Study Guide

Unforgiven Themes

  • Violence

    Unforgiven is—surprise!—a very violent film.

    While there are only a handful of violent scenes ( two savage beatings, two small shootouts, one big shootout), they are so visceral, infused with so much cruelty, that we can't help wincing just a little bit.

    The films really does a good job of making a case against violence by showing how brutal it is (remember English Bob's face in the jail cell?) and how ethically complicated killing somebody is. The death scenes of Davey and Quick Mike are especially relentless: one is an exercise in slow death, and the other is cheap and honorless.

    Questions About Violence

    1. Gene Hackman initially didn't want to do Unforgiven because of its violence. Is the film too violent? Disconcertingly violent? Violent to make a point?
    2. Does it seem like Little Bill actually enjoys violence, even though he pretends otherwise?
    3. Why do you think Will Munny seems unaffected, for the most part, by violence? Remember, he's stone cold until the bitter end.
    4. What's up with Ned? He used to be Will's partner but then decides he can't handle the violence anymore. Why do you think this is?

    Chew on This

    While we hate Quick Mike, Davey, and Little Bill, their violent and pitiful deaths make us question whether or not Will Munny & Co. are guys we should admire, despite the fact that they mete out justice.

    Violence isn't the way to defeat violence. This is the lesson of Little Bill, whose violent beatings of Bob, Will, and Ned only bring more violence to Big Whiskey.

  • Transformation

    "I ain't like that no more," Will exclaims on several occasions throughout Unforgiven. The sheer number of times Will makes remarks like this should make us a little suspicious. Just who is he trying to convince anyway? Ned's wife isn't convinced that Will has changed, and while we want to believe him, it's hard, especially given how efficiently and methodically he continues to fire on a wounded Davey Bunting.

    Will may have transformed to some extent, but certainly not completely. Unlike Ned, who doesn't have the heart to kill anymore, Will can certainly reactivate his cold-blooded nature, even though he doesn't go back to being a full-fledged killer like he used to be.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. How unlike the old Will is the new Will?
    2. What makes Ned transform from a guy willing to take money to kill a couple of no good cowboys into somebody who doesn't care about money and just wants to go back to Kansas?
    3. How does Little Bill fit into all of this? Does he transform at all throughout the film?
    4. Do the prostitutes (Alice, Delilah) change at all over the course of the film? Or do they seem like flat characters?

    Chew on This

    Even if we're able to transform ourselves, some vestiges of what we used to be will always remain. Will, for example, still has some of the old Will in him, despite his alleged transformation.

    We haven't truly transformed if one terrible thing makes us go back to our old ways. Will, once he learns of Ned's death, immediately goes back to drinking and becomes possessed with a vengeance we thought he had abandoned.

  • Memory and the Past

    Unforgiven is full of characters who can't escape their past, and Will Munny is right at the top of the list. Various tales about his past misdeeds surface throughout the film, and he tries and tries to escape that life, but ultimately goes back to it.

    English Bob arrives in Big Whiskey only to run into a ghost from his past: Little Bill Daggett. The persistence of tales about Will, and the very fact that he ultimately does what he's always done (kill people) suggest a very profound point: the past always manages to come back, however hard people try to escape it, forget, bury it, etc.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. How does Will feel about his past? Is he okay with it? Haunted by it?
    2. How about Ned? Does he seem at peace with his past as an outlaw?
    3. What does the Kid find so appealing about Will's past? Does his opinion obviously change at any one point?
    4. What does this film suggest about the past history of the United States Frontier, if anything?

    Chew on This

    The past is hard to pin down. We think we know all about Will's until near the end of the film, when it turns out that his past is much worse (it includes the killing of women and children).

    We can try all we want to escape the past but it always finds a way to catch up with us. Will suffers immensely, and Ned dies, in part because Fate is punishing them for their past.

  • Death

    The body count in Unforgiven is high. Eight people die in this film, and Will Munny is responsible for six of these bodies. And, in addition to these literal deaths, there are some figurative deaths (the death of the Kid's innocence, Will's death by illness and resurrection).

    Unforgiven, however, isn't just a film that shows us death, but also how agonizing and pitiful it can be. It also gives us some insight into how people fear death—Will Munny has nightmares about the Angel of Death, and Little Bill is baffled by his own murder (he's building a house! he doesn't deserve this!) even as he's bleeding out.

    Questions About Death

    1. We know Will is afraid of death, but how does Ned feel about it?
    2. How do you feel about Quick Mike's and Davey's deaths? Do they deserve it? Does it happen under the wrong circumstances?
    3. Why is it significant that Will's wife is already dead when the film begins, and that he visits her grave several times?
    4. How do you interpret Will's near death experience at the hands of Little Bill and fever? What symbolic purpose does it serve?

    Chew on This

    Death is an inevitable fact of life. "We all got it coming," as Will says at one point, with apparently no discernible emotion.

    To fear death is to be human, and even the worst characters (Will and Bill) are afraid of death. This proves their innate humanity.