and then he turns to run and...
Munny aims deliberately from one knee and BLAM!...
Fatty goes down, shot in the back...
And suddenly... there is a terrible silence that is broken
only by the awful, dying groans of Clyde and the coughing of
the bystanders hiding behind tables and chairs in the thick
black smoke and...
Munny is still down on one knee pointing his pistol and
looking through the thick smoke for someone to shoot but it
seems there are no threats left.
Every asshole that doesn't want to
get shot best clear out the back
And they scramble over each other dashing toward the Billiard
Room and Munny stands up and looks around and he looks at
Clyde who is groaning, his face covered with blood and
everyone else, Little Bill, Andy and Fatty are still, and
then Fatty seems to move and Munny levels his pistol and
what happens is WW crawls out from half-under Fatty and WW
is covered with blood and he is shaking like a leaf.
I... I... think I'm... shot.
You ain't shot.
(seeing the pistol)
P-p-p-please, I'm not armed.
(as Munny lowers the
pistol, WW looks
M-m-my G-god. You killed... Little
You sure you ain't armed?
I never c-c-carry arms. I'm... a
A writer? What do you write... letters
an' such?
You... you killed five men...
Munny walks over to the bar, keeping his eye suspiciously on
WW, and reaches for a bottle with his left hand. The hand is
shaking like palsy and he tilts the bottle and drinks sloppily
with effort, the pistol still in his right hand.
Wh-wh-who did you kill first?
Wh-wh-when confronted by superior
numbers, the experienced gunfighter
will fire on the best shots first.
Unnoticed on the floor, Little Bill is conscious though blood
is coming out of his mouth and he has been written off. One
hand is shifting on his pistol and he can hear Clyde moaning
Little Bill told me that. You killed
him first, didn't you?
On the floor, Little Bill is fighting for consciousness,
fingering his pistol.
I was lucky in the order.
I always been lucky killin' folks.
Who was next? Clyde? Or was it...?
(suddely ominous,
pistol pointing)
I could tell you who was last, mister.
WW's eyes pop as he gets the idea and he backs up fast, and
then he turns and bolts out the back, and watching him go,
Munny turns his back on the fallen body of Little Bill.
Little Bill, on the floor, raises up his pistol in his shaking
hand and aims at Munny's back maybe six feet away and he is
shaking bad as he draws the hammer back and...
Munny hears the click and he turns and sees Little Bill aiming
but it is too late and...
BLAM! Smoke and fire from Little Bill's pistol and Little
Bill's arm collapses from the effort and the pistol falls
with a bang.
Missed again, asshole.
And Munny steps over to him and kicks the pistol away from
Little Bill's outstretched hand. Little Bill is bleeding
from the mouth having taken a shot in the lung and he is
very weak and all he can do is look up at Munny and speak
I don't... deserve this... to die
this way. I was... building a house.
(aiming his pistol
point blank)
"Deserve" don't mean shit, Little
(the pistol in his
I'll see you... in hell, you three
fingered asshole.
BLAM! Munny shoots Little Bill and then he looks around and
Clyde is still groaning and that is the only sound. Then,
suddenly, he is all business. He walks quickly over to Clyde
and shoots him once with the Spencer and the groaning stops.
Then he goes to Little Bill's body and pokes around in the
pockets and pulls out some shells for the Spencer.
He shoves those in his pocket and he goes to the bar and
picks up the bottle of whiskey and walks over to the door.
Standing to one side, he kicks it open. Then he sets down
the rifle and the bottle and starts to reload the Schofield
and while he loads it he shouts out the door.
I'm comin' outta here... an' any
fucker I see out there, I'm gonna
kill him... an' any fucker takes a
shot at me, I ain't just gonna kill
him, but I'm gonna kill his wife an'
all his friends an' burn his fucking
house, hear?
The pistol is loaded and Munny sticks it in his belt and he
takes a long pull on the whiskey bottle and wipes the dribble
from his chin. Then he picks up the rifle in the other hand
and looks out the door.

Feels like the transcript of someone telling the story orally.

And how about some of the descriptors:

There is a general whoop and hubbub...
a sudden silence that has swept the bar like a brushfire...
Skinny stares pop-eyed from behind the bar...
and his eyes show how he feels about it...

A real ‘folksy’ feel in the language. And to really drive home the narrative voice:

but this is it, what all those Easterners dreamed about,
the showdown in the saloon.

“Those Easterners” — as compared to the narrator who is not from the East. All of that adds to the compelling nature of the story. Each line in the shoot-out suggesting a camera shot, you can just see the action right there on the page.

Unforgiven, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for screenwriter David Webb Peoples, is a great example of a writer using scene description to the story’s benefit: The ‘folksy’ narrative voice in synch with the movie’s Western genre and a clean read with strong bursts of visual imagery.

[Originally posted January 7, 2010]

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