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Unforgiven - the movie

© Andrew Knock (2000)


A world of sin

Unforgiven - graveside.jpg (16837 bytes)One of the many haunting things about the movie, Unforgiven, is its title.  It hints at a deep and penetrating view of forgiveness, and the lack of it - and in many ways it delivers. The grizzled, lined faces of the main characters - no one smiles in this film - make it clear that the title refers to more than one man or one crime of violence (with which the film opens) against a woman.  This is a whole world without forgiveness, where nominally 'good' and 'bad' people are alike all pulled back into some kind of fundamental sin.

Directed and produced by Clint Eastwood and also starring him alongside Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman, Unforgiven won Oscars for best Picture and best Director in 1992.  It was only the third Western ever to win the Best Picture Academy Award.   It is an unusual film to be an Oscar-winner - bleak and remorseless, without evoking the myths of heroism and justice which normally make us come out of the cinema glowing or gently crying.   It's not a film to curl up on the sofa with.   Some people hated it - for example critic Paul Hilditch:

What in the world was the Academy thinking when it awarded this dud the best picture of 1992?  Yes Clint, you should remain unforgiven for creating this awful picture.  Unforgiven takes two hours to arrive at its first amusing scene; however, you could watch a Schwarzenegger film and be entertained all the way to the shoot 'em up ending.  Stay away at all costs. (

Perhaps the most revisionist of Westerns, Unforgiven offers us none of the benign, relaxed, healthy outdoors of the old West we've seen in countless movies before.   Nobody dies quickly or easily.  They die messily, screaming and crying. There are no happy hookers, no light-hearted poker games, only drunks killing one another.  Critic MaryAnn Johanson observes, "Searing and sombre, Unforgiven was written by David Webb Peoples to quite openly unmask the myths of the Wild West that Hollywood has spent so long throwing at us." (review in The Flick Philosopher)

By stripping away the myths, it also disturbs us, and asks us: "Are we any better?"  It is certainly a significant film to explore, because it does help us understand some of the most important and most often overlooked strands in forgiveness, and in what 'sin' actually involves.   The film forcefully directs us into a world of violence and complexity, where no one is really good and no one completely bad.  Only at the end, in the written text of a postscript that comes on screen over an elegiac shot of Eastwood's character (Will Munny) at his beloved wife's grave, do we return to our day-time world of bourgeois values, where 'good' people have nothing to do with 'bad' men:

Some years later, Mrs Ansonia (sic) Feathers made the arduous journey to Hodgeman County to visit the last resting place of her only daughter.

William Munny had long since disappeared with the children ... some said to San Francisco where it was rumored he prospered in dry goods.

And there was nothing on the marker to explain to Mrs Feathers why her only daughter had married a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.

This is such a low-key ending that, seeing it for the first time, it's easy to miss what writer David Webb Peoples is saying.  Mrs Feathers does not want to know about the harshness of life 'under the surface.'  She is in the same position as most of us who eat animals ... we don't want to know about killing them.  If we are attentive to the ending, we are more likely to leave the cinema trying to connect the two worlds.


The story - strands of unforgiveness

What is 'unforgiven' in Unforgiven?  The movie gives us a number of facets to the erosion of forgiveness.  The text opening refers to the good influence of Claudia, the wife of Will Munny, "a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition."   By 1880 he has become a poor pig farmer, a widower with two young children, long retired from his former life of crime.  Again and again he refers to his transformation through Claudia ("my wife ... cured me of drink and wickedness").  Though we never see her, Claudia hovers in the background of the film.  She clearly forgave Will, and transformed his life.

The powerful images of Will losing all his scraps of dignity in the pigsty, struggling with sick pigs, evokes Jesus' parable of the Lost Son (or Prodigal Son), who "came to his senses" in a pigsty.  But here we are going to watch the converse of this great parable of forgiveness and restoration - the loss of forgiveness.  Eastwood - as actor - gives a moving and convincing portrayal of the vulnerability inside "intelligent toughness" (as he was later to repeat in In the line of fire).  His portrayal involves our emotion and empathy in a tragedy, rather than macho thrills, as he gets sucked back into the world of sin.  The tragedy is a process of 'de-forgiving' (to invent a word), of undoing forgiveness.

1  Unforgiveness - no one is better   

Will is visited by a young gunman, the Schofield Kid, who tells him of the assault we have already witnessed in the film's opening act: a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming has her face horribly slashed by a customer.  When the town's sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), lets the guy off lightly, the other women in the brothel scrape together $1000 to put up as a reward for anyone who kills the attacker and his accomplice - both cowboys.  They do not want mercy for the men - and subsequently reject a vulnerable and well-meaning gift from the accomplice.  Although the main characters in the film are all men, the women are not portrayed as any better, except in one moment of vulnerability when the wounded hooker listens to Will talk of his wife's memory.

The Kid has come to enlist Will as a partner in hunting the bounty.  Will says No, wanting to hold on to his 'goodness,' remaining with Claudia's memory and with their children.  But with a heavy heart, he "comes to his senses" and realises the money would transform his physically wretched life.  He enlists his old friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and they catch up with the Kid.

Unforgiven - Hard man.jpg (14083 bytes)Any innocence and goodness seem to belong to someone outside this world - to Claudia who is dead.  Indeed, Ned says to Munny, "If Claudia was alive you wouldn’t be doing this." In the world of Unforgiven, no one is innocent.  We are aware that somehow Eastwood's character, Will Munny, is the 'hero,' though his history is a hard, hard killer who "killed women and children."  It is Little Bill Daggett, the town sheriff, the judge and jury in Big Whiskey, Wyoming, who turns out to be the real villain.   Yet the heroic bad man and the corrupt lawman have the same name - William.  Most of the time it is hard to see who is the better person.

With strange irony, Daggett has ambitions to be a carpenter, and is working hard to build his own house.  The authority figure of the story seems to be placed alongside Jesus the carpenter - who did forgive.  Yet Little Bill is as incompetent at this as the killers are at killing.  One of his deputies says to another, "Bill ain’t scared, he just ain’t no carpenter."

2  The unforgiving past   

It seems impossible to lose one's past.  In that sense, too, Will - and all of us - are unforgiven.  The unforgiven world deals in inevitability: a law of karma in which we get what we 'deserve,' and in which we cannot avoid being defined and judged (for ever) by what we have done.  In a painful conversation much later, after the Kid has killed the prostitute's attacker, and admitted this was his first killing:

Will: It's a hell of a thing, killin' a man. You take away all he's got an' all he's ever gonna have.
The Kid: Yeah. Well, I guess they had it comin'.
Will: We all have it comin', Kid.

Earlier, we watch as Will leaves his home and children.  Mounting his unaccustomed saddle horse is extremely difficult, and he struggles to control the animal.  He says to his children, who don't know his past:

Ain't hardly been in the saddle myself in a while.  This old horse is getting even with me for the sins of my youth.  In my youth, before I met your dear departed Ma, I used to be weak and given to mistreatin' animals ... This horse and those hogs over there are gettin' even with me for the cruelty that I inflicted.

3  Unforgiveness and superficial myth-making

Another sense of unforgiveness then appears.  The film is merciless with myth, and therefore also with the popular press which most encourages superficial, familiar judgements and black-and-white drama.  (The Western equivalent of today's tabloids, talk shows and soaps.)  We meet English Bob (Richard Harris), a killer hired for protection by the railroad - but the reason is really to introduce his fawning biographer Beauchamp.  Little Bill humiliates and arrests Bob, then challenges the veracity of Beauchamp's paperback book about him.  Beauchamp admits to taking "a certain liberty when you're depicting the cover scene. It's for reasons involving the marketplace, etcetera." 

As film critic Tim Dirks noted (in FilmSite), in a long and devastating ten minutes Little Bill obliterates the mythic, poetic story Beauchamp has written about hired killer English Bob, disclosing the hero to be a cowardly, incompetent, and lucky gunfighter:

Daggett: Uh, Mr. Beauchamp, I was in the Blue Bottle Saloon in Wichita on the night that English Bob killed Corky Corcoran, and I didn't see you there, nor no woman. No two-gun shooters. None of this.
Beauchamp: You were there?
Daggett: Yeah, and the only insultin' Corky ever did was stick that thing of his into this French lady that English Bob here was kind of sweet on. You see, the night that Corky walked into the Blue Bottle and before he knows what's happenin', Bob here takes a shot at him, and he misses because he's so damned drunk. Now that bullet whizzing by panicked old Corky and he did the wrong thing. He went for his gun in such a hurry he shot his own damn toe off. Meantime, Bob here, he's aimin' real good and he squeezes off another. But he misses 'cause he's still so damned drunk, and he hits this thousand dollar mirror up over the bar. Now, the 'Duck of Death' (Bob) is as good as dead because Corky does it right. He aims real careful, no hurry, and BAM!! The Walker-Colt blew up in his hand which was a failin' common to that model. You see, if old Corky had've had two guns, instead of just a big dick, he would have been there right to the end to defend himself.
Beauchamp: Wait a minute. You mean that English Bob killed him when he didn't even have...
Daggett: Well, old Bob wasn't gonna wait for Corky to grow a new hand. No, he just walked over there real slow, 'cause he was drunk. Shot him right through the liver - Pop.

We may feel that here, at least, unmasking the cheap sensationalism of the popular press is a virtue.  But tellingly, Davis Webb Peoples' script later goes on to show Daggett beginning to spin his own mythologised story to Beauchamp.  Peoples brings great insight and instinct to bear here, as he continues to be true to the film's remorselessness: even if it's the press we are condemning, condemning is still condemning.  Unforgiveness pervades our own tendency to blame somebody else rather than work to transform their situation - even if 'they' are the gutter press.

4  Unforgiveness and incompetence

As the characters in Big Whiskey - a town name which confirms the images of killers who need to get drunk before they can kill - work out their conflicts, Ned realises he cannot kill any longer, and leaves to go back to his farmer's life with a Native American common-law wife.  Will kills one of the two original 'criminals' - in a horrifyingly botched, prolonged and amateur way which leaves Will calling for the man's friends to fetch him water to ease the pain as he lies dying.  But Ned is then captured and tortured by the sheriff.

The Kid, meanwhile, with Will beside him, kills the other wanted man - another horrifying assassination in an outdoor bothy (toilet).  Every death, and every crime, is amateur and unglamorous.  They then discover the sheriff has killed Ned, and Will finally - in cold fury and revenge - becomes transformed into something like a purposeful professional gunfighter. 

As with an earlier revisionist Western, Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, the one moral value which survives is loyalty - here to the memory of a friend, and to the memory of his wife.  In this respect, these weighty films parallel the world of The Godfather, where extraordinary and much more sophisticated and planned violence exists alongside a single morality of loyalty to one's family - a conglomerate of relationships around patriarchal headship and employment.

The film's climax includes a reference to one of Eastwood's most famous films, Dirty Harry ... when his character, Detective Harry Callahan, holds a gun into the face of a man already down and wounded, and sneers, "I know what you're thinking. Did he fire six shots or only five?  ... You've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya punk?"   In Unforgiven, in a tense stand-off in a crowded saloon, Will's shotgun misfires.  As Bill has already shown in the story of Bob and Corky Corcoran, the technology is as faulty as the men who use it - horrifyingly like the electric chair in today's prisons.  Munny tosses his worthless shotgun at the sheriff to distract him, and then draws a revolver and fires at Little Bill and some of his deputies.  They fall, apparently dead.

Then the sheriff, lying on the floor, finds his pistol and loudly cocks it. Will steps on his gun arm, causing the gun to discharge.  Entirely at Will's mercy, Little Bill pleads and laments that he won't live long enough to enjoy his dream house in old age:

Little Bill: I don't deserve this. To die like this. I was building a house.
Will: Deserve's got nothin' to do with it.
Little Bill: I'll see you in hell, William Munny.
Will: Yeah.

After an extended pause with the gun barrel floating above Little Bill's head, Munny blasts him.  No mercy.  Daggett may say he doesn't deserve it, and Will may seem to agree - but the effect is to tell us even more starkly that - as Munny has already said - everyone deserves it.  They have been in hell all the time - the unforgiven world.


The 'fallen' world

Although Unforgiven examines most of the familiar Western stereotypes of gunmen, saloons, cowhands, hookers and lawmen, there are no pompous preachers.  God is not referred to at all, except in very occasional clichés ("God rest his soul").  In this sense its world is a portrayal of what the Christian tradition called 'original sin.'  The white protagonists of the Wild West have only a vestigial memory of the Judaeo-Christian God.  Christian theologian L Gregory Jones depicts what is meant by original sin with great clarity:

People are not culpable in the abstract – as if for example – I am somehow ‘guilty’ for the enslavement of African Americans in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries; but I am culpable for that history in the sense that the effects of slavery continue to mar my relations with others, making me complicit in the continuing racism of the culture into which I was born. I can either remain complicit in that racism, thereby perpetuating it in ways for which I am also culpable; or I can struggle against it, seeking to mitigate its effects through faithful discipleship.

But there is no one who can claim to be only a victim of other’s histories; though levels of culpability certainly vary, sometimes immensely, we are all enmeshed in various histories and circumstances, and the result is that we cannot evade the truth that we all invariably diminish and destroy others in the ways in which we live.

This ‘always-already’ brokenness is the fundamental condition of Sin. But this fundamental situation of fragmentation and brokenness also manifests itself in particular and specific sins. Such sins include both things that human beings do to one another (such as violence, adultery, lying, and racist actions or comments) and things that fail to do for one another (such as abandoning those who suffer, neglecting the physical or emotional needs of others, or refusing to act justly or truthfully.) In either case, we not only diminish the other(s); we diminish ourselves. (Embodying Forgiveness  p 62)

Interestingly, Jones includes a serious analysis of the film in his book.  Perhaps he tends to jump too quickly to using the film to illustrate his broader theses, and doesn't spend enough time entering Munny's character - but his allegiance to the film is important.

Unforgiven is not an easy film to watch.  It doesn't touch us in the warm, friendly places which would make us want to revisit the film as an old friend.  It issues a challenge:  What is forgiveness to a world like this - a hardball world, where people get by on luck and a will-to-power?  The film tells us that it can only lie in being determined to be real and unwillingly to escape into the bourgeois escapism of Claudia's mother.  And therefore - though not every character would admit it - that the path lies in recognising a world where everyone is guilty.  (The main way in which Munny is different and 'better' - and thereby some kind of hero - is that he knows all along he is guilty, and admits it again and again.)

Perhaps the main and first step is to stop thinking that forgiveness is something 'we' can offer to the guilty.  Not only because we are all guilty - and can only begin to forgive with any depth once we acknowledge our place in solidarity with other guilty people.  But also because, to quote Jones again:

"People are mistaken if they think of Christian forgiveness primarily as absolution from guilt; the purpose of forgiveness is the restoration of communion, the reconciliation of brokenness." (op cit p 5)

To people who are serious about forgiveness, the harsh world of Unforgiven presents a welcome realism.  Jones' broad conclusion in response to the film is entirely admirable and concise:

The story shows the fragility of our commitments to unlearn and break our habits of sin, even when there is a desire to do so.  If such commitments are to be sustained, they require supportive friendships, practices and institutions that enable the unlearning of destructive habits and the cultivation of holy ones.  The film suggests that those friendships, practices and institutions are absent precisely because of their fragility in the face of violence and vengeance.  It takes only a moment to destroy lives through violence, but it takes a lifetime to cultivate alternative patterns and practices of forgiveness, or trust, of love.  (op cit p 76)  n

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