Often, the Best Picture winners at the Oscars are remembered as major influences on culture and film history – think The Godfather, Rocky, Casablanca, or Everything Everywhere All At Once. Others are remembered for the wrong reasons, as symbols of what’s wrong with Hollywood or American culture, and some are forgotten as flukes, or as movies with legacies that didn’t extend beyond the year they won the award. At first glance, the 1993 Best Picture winner might seem like one of those. Unforgiven looks like just another old-school Western, a nostalgic genre throwback. It stars and was directed and produced by Clint Eastwood, a former spaghetti Western star — so on the surface, it could be just another old Hollywood legend reliving his glory days.
But upon closer inspection, Unforgiven reveals itself to be a much more interesting film, with a much more meaningful legacy. While Unforgiven has the feel of a classic western, it also challenges the genre of the Western and the black-and-white idea of a Western hero. It revisited the myth of the American West in ways that future Revisionist Westerns would continue to build on and take further. So even if you haven’t seen the movie, you’ve probably seen modern neo-Westerns that stand on the shoulders of the revival this movie kicked off. Here’s our take on Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, how the movie holds up over time, and what it says about American identity.
A huge thanks to Patreon subscriber Michael Mondragon for sponsoring this video! Michael asked that we explore what makes Unforgiven unique and how it won the Oscar, so let’s dive into it!
DECONSTRUCTING THE WESTERN HERO
The Western is one of the oldest genres in Hollywood, and during Hollywood’s Golden Age, Western heroes were some of the biggest movie stars. Uber-masculine tough guys played by stars like John Wayne, Burt Lancaster, Gary Cooper and Kirk Douglas were represented as the strong, savvy enforcers of the law in the wild West. These characters always embodied a particular set of American ideals: strength, freedom, and self-reliance. Especially in conflicts over land and property, these tough guys are shown as the arbiters of who is right and who is wrong, in part because they’re so effortlessly confident — even when they’re clearly looking out for their own people’s colonial interests.
Clint Eastwood made his name in Hollywood playing that exact kind of masculine Western hero. But in Unforgiven, he plays a very different kind of protagonist. William Munny is a Western leading man more grounded in reality than the gunslingers of the Golden Age. While we more often use the term revisionist Westerns, that’s perhaps a better way of describing what Clint Eastwood was trying to do with Unforgiven. To create the Realistic Western, he paints a more historically accurate picture of that time period, while inviting us to interrogate the falsehoods of those earlier examples of the genre. Part of the way he does this is by focusing the lens on himself.
The first thing we see him do in the film is fall over while trying to herd his pigs — immediately, Eastwood is challenging the image of the composed cowboy we’re used to seeing. Will is soon recruited by an aspiring assassin who calls himself the Schofield Kid to hunt a bounty and get justice for the women of a brothel in Big Whiskey. But Will doesn’t ride off galloping into the sunset. Instead, he struggles multiple times to even mount his horse in front of his kids. Crucially, Will isn’t embarrassed or ashamed to fall in front of his children in these early scenes; he’s more embarrassed and ashamed of his past as a stone-cold killer. He hasn’t told his children any stories about it, and when other characters ask him to brag about his glory days, he either outright refuses or minimizes and undercuts his exploits.
Meanwhile, English Bob, a braggadocious British gunslinger played by Richard Harris, is a perfect foil to Will. He also cares about portraying a distorted image of himself, but unlike Will, who understates the violence of his past, English Bob exaggerates his skill and nobility. W.W. Beauchamp is writing a book about English Bob’s heroic exploits in the West, based entirely on Bob’s own accounts. When they get arrested by Big Whiskey’s no-nonsense sheriff, Little Bill, he gleefully sets the record straight. Neither English Bob nor Will Munny can hide from the truth of their pasts. Bob is eventually dumped by Beauchamp for his cowardice and run out of town by Little Bill, and Will is pushed to his breaking point where he can’t suppress his old self anymore after he’s beaten close to death, and his best friend is executed by Little Bill. The final act of the film is full of raw, brutalistic violence — far from heroic, it’s the kind of disturbing, senseless violence Will had insisted he didn’t do anymore. There’s also a close examination in the film on the role alcohol plays in creating these monsters. The only way Munny is able to undertake the movie’s final shootout is by returning to alcohol after hearing his friend Ned has died and literally transforming back into a killer.
In Little Bill’s final moments, he pleads with Will for mercy. Will makes it clear that he isn’t some crusader for justice or a heroic enforcer of right and wrong like the Western heroes of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Will knows that’s a myth: he kills because he can and because he wants to, and there’s nothing noble about that. So with this arc, Will Munny and Clint Eastwood challenge the audience to reconsider what was ever heroic about gunslingers in the old West.
A SUBVERSION OF WESTERNS
This theme of interrogating the myths of the Western genre doesn’t just play out in the hero characters. The premise of the movie is a clear subversion of the typical genre plot to defend or avenge the honor of a “damsel in distress.” The women who are wronged at the beginning of the film are not portrayed as vulnerable innocents — they’re sex workers, and they don’t need saving. Before we even meet Will, we see how they protect each other, provide medical care to each other, and pool their resources together to put a bounty on their own attacker. Unlike in the vast majority of Westerns, they are active characters from the very beginning of the film, and we can see the legacy of this in female-led modern Westerns like The English and Godless.
The women in Unforgiven are also not above the messy politics of violence — they’re just as morally complex and potentially compromised as the macho heroes who do the killing. One of the men who was part of the attack tries to make amends with the women, but the women collectively reject this peace offering, opting instead to issue their bounty on the men. When the women receive their vengeance at the end, they don’t seem particularly happy to see the men who wronged them dead: violence is just as unsatisfying to them as it is to Will. In fact, the entire film condemns the violence of Western heroes as misguided and inglorious, as evidenced by the fact that the assassinations are not virtuous or cathartic. Will shoots the first attacker in the gut, and we watch him bleed out for an extended sequence. Even Will finds it hard to watch. The second assassination is even more pathetic — the Schofield Kid shoots his target while he’s sitting on a toilet. Though he previously boasted that he’d killed 5 people already, he quickly admits that the outhouse shooting was his first time. All the exciting and honorable killings we hear about in the film turn out to be lies – and all the real murders we witness are hard to watch.
Unforgiven shows us that the romanticized myths of righteous crusaders in the American West are false — the real violence in the West is committed by the powerful against those vulnerable to them; it’s selfish, depraved, and unforgiving.
THE LEGACY OF UNFORGIVEN
Unforgiven came out at a time when Westerns were on the decline. After an initial boom in the silent era and fading to B-movie status in the 30s, the genre was a huge part of Hollywood’s Golden Age from around 1940 to 1960; the Hollywood Reporter quotes documentarian David Gregory’s report that “up to 40% of all films made before 1960 were Westerns.” But amidst the social change of the 60s and 70s, the genre began to decline, and the few Western films that captured the public imagination were more detached, ironic or self-reflexive: stories of violent anti-heroes, like John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven and Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, or outright parodies of the genre, like Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles.
In the 90s, Unforgiven marked a resurgence of the genre in its classic, sincere form, but with updated realism, depth and historical understanding. Both Unforgiven and Dances With Wolves won Best Picture in the early 90s: two Westerns that challenged and complicated their genre’s expectations without satirizing them or lampooning the racist and patriarchal myths of the American West, like Blazing Saddles. Over the years, the success of those films has encouraged more filmmakers to explore a wider range of American identities through the Western. Examples ranging from Brokeback Mountain, The Harder They Fall, and The Power of the Dog to Logan, Prey, and Westworld center previously marginalized or neglected characters to explore race, gender, and sexuality, and consider who we fail to mention in our myths about American history.
In Meek’s Cutoff, director Kelly Reichardt takes a familiar Western story — a group of men frontiering across the country — but turns her camera towards Michelle Williams’s character of Emily, the wife of one of the frontiersmen, and Rod Rondeaux’s character called “The Indian.” And in Westworld, a serialized remake of a 70s film, the violence-legitimizing artifice of the Western is made even more explicit, as the Western setting is literally a theme park for men to indulge their most base desires — the exact kind of bravado The Schofield Kid exhibits in Unforgiven. The Power of the Dog gives us an exploration of queerness within this framework, and presents macho cowboy archetypes as both homoerotic and vulnerable. Increasingly, contemporary Westerns reckon with the most fundamental problem at the heart of all these Old American West myths: essentially, they’re about colonization — expanding and bringing “law and order” to new territories, even though people already live there. The brutality of the colonization of Native Americans is centered in 2022 Western The English, which underlines how the Native American peoples were decimated by immigrant invaders. The series also ends with a picture of a mega-store named after the story’s primary villain who massacred native Americans, sending the message that today’s “American” businesses and capitalist culture are built on this foundation of mass murder.
Typically, classic Westerns legitimized that colonization through depicting Native Americans largely as threatening, villainous savages (see Stagecoach or The Battle of Elderbrush Gulch) or sometimes noble savages, often played by white actors in “redface” like Elsa Martinelli in The Indian Fighter or Audrey Hepburn in The Unforgiven (1960). Here, they were portrayed as outliers from their more heartless tribes. These films helped whitewash the actual history of colonialism, and so embedded these stories in the culture that “Cowboys and Indians’’ became the quintessential All-American playground game. But at last in more recent Westerns this framework is shifting.
It’s easy to miss the influence of Unforgiven on 90s cinema. You can dismiss its Best Picture trophy as a fluke, or Hollywood just rewarding another movie about itself. But Unforgiven revitalized the iconography of an old genre to make modern commentary on violence and power in society. And thanks in part to that movie and the way it earned the Oscar through its unique portrait of the West, the genre came back with a vengeance — seeing an explosion since the 90s with the 2010s seeing the same number of Westerns released as in the 1960s. In fact, the past two decades have generated some of the highest grossing Westerns of all time, not adjusted for inflation. These neo-Westerns push the boundaries of genre and story — and they wouldn’t be possible without the influence of Unforgiven.
Burton, Nylah. “‘Nope’ Updates the Story of the West and Who It Belongs To.” Outside, 9 Aug. 2022, https://www.outsideonline.com/culture/books-media/nope-jordan-peele-western/
Shanley, Patrick. “In the Shadow of Superheroes, Westerns Are (Quietly) Popular.” The Hollywood Reporter, 28 Feb. 2017,