Unforgiven, originally written by David Webb Peoples in 1976 as The William Munny Killings, effectively flips the moral conventions of the 1950s era classical Western genre (typified by such screenplays as High Noon), by asking the audience to invest in an outlaw’s efforts against an unsympathetic lawman.
It certainly isn’t the first Western script to ask the audience to root for the “bad guy.” William Goldman had done this almost a decade earlier with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, albeit for different purposes. Where Goldman invites the reader to love his villains, Peoples asks the reader to grieve for and understand his.
Unforgiven is an esoteric title. To whom does it refer? To Munny? To Mike and Davey? To Little Bill? Whose forgiveness is sought but denied? Alice’s? God’s? The principle issue in Unforgiven is justice. Justice is certainly not the issue in Goldman’s buddy Western. There the reader is well aware that if justice prevails, Butch and Sundance will face the consequences for a life of crime (they eventually do). Unforgiven, however, is a study of just versus unjust consequences.
The plot question (to borrow a phrase from Rachid Nougmanov) set forth at the beginning of the script is this: what is the just consequence for severely cutting a woman’s face? Several male characters debate this before deciding that a fine in the form of payment in horses (not to the victim but to her pimp) is a “just” consequence. Of course, there is nothing just about this punishment, and the reader knows it. The script, however, never offers an adequate substitute. The vengeance doled out by Munny in the screenplay’s climax is satisfying, but it isn’t just. “‘Deserve’ don’t mean shit,” Munny tells Little Bill, and perhaps that’s the point of Unforgiven. Forgiveness is no more just than vengeance. Justice stands apart from mercy and wrath alike. The question of justice, of what is deserved, is left dangling in the wind.
It is commonly stated that Eastwood purchased Unforgiven many years before he directed it, saving it until he was old enough to play the role. Peoples’ script, however, names Munny’s age as somewhere between 35 and 40. Born in 1930, Eastwood would have been 46 already by the time Peoples finished his script. Instead, he was 61 when he played Munny, a significant character change and one that adds weight to Peoples’ already weighty script. In fact, Eastwood cast several characters older than scripted. Ned, scripted as 40, is played by Morgan Freeman, 54 when filming began. English Bob, scripted as 35, is played by Richard Harris, 59 at the time. Little Bill’s age is never given in the script, but Gene Hackman is the same age as Eastwood.
Eastwood’s casting decisions adds a dimension missing from the script. In Peoples’ script, these characters are merely settled. In Eastwood’s hands, they become relics of an antiquated notion of justice. It isn’t merely that justice is difficult to find but also that those who seek it wouldn’t recognize it if they found it. They are too steeped in their own mythology, in their own blood-debts and sin.
None of that is to say that Peoples’ script is not powerful. It is, but it is also a powerful example of the collaboration that happens between a brilliant screenplay and an insightful director.