The open plains and skies in Unforgiven show that the characters have options. What happens is their choice, and no one else's
Westerns were popular in this country for a long, long time. We loved to watch stories of good guys and bad guys shooting it up, cheering as the good guys gunned the bad guys down, rejoicing with them as they rode off into the sunset, fondly wishing we could do the same thing.
It was all a lie, and Unforgiven blew the lie up.
Unforgiven tore our absurd Western movie archetypes to shreds. William Munny, the ‘hero’, is a murderer, a drunk, but also a man who loved his deceased wife and loves his children. Little Bill is a bully of a sherriff, but he values the rule of law. Plus he has dreams- he’s building a house. Ned Logan is a reluctant sidekick, a man who has killed before and learned better. When the times to do it again, he cannot, even thought we would think it justified . While the cowboys who commit the crime that launches the movie’s plot did something bad, they aren’t bad guys. Every character in this film could be a real person, with flaws, blessings, hopes, dreams, and fears. We could have been any one of them.
But we weren’t. We were The Schofield Kid.
The Schofield Kid is a young outlaw wannabe who sees William Munny as a hero, just like we all do. But when The Schofield Kid sees what it really means to do that, and how it feels to actually pull the trigger, he can’t stomach it (click here to watch the scene). Most of us couldn’t. Killing people is a terrible, awful thing. Ask any war veteran and they will tell you that, while it may have been necessary, killing another person is not something to celebrate. The only reason William Munny could do it when he was younger was by getting drunk. That’s how he counsels The Schofield Kid to handle his guilt, because it’s the only way he knew how to handle it, and Munny has to get drunk to kill again.
There is no ‘riding off into the sunset’ in Unforgiven. It shows that revenge, and killing people, is a terrible, ugly mess that wounds the revenge taker just as much as those they take revenge upon. If anyone, at any point in this movie, could have forgiven anyone, none of that horrible mess would have happened. But they can’t, showing us that the Western movie characters that we have seen as heroes really aren’t. The real heroes are the people that forgive. That’s what Unforgiven showed so brilliantly, it’s why there have been only a handful of Westerns since it released, and it’s why I wish I had written it.