Home > Reviews > UNFORGIVEN – Lennie Niehaus and Clint Eastwood

UNFORGIVEN – Lennie Niehaus and Clint Eastwood


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

For almost the entire 1980s, and for the first couple of years of the 1990s, the western genre was considered passé, a relic of a different era in Hollywood. Long gone were the days when cowboy movies ruled the box office, so much so that, with the rare exception of one-offs like Silverado and Dances With Wolves, there hadn’t been a major western box office success since The Outlaw Josey Wales in 1976. It’s perhaps fitting that Clint Eastwood, the star of Josey Wales and one of the greatest western stars in history, would be the one to re-invigorate the genre 15 years later, with his Oscar-winning classic Unforgiven. The film was adapted from a screenplay by David Webb Peoples and is a revisionist take on a classic tale wherein an ageing gunslinger is forced to come out of retirement and take on one last job to collect a bounty. Eastwood plays the retired killer, Will Munny, who travels from Kansas to Wyoming with his old friend Ned (Morgan Freeman) and a brash upstart called The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), and eventually crosses paths with another bounty hunter, English Bob (Richard Harris), and the ruthless local sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman).

Unforgiven is a film which entirely subverts the western genre, casting the morally unambiguous right-and-wrong good guys vs bad guys tropes in much more interesting shades of gray. Despite being the film’s ostensible hero, Munny is very much a killer with a dark past from which he can’t escape, and whose actions draw him back into the violent world he swore to leave behind him. Similarly, Hackman’s lawman Daggett is neither a morally upstanding paragon of righteousness, nor is he the film’s villain – he’s simply another man trying to do the best he can in terrible circumstances, the end results of which bring him into conflict with Munny. The film ruminates on life, death, fate, morality, revenge, friendship, and numerous other meaningful topics, and is peppered with several brutal and realistic fight sequences which, again, significantly de-romanticize what a wild west shootout really was. The lead performances are superb, especially from the core trio of Eastwood, Freeman, and Hackman, with the latter winning his second Oscar for his role. It’s also a tremendously beautiful film, often shot in vivid oranges and earthy browns. It ultimately received nine Oscar nominations, and remains to this day one of my all-time favorite efforts in the genre.

Right from the beginning of his career as a director, Clint Eastwood was involved in the music of his films. Eastwood had been a jazz pianist and amateur composer during his stint in the Army in the 1950s, and when he started directing films in the early 1970s he worked alongside his first composer, Dee Barton, on the scores for Play Misty for Me and High Plains Drifter. Eastwood hired Jerry Fielding to score both The Outlaw Josey Wales and The Gauntlet, and both these scores were orchestrated by Lennie Niehaus, another jazz man who Eastwood had met during his stint in the Army. After Fielding unexpectedly died in 1980, and after trying out different composers on Firefox in 1982 and Sudden Impact in 1983, Eastwood re-connected with Niehaus for Tightrope in 1984, and thereafter the two men worked together on more than a dozen films, often with Eastwood contributing the main theme and Niehaus writing the dramatic underscore. Such is the case with Unforgiven, which may well be the best overall score their collaboration inspired.

The score is anchored around its main theme, “Claudia’s Theme,” written by Eastwood, and so-called for Munny’s long-dead wife, whose love was the only thing that kept him away from a life of murder for so many years. The piece is gorgeous; with the possible exception of the theme he wrote for The Bridges of Madison County in 1995, it’s the best piece of music Eastwood ever wrote for film. It’s a simple tune, mostly picked out on an acoustic guitar by Brazilian-born soloist Laurindo Almeida, but it has a melody that speaks to the dichotomy of Munny’s character: warm, but lonely, soulful, but with a streak of melancholy that reveals a core desperate for nothing more than the love of a good woman. It laments for the life Munny lost when Claudia died, and seeks to recapture that calm and peace, even amongst all the bloodshed and death that inevitably follows him wherever he goes.

There are seven statements of the theme in the score, each around a minute long, with the first and second being soft, intimate solo guitar performances backed by a warm and soothing bed of strings. The third version is more expansive, the melody carried by strings and with a more evocative orchestral accompaniment, including a bank of gorgeous wholesome horns. The fourth and fifth versions are again led by the guitar, but they have a more determined and forthright sense of nobility to them, accomplished via Niehaus’s arrangement that includes subtle timpani and pianos accompanying the orchestral backing.

The sixth version is heartbreaking, slow and full of sorrow, while the seventh version has an anguished, ghostly tone, uniquely performed by eerie woodwinds backed by keening, tremulous strings. This version underscores the terrible moment where Will discovers his friend Ned’s mutilated body, killed and left on the outskirts of town by Daggett as a warning to others, as the final deadly showdown between the pair is set.

The rest of the score is all by Niehaus alone, and it’s mostly atmospheric mood music, guitars and strings and subtle orchestral tones that accompany Munny and his travelling companions on their journey to fate, or redemption, or both. There’s some contemplative woodwind writing and a hint of a harmonica in “Will Looks Off” that speaks to the character’s initial loneliness, directionlessness, and isolation, and contains a secondary theme that comes back later in “Headstone and Flowers,” and then in the more expansive and sweeping “Will Rides in,” which is perhaps Niehaus’s one deference to traditional western romanticism.

“Bucket of Water” and the subsequent “Villainous Friends” are more insistent, with urgent snare drums backing tight, tense brass. “Bill Clips Bob,” which underscores the scene where Hackman’s character savagely beats Richard Harris’s character as a warning to other bounty hunters coming to town, flavors the dense orchestral textures with synths, giving it a very different sound. This musical approach comes back later in both “Give it To Him” and “Get Up,” which are awash with buzzing strings and nervous rumbling percussion. It’s also worth mentioning “Shave and a Haircut,” which is a fun piece of authentic honkytonk source music.

Throughout all this it’s interesting just how much Niehaus’s jazz tendencies come through in the music; this isn’t the classic western scores of Bernstein or Moross, but it’s not the experimentalism of Ennio Morricone either – there is a toughness, a darkness, an introversion, but also a clear modernity to Niehaus’s writing that’s difficult to describe. It probably has more in common with Jerry Goldsmith or Jerry Fielding’s western scores than anyone else’s, which makes sense considering how much Niehaus contributed to the orchestration of Fielding’s scores for things like Lawman, Straw Dogs, Chato’s Land, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, among others. These scores all embraced the inherent duality of their anti-heroes, never rising to celebrate them with obvious sentiment, and instead keeping them grounded in tough, gritty reality.

The finale of the film begins with “He Oughta Get Shot,” an excellent piece of suspense music which sees Niehaus passing around a moody figure between low strings, low woodwind tones, and low brass triplets, while a brooding percussion rhythm adds increasing amounts of tension and anticipation. “Ned’s Body/Shotgun Appears” is the big shootout on the streets of Big Whiskey, as Munny single-handedly takes out all of Daggett’s deputies with a shotgun, but Niehaus staunchly refuses to sensationalize the scene, instead scoring its brutality with tortured variations of Claudia’s Theme backed with sharp brass clusters, uncomfortable strings, and more of the eerie electronic textures from earlier in the score. I love how, by this point in the film, Niehaus has almost entirely destroyed everything that Claudia’s Theme stood for; it’s fragments still follow Munny around and identify him, but he’s no longer the lonely farmer mourning his wife: now, he’s back to being the cold-blooded killer Claudia saved all those years ago.

The final confrontation between Munny and Daggett in “Burn His House Down” brings that sound to a head; Claudia’s Theme has now moved entirely away from the guitars and strings, and is now being carried solely by the synths, as if all of Munny’s humanity has gone, stripped away and left him as little more than an echo of who he was. The unsettling orchestral textures that surround the keyboards play fragments of the theme in counterpoint, as if urging Munny not to commit his final act of vengeance; it’s clever stuff from Niehaus, and another example of why I think this score is the best and most sophisticated dramatic work of his career.

The final 6-minute end credits performance of “Claudia’s Theme” that ends the score is a perfect finale, encompassing the full range and scope of the melody. It starts as a guitar solo, then becomes a duet, then gradually picks up more and more sections of the orchestra, until it eventually becomes a lush, evocative, stunningly gorgeous fully symphonic rendition. Then, just as it reaches its peak, it then begins to strip down again, gradually shedding all of its adornments until it becomes a guitar solo once more. The visual it accompanies, of a tired and broken Will Munny, silhouetted against the sunset, longing for the love of his beloved wife, is beautifully poetic and desperately sad.

Unforgiven is a great score for a great film, and as I said, marks for me the musical high points in the careers of both Lennie Niehaus and Clint Eastwood. Although Eastwood has written some lovely themes for other films – A Perfect World, The Bridges of Madison County, for example – none so perfectly captured a character’s soul the way Claudia’s Theme did. Similarly Niehaus, who would later go on to receive critical acclaim for his scores for Bird and Lush Life, and would write music for box office hits including Space Cowboys, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, and Gran Torino, never quite matched the sophistication and dramatic intelligence that he showed here. Niehaus died in 2020 at the age of 90, and anyone wanting to look back and see what his contribution to film music was all about, should start here.

Buy the Unforgiven soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Claudia’s Theme #1 (01:00)
  • Will Looks Off (00:32)
  • Davey Leading Horses (00:49)
  • Pony For the Lady (01:30)
  • Bucket of Water (00:41)
  • Claudia’s Theme #2 (00:41)
  • Bill Clips Bob (02:07)
  • Headstone and Flowers (00:41)
  • Claudia’s Theme #3 (01:04)
  • Give It To Him (01:11)
  • It’s Self Defense (00:51)
  • Claudia’s Theme #4 (00:58)
  • Get Up (01:35)
  • Reload This (01:00)
  • Claudia’s Theme #5 (01:02)
  • Shave and a Haircut (01:09)
  • Will Rides In (01:04)
  • Claudia’s Theme #6 (01:01)
  • Villainous Friends (01:01)
  • He Oughta Get Shot (02:17)
  • Claudia’s Theme #7 (01:07)
  • Ned’s Body/Shotgun Appears (03:41)
  • Burn His House Down (02:09)
  • Claudia’s Theme #8 (05:41)

Running Time: 34 minutes 52 seconds

Varèse Sarabande VSD-5380 (1992)

Music composed and conducted by Lennie Niehaus. Orchestrations by Lennie Niehaus. Claudia’s Theme written by Clint Eastwood. Recorded and mixed by Robert Fernandez. Edited by Donald Harris. Album produced by Lennie Niehaus.

  1. August 11, 2022 at 5:35 am

    Thanks for this analyse.

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