Last year, actor Ken Watanbe starred in the Japanese remake of a film called Unforgiven. Though it may have had a limited release, its reception wasn’t diminished in the slightest. Acclaimed by critics worldwide, Yurusarezaru mono continued the cinematic relationship between samurai epics and spaghetti westerns at full ignition; the tradition’s beginnings are rooted in Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, which was a scene-by-scene remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo.
Out of everything the film achieved, Yurusarezaru mono reminded us that Unforgiven still remains an ageless masterpiece. After its release, the film became known as a eulogy to classic spaghetti western cinema; in other words, it signified the end of a generation. If that statement holds any truth to it all, then it’s fitting that Unforgiven was helmed by Clint Eastwood, who starred in the Sergio Leone trilogy that pioneered the genre in the first place.
The reason I bring up the fact that it eulogized a generation for this post is because of the fact that Unforgiven was entirely rooted in it; every element that made it what it was borrowed from the old classics, and that included direction, music, writing, and cinematography.
The man behind the cinematography of Unforgiven was Jack N. Green. Before he was known for his cinematography, Green started off as an assistant cameraman on 16mm film projects. He worked for the National Geographic, and had some background as a stringer as well, notably covering the Robert Kennedy assassination in 1968.
By the time it came down to filming Unforgiven, Jack Greene was Clint Eastwood’s preferred cinematographer, having first worked with him as a camera operator on Pale Rider. The cinematographer on that film was Bruce Surtees, a guy who became known as the “Prince of Darkness” because of how much he loved working with low light. Consequentially, that aspect ended up carrying on over to Green’s work on Unforgiven. The reason I say “consequentially” is because Clint Eastwood had a slight reputation for being economical. One of the reasons he used so much low-level lighting in Unforgiven was because he didn’t like working with or having to adjust his budget for bright fill-in lighting. Whatever opinion one might have on the matter, the final product resulted in Green receiving his first Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography; as economical as Eastwood was trying to be, Unforgiven‘s use of shadows and overwhelming darkness also added onto the realism that the director strived to achieve.
Watching the film in high-definition reminded me of just how much working with film instead of digital cameras can affect the look of a project. Unforgiven‘s graininess worked perfectly as a tribute to classic western films; there’s countless shots in the movie that I could have spliced into The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and they would have blended in perfectly. When I take a look at a modern western like No Country for Old Men, I can’t imagine it having been filmed any other way, either. But times are changing. No Country for Old Men cinematographer Roger Deakins, who was once heavily against any digital format, recently converted to using digital after the release of the ARRI Alexa. Eventually, as fitting as shooting on film is for a western, we’ll be seeing more shot digitally in the future as well (I couldn’t find any source on this, so correct me if I’m wrong, but 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma looked to have been one shot digitally already). With western cinema’s golden age spanning from the 40’s to the 90’s, shooting on film has always been the look we’ll attribute to the genre; now that the world of cinema is slowly becoming digital, who’s to say that westerns won’t enter a new generation? Whatever the future holds for the genre, Unforgiven‘s cinematography was probably one of the last few looks we had at a classic era. And it hasn’t aged one bit.
By the way, Jack N. Green went on to work as the cinematographer on Hot Tub Time Machine; I’ll be damned if the dude ain’t living the good life.