Unforgiven (Discussion)

Here’s a place to discuss and review the movie, Unforgiven. I’m going to continue the discussion we were having in the “Top 10 Movies of All Time” thread.

In addition to people participating in the discussion, I hope people who love this film will write a review or their reasons for liking this film so much.

Here’s what Burgess said on August 30, 2004, 5:37 PM:

I wasn’t bothered by the lack of info regarding Munny’s transformation back to killer, mostly because I don’t think the character ever made the transformation from killer to “ordinary man”. Throughout the film, Munny is uncomfortable with who he is, as a pig farmer, father and reformed killer. Although Munny might want to change who he is, mainly because of his dead wife, he is who he is.

But do you think he was uncomfortable because he was not a killer? No, I think he was messed up because he had killed so many people. This was the thing that haunted and crippled him throughout most of the film. He was incapable of killing anyone because of the guilt and trauma. Yet, at the end he overcomes these things and goes on a killing spree.

Eastwood not only didn’t convincingly show how this could happen, imo, he also undid all the unglamorous portrayal of violence in the first 3/4 of the film. Munny, the wreck-of-a-man, is tranformed into the super-human, “Man with No Name” persona that Eastwood is so famous for.

I will try and see this film soon.

5 Responses to “Unforgiven (Discussion)”

  1. Reid

    OK, here are my comments after watching this film recently (for the second time).

    De-glamorizating in Westerns…Psych!

    My problem is that Eastwood de-glamorizes the horrors of , at least in the first 3/4 of the film, and undos all of that in the last 30 minutes of the film.

    • There is the scene where Munny sees visions of a person he’s killed (“There were worms coming out of his skull.”) because of a fever–and perhaps past psychological scars. During the fever, on the verge of and filled with fear, he tells Ned (Morgan Freeman) to not tell his kids about what he did in his life.
    • The movie makes the point several times that people have to rely on alcohol to kill and also cope with people because it is so difficult and terrible: Ned offers Munny a drink and makes a comment about that; the Scofield kid guzzles a bottle of whisky after his first victim; Munny says he was always drunk when he was a killer. And he also begins to drink again after he decides to seek revenge (prior to that he refuses any drink).
    • Ned tries to shoot one of the men they’re after, but can’t do it. (Later, he leaves the group because he knows he can’t kill anyone.)
    • Munny finishes the job in an excurciating scene: we see the young man trying to crawl for cover.(He’s crawling because he’s broken his leg.) Munny fires several times, until he finally hits the man. The young man, who has boyish features, wails and whimpers with fear and pain in his voice, and we watch him slowly die
    • When the “kid” finally kills the other man they’re after, he is distraught and upset, losing all the bravado he displayed earlier. He gives up his gun to Munny and says he’ll never kill again.

    Through each of the three protagonists–each representing Western archetypes: the legendary outlaw, the loyal sidekick and the y upstart–Eastwood de-glamorizes by showing the difficulties and terrible consequences of .

    During this time, Eastwood also develops the villain, Little Bill (Gene Hackman). We see him viciously beat up English Bob (Richard Harris), an outlaw he knew. He also beats up Munny, when Munny was weak and broken. We also see a form of cruelty in the way he treats women. When the man cuts up a and Little Bill, the town sheriff, goes to whip the man, the other s demand a more severe punishment. The saloon keeper (and pimp) wants punishment, too, but only because his “property” has been damaged. In the end, Little Bill makes the men give horses to the pimp, and let’s the men go without any other punishment.

    That’s the tone of the first 3/4 of the film, and I felt excited about the way Eastwood would resolve the story. I felt Eastwood might used these characters (especially his persona of the ” The Man With No Name”) to create a psychologically nuanced film about , even a repudiation of . Instead Eastwood opts for a more conventional ending, which would have been OK, if not for the first æ of the film. What was the point of de-glamorizing in most of the film?

    Let’s go back to the Little Bill character. Eastwood develops Little Bill to create an appetite for revenge and justification for sating that appetite. We see his dehumanizing treatment of women and his vicious beating of English Bob. We also see Bill eventually kill Ned. Finally, Eastwood has Little Bill beat Munny in a broken down condition. The scene reminded me of the two scenes in Superman II. In the first scene, Clark Kent, who has just given up his powers for Lois, gets beaten up by a bully at a coffee shop. In the end, Kent returns to the diner with his powers and beats up the bully. Normally, I would understand these scenes as a set-up for revenge, but given the grim portrayal of , I thought Eastwood would use Little Bill in a different way. He didn’t. Bill kills Ned and, like so many other action films, this pushes the hero over the edge, in this case completing the transformation of Munny, the farmer into Munny, the killer.

    So the film seems to want to have it both ways: to de-glamorize and show the psychological horrors of while keeping the romantic, glamorous image of the “The Man With No Name” That was my main problem with the film. For those that don’t agree with this, I’m curious to hear the explanation and purpose of portraying as a terrible thing.

    Other Issues

    What does Eastwood say about the town? Munny leaves the town by saying, “You better bury Ned right and stop cutting up s or else I’ll come back.” Is this a critique on society? The community seems accepting or at least tolerant of Little Bill, despite his viciousness and his treatment of the assaulted . Eastwood doesn’t portray Little Bill as an entirely evil either. Yes, he’s vicious and authoritarian, but he seems to do this with a sincere desire to ensure justice and security in his town, not for selfish gain. There might be a little of that message, but my sense is that Eastwood isn’t critiquing society or his critique is superficial.

    What is the significance of the s in the story? I can’t recall the specifics of other Eastwood films, but angry woman seem to be a strong theme. What are the s role in the film?

    Eastwood seems to use religious motifs and symbols in the film. When Munny is near , he tells Ned that he sees the “angel of .” When he recovers from three days of fever, he mistakes the woman that is caring for him for an angel. A little later while sitting outdoors, he says he sees things differently (as if for the first time?). Munny has been for three days and is now alive. He seems renewed afterward—where he had problems (in the beginning of the film) and having nightmares about former victims, he seems steady and calm now. Indeed, he finishes off the man Ned couldn’t bring himself to shoot. He also shoots at the people chasing after the Kid. But learning that Little Bill killed Ned makes the transformation back into a killer complete.

    This makes think of the role of Munny’s wife in the film. It is her goodness and love that redeems Munny from a killer. He remains a farmer (ostensibly not a good one), ually chaste and stays away from alcohol because of his loyalty and love for his deceased wife. But the movie seems to be about Munny’s transformation and return to his former self. He has to die to become that person again (and some may argue that he never stopped being that person.) In either case, I find this transformation another glorification of because instead of being reborn as a saintly person, Munny returns to being a killer—an angel of . Again, that wouldn’t be so bad if Eastwood hadn’t portrayed so negatively. This portrayal makes Munny seem mystical and very appealing to male sensibility. Normal men can’t handle , and that’s what makes Munny’s vengence so appealing. When he returns to the saloon, he is the “Man With No Name,” complete with the intense squinty eyes, breathy voice and cool dialogue:

    (Munny shoots the owner of the saloon)
    Little Bill: “You son-of-bitch, you just shot an unarmed man!”
    Munny: “Well, he should of armed himself if he’s to decorate his saloon with my friend.”

    Little Bill: “Are you William Munny, come out of Missouri. You killed woman and children.”
    Munny: “Yeah, I killed woman and children, but I’m here to kill you.”

    Or something to that effect. It’s really cool if you like Dirty Harry or “The Man with No Name,” which I do.

    But, I feel like Eastwood betrayed me by this ending because of the first æ of the film.

  2. Marc

    Hmmm, looks like Reid went pretty deep and I probably will not probe quite as much. I didn’t like this movie either though, so I don’t satisfy Reid’s request for posts from those who do like it.

    I have a few issues. First, I thought the movie was slow and I didn’t really get the dramatic tension.

    Second, I sort of got twisted by the ending too. I sort thought the movie was going to be about redemption and change based on how things were going. Instead the movie seemed to pose the idea that these guys could not be redeemed nor could they change. Munny remained a despicable killer, the kid remained a kid. Little Bill remained the same. It was depressing. It was even more depressing to me when I noted that the one guy who did change, Morgan Freeman’s character, wound up being tortured to death.

    Third, the was no likable character other than the Freeman character. Not at least that I could find.

    I don’t feel betrayed by the movie but I didn’t like it. Other than the English Patient, it was the Oscar winning movie that I disliked the most in recent years.

  3. Reid


    I was excited by the first 3/4 of the film and didn’t feel like it was slow. Here was Eastwood using his Western persona in a totally different way: he is broken, afraid, and guilt ridden. Where he would take this character and resolve the film really intrigued me. That’s precisely the reason I felt cheated by Eastwood.

    Second, I think the Kid did change. After he shoots the second guy they were chasing, he is a wreck. He’s drinking and admits that the man was his first victim (previously he bragged about five men). He tells Munny that he’s never going to kill again; he’s not like Munny.

    Munny doesn’t change, but I believe that’s where the title comes from. Despite the grace and love his wife gives, he is ultimately unchanged and “unforgiven.” But if that’s the meaning of the title maybe a more accurate word would have been “unredeemed,” but that’s not as catchy.

    In addition, there’s actually a twist on the resurrection motif. When Munny is sick (for three days) and “comes back to life,” a transformation has occurred, but it seems like he’s become more of a killer. He has to “die” to become what he once was.

    As for likeability, I think Munny is as likeable as any of his other characters in Westerns or cop films. What makes him appealing is that he’s going after people that “deserve” (by the way the film sets-up Little Bill and the saloon keeper) to die. I know he’s committed heinous crimes in the past, but I never saw those crimes, so they’re sort of excused. The point is that he’s a guy that killed his good friend for no good reason (and a saloon keeper).

    Munny is also appealing when he gives that cold, mean dialogue at the end. That’s vintage Eastwood.

    Finally, I also agree about The English Patient . I’d like to hear what was so good about that.

  4. kevin

    Reid, what do you mean you have nothing interesting to say about movies?

    Good thoughts above. I had a different perspective on the movie, which is one of my top 10. The theme of it for me was sin and brokenness, and how it affects indiscriminately all people. I remember the first time I saw it in the theater, the line of the whole movie that stuck out for me was after Munny and the Kid are feeling conflicted after their hit:

    Kid: Yeah, well, he probably had it coming.
    Munny: We all got it coming to us, kid.

    This is like the Pauline Gospel perception of sin, where ìall have fallen short of the glory of Godî and the struggle is not so much ìgood vs. evilî as ìold nature, new nature.î The belief that we can be at peace w/ ourselves / conquer our old natures through a home life, through heavy-handed control, or through violent retribution all ultimately ends in a big mess. In other words, it could be about redemption, but redemption is cheap without understanding the nature of our sin.

    Munny is overemphatic in his conversion to his new nature, which is Shakespearean (ìYou dost protest too muchî) in portending his backslide. Itís the sense of scarred-ness from the loss of his wife, of the people heís killed, and the ghosts of the life that he led.

    I see the themes of ìbrokennessî in the movie manifest in a bunch of different behavior:

    Retribution: the whorehouse women were not seeking to avenge for the scarred gal, they were seeking to lash back at their own sense of powerlessness and diminished reputation at the world of men at the time. The anger seemed to come from their own damage as devalued humans & lack of forgiviness, not from a righeous sense of justice. The scarred gal appeared to be touched when the cowboy offered her the best of the ponies instead of the saloonkeeper; but this wasnít enough for the others. You see it also in Little Bill, who after many years still holds a grudge w/ English Bob, and ends up kicking the crap out of him.

    Pride: You see this in the development of English Bob and how his sense of British decorum and class leads him to a sense of superiority over the earthiness of Western culture. But in the end, we find itís a thin lie, and Little Bill (Gene Hackman) sets the record straight on English Bobí failure to live by his own code of ethics. Little Bill has his own vulnerability to this, as his ego canít resist stealing the biographer from English Bob. Also, Little Billís self righeous desire to control, to wield power for ìlaw and orderî, even at the point of violence, reminds me of the current political situation. This is what makes me feel like these are timeless issues of human nature that are being examined in the movie.

    Esteem: the incident that sets off the whole movie (male insecurity about penis size), the differing interactions of the Engl. Bob, Little Bill, & Munny w/ the biographer, the Scofield kidís insecurity about his ìreputationî via killing all reveal a lot about the male thing of ego, status, and reputation. For the women in the movie, you see how their worth is torn down or built up via the way they look. Munny is the only one in the movie to respond to a woman with kindness. Munny: ìYou and me, weíre a lot alike. Weíre both scarred. ì

    In this respect, I still see it as de-glamorizing the conventional Western plot in that the primary conflict is not of ìgood man vs. evil manî, but ìman vs. himself.î I agree w/ Marc that Munny’s not shown through a process of “change”, but maybe it’s a process of “struggle” that is maybe a different kind of trajectory of a movie character development. In this way, his character appeals to me most of all those in the movie. Munny perhaps ends up being the device through which the sin all around the Western genre is revealed and a different type of justice is meted out.

    The eruption of violence in the ending, for me, is not about portraying violence as a conventional Western plot device. Itís about the rectitude, or inversion of a way of seeing good and evil as an infectious spread that weíre all prone to. I think the movie helps us understand the complicated nature of ìgood and evilî contrary to what you see spouted on campaign platforms these days. Itís in all of us. Perhaps, in this way, Munny comes closest of all the characters in the movie to understanding not so much his ìtrue natureî, but rather the nature inside himself to be dealt with.

    On the other hand, The English Patient… now that was a stinker. Peeee-yeeeuuuwww.

  5. Reid


    Your perspective and what you got out of the film is both intersting and valid. But my sense is that your interpretation gives too much credit to Eastwood. I could be wrong, but Eastwood’s films seem pretentious: there’s an effort to make a deep film, but for the most part it’s superficial.

    Of course, what you get out of the film is what you get out of the film, and we could argue if the director’s intent really mattered or not.

    In this way, his character appeals to me most of all those in the movie. Munny perhaps ends up being the device through which the sin all around the Western genre is revealed and a different type of justice is meted out.

    What do you mean by different? All the “bad” people–the two cowboys, Little Bill and the saloon keeper–get killed. Eastwood seems to give Munny a happy ending by saying that he goes to SF and starts a dry goods store.

    I’d like to hear more about how violent ending inverts our way of seeing good and evil. To me, it follows conventional Western plot pretty closely.

    The character I have a little trouble figuring out is Little Bill. What is Eastwood’s attitude about him?

    I like your take on English Bob’s role in the film and his relationship with Little Bill. And I find your interpretation that the film is about brokeness interesting, too. But how does the end resolve all that?

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