“Unforgiven”: Identification with Death

In Clint Eastwood’s film, Unforgiven, he plays a familiar role, a psychopathic killer hero.  In this film, however, he appears to take an introspective approach to his character and those who admire his character.  In the process, the film allows us an opportunity to examine some of the dynamics of killing and of our interest in seeing it on the screen.  Ultimately, it provides us with another fantasy designed to defeat death.

The film centers around William Munny, played by Eastwood.  In a prologue, and in the early scenes of the film, we learn that he had been an outlaw and killer, but had been reformed by his wife, Claudia.  She had died in 1878 of small pox, two to three years before the action of the film, leaving Munny with the care of his young son and daughter.


The film presents a series of possible motives for wanting to kill.  The first is narcissistic injury.  James Gilligan (1996) has found that narcissistic injury and the shame it engenders is the most common cause for violence in the murderers he has treated in prison.  The plot is set in motion with such an injury.  A cowboy in a whorehouse in Big Whiskey, Wyoming becomes enraged because an inexperienced prostitute, Delilah (a name that in itself suggests castration and narcissistic injury to men), giggles at the small size of his penis.  He pulls out a large knife, and begins to slash her face. 


The town sheriff, Little Bill, proposes to punish him and his partner with a whipping, and then decides instead to have them pay for the damage done to Delilah by giving the proprietor, Skinny, a set of ponies.  That enrages the head prostitute, Strawberry Alice.  Little Bill, played by Gene Hackman, pulls her aside, asking “Haven’t you had enough blood for one night?”  He tells her that it’s not as if they were bad men, or habitual sinners.  “Like whores,” she interjects, demonstrating her own wounded narcissism.  The prostitutes pool their money to offer a reward for the killing of the two cowboys.                                       

When the cowboys come with Skinny’s ponies, the one who had not done the cutting offers his best pony to Delilah.  He appears to be sensitive to her, and she, although mute through most of the film, appears to be responsive to him.  Alice’s narcissistic rage intervenes, and the prostitutes drive the cowboys away with clods of mud and rocks.


The second potential motive for murder is material gain.  William Munny, the former outlaw, is now a middle-aged pig farmer with two young children and a spreading infection amongst his pigs.  He is approached by a young braggart, the self styled “Schofield Kid”, who has been told by his Uncle Pete that if you want a man to do a killing, William Munny is “the worst—meaning the best.”  He has heard about the bounty for killing the two cowboys, and he wants Munny to join him in winning it. 


Munny at first denies his identity, partly because he fears the Kid is someone bent on revenge for something he did in the past, but also, clearly, because he wishes to disavow his past.  He then tells the Kid that he is not the way he used to be.  His wife, Claudia, taught him that his old ways were bad.  When the Kid points out the money would buy his wife a nice dress, we can see Munny’s grief as he explains that she’s been “gone near three years.”


Nevertheless, the pigs are dying and he has two children to raise.  He has second thoughts, and decides to look for the Kid to join him on the bounty hunt.  He looks rusty and awkward as he tries his gun and then fumblingly tries to get on his horse. 


Before he goes after the Kid, he stops to enlist the help of his old friend, Ned Logan, played by Morgan Freeman.  Ned tells him, “We’re not bad men like that, anymore.”  When Munny says, “We killed for money before,” Ned says, tellingly, “We thought we did,” suggesting that money was only a superficial motive for killing. 


The third potential motive for killing that is presented is phallic competition.  The film begins to focus on gunfighters and those who admire them.      


The key admirers are the Schofield Kid and W.W. Beauchamp.  Beauchamp is a writer.  He comes to Big Whiskey with English Bob, played by Richard Harris, an English born sharpshooter who has made his living shooting “Chinamen” for the railroad.   Beauchamp has written a book about English Bob’s exploits as a gunfighter, entitled “The Duke of Death.”  English Bob demonstrates his accuracy with a pistol by shooting pheasants to win a bet on the train ride to Big Whiskey.  Beauchamp looks smugly confident in his presence.  But when they are confronted with several gun barrels held by Little Bill’s deputies, urine pours from Beauchamp’s pants.

Little Bill and English Bob know each other from the old days.  After they trade insults, Bill disarms Bob and gives him a brutal and humiliating beating.  He does it as a message to any other bounty hunters who might come to town, but it is clear that he also derives sadistic pleasure from it.  

Back in the jail, Beauchamp begins to shift his wide-eyed admiration to Little Bill.  Little Bill plays up to the adulation, telling his own version of Bob’s stories from Beauchamp’s book, and starting to tell Beauchamp stories of his own.  He shows Beauchamp how difficult it is to shoot at a man by handing Beauchamp a pistol and daring him to shoot him to make his escape.  Beauchamp, who is terrified of the violence he admires, cannot do it, but he asks, what if he should give the gun to English Bob?  Little Bill, clearly full of himself, tells him to give it to Bob.  Bob refuses the gun, and after showing him that it was loaded, Little Bill tells him, “You were right not to take it.  I would have killed you.”  Beauchamp shifts his allegiance, and begins to take notes from the new Duke of Death.


The Schofield Kid is similarly admiring of William Munny.  He repeatedly asks Munny about the stories of gunfights he has heard from his Uncle Pete.  Munny does not experience this as flattery, nor does he want to be reminded of the killing he has done in the past.  In fact, he is showing signs that the purpose of their mission, the riding, the guns, his old friend, Ned, and the Kid’s questions are breaking through the defensive walls he has created.  I found him very much like the more disabled of combat veterans I have treated.  Like some of them, he shows self hatred for past acts of violence alongside poorly contained violent impulses. 


Munny tells Ned that he has been remembering and picturing people he killed.  He speaks of how the men they rode with were all afraid of him.  With an apparent fragility, he continues to maintain that his dear departed wife taught him that that was wrong, and that he is not like that any more.  It is chilling when he says in a very hollow voice, “I’m not like that now. I’m just a fella.”


Clearly, he takes no pride in what he has done, and derives no competitive pleasure in being the best gunfighter.  In fact, he shows no interest in competition.  His disinterest in macho  competition actually makes him more appealing as an object of admiration by those who are concerned with such competition. 


By the time they reach Big Whiskey, Munny is feverish from days out in the rain.  Little Bill confronts him in Skinny’s saloon while Ned and the Schofield Kid talk with the prostitutes upstairs about the reward.  Little Bill asks Munny if he is armed.  Munny says no, but Bill finds the gun and gives him a beating, leaving him to crawl out of the saloon.


To this point, no one has died, although violence has been done and killing talked about at length.  The first brush with real death comes through Munny’s fever.  In his delirium, he tells Ned that he has seen the Angel of Death.  When he awakens, recovered, and sees Delilah tending to his face, he is momentarily startled, and says, “I thought you was an angel.”  She tells him, “You’re not dead.”                 

Death is made far more real in the killing of the two cowboys.  The one who is more sensitive and who was relatively innocent of the original crime is killed first, and most poignantly.  Ned shoots at him with his rifle, but hits the horse.  The cowboy, Davy, is on the ground in the open, with some kind of injury caused by the fall.  He starts to crawl for safety.  At this point, Ned loses his nerve.  He tells Munny that he can’t do it.  Munny takes the rifle and coolly fires several shots at Davy, finally hitting him in the gut with the last one.  Davy calls out, “Boys, they shot me!”  He is a sympathetic character, and everyone’s pain is quite evident.  His friends call out, “You shot our Davy boy.”  The Kid displays his conflict by yelling back, defensively, “He shouldn’t a cut up no woman.”  Ned is upset.


Munny is moved by Davy’s pain.  When Davy begs for water, he yells out to the other cowboys to give him water, saying he won’t shoot them.  He is not without empathy.  In an earlier scene, he has shown empathy for Delilah, the girl whose face was cut.  In fact, he is the only one in the film who shows her true empathy.  His ability to shoot Davy in cold blood is still not fathomable.  He does not rely on rationalization like the Kid.


The killing of the other cowboy is not as poignant, but certainly ugly.  Ned has ridden off, realizing he wants no part of this job.  The Schofield Kid wants to do this killing.  He is very frightened, and hesitates at the moment of truth.  He confronts the cowboy at the outhouse, where he is sitting helplessly with his pants down.  With the cowboy begging him not to shoot, he fires several times at point blank range and kills him. 


How and why does William Munny kill?  He does not appear to be particularly moved by narcissistic injury or phallic competitiveness like the other characters.  Even after Little Bill beats him, he does not appear to feel either humiliated or revengeful.  Upon recovering from his fever, he tells Delilah matter of factly that “some big fella” had given him a bad beating.  He doesn’t even ask who it was.  Money is a motive, but as Ned has suggested it is not a sufficient explanation.  Munny also is not lacking in empathy.  He shows particular sensitivity to both Delilah, the woman who’s face had been cut, and to Davy, the cowboy he had just shot.


The thread that runs through his character is an inability to cope with death.  On the ride to Big Whiskey, he has begun to tell Ned of his haunting memories of the men he has killed. 

“Ned, you remember that drover I shot through the mouth?  His teeth come out the back of his head.  I think about him every now and then.  He didn’t do anything that deserved to get shot, least not I could remember when I sobered up.”

In the saloon, before Little Bill gives him the beating, he feverishly tells Ned that he saw a man named Henderschott.   Ned reminds him that Henderschott is dead, but Wil insists he saw him:  “ His head was all broke open.  I could see inside of it.  Worms were coming out.”  Moments later he tells the sheriff that his name is William Henderschott, identifying with the dead man. 

During the most intense part of his fever, he reveals his terror of dying, and tells Ned that he has seen the Angel of Death:

“I seen ’em, Ned.  I seen the angel o’ death.  … He got snake eyes. … The angel o’ death. … Oh, Ned, I’m sure I’m dyin’.  I seen Claudia [his wife], too.  [Ned says that’s good that he saw Claudia].  Her face was all covered with worms.  Oh, Ned, I’m scared I’m dyin’.  You won’t—don’t tell nobody, don’t tell my kids, none of the things I done.”

In the prologue to the film, we see Wil Munny digging his wife’s grave.  She has been dead “near three years,” but we see him acutely aware of and vulnerable to the loss.1  He is a depressed man, constantly reminding himself of his departed wife.  He is terribly afraid of death, with its power to remove his loved ones from him or him from them.  He also fears the defilement of the body that accompanies death.

As Munny and the Kid wait outside town for one of the prostitutes to bring the reward, they engage in a dialogue that sounds too philosophical for the characters or the setting, but signals a change in Munny’s attitude towards death. 


The Kid has begun to realize the meaning of what he has done.  He admits to Munny that he has never killed before. 

He says, “It don’t seem real how he aint gonna never breathe again ever, how he’s dead, and the other one, too, all on account of pulling a trigger.”

Munny answers,  “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man.  You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.”

The Kid can’t deal with it.  He says, “Well, I guess they had it comin’.”

Munny responds, “We all have it comin’, Kid.”

He appears to have reached some resolution of his fear of death by taking a more active role as an agent of death rather than a passive one as its victim.  He can accept the fact that “we all have it comin’.”  But when the woman arrives with the reward money, she tells them that Ned has been captured and beaten to death by Little Bill, and that his body is on display in front of the saloon with a sign calling him a killer.  As Munny hears it, he begins to drink from the Kid’s whiskey bottle for the first time. 

At first, he doesn’t believe that Ned has been killed.  He asks for the details of his death, and is told that after refusing to give the names of his friends, Ned finally told Little Bill that one of them was William Munny, from Missouri.  Little Bill identified him as William Munny who had blown up a train, killing women and children.  Ned had replied that that was him, and that he would kill Little Bill if he hurt Ned again.  Munny says, with no emotion, to the prostitute, “And that didn’t scare Little Bill, did it?”  She says it didn’t. 

We have already seen that Munny’s fear of death concerns both loss and a fear of the  bodily decay and deformity that accompanies death.  Hearing about Ned’s death and the defilement of his body appears to overwhelm the partial resolution of his fear of death that Munny had reached after his own recovery from the fever.  His usual coping mechanisms having failed, he turns to an extreme measure; he becomes the Angel of Death.

Anna Freud (1936) described a complicated psychological defense which she called “identification with the aggressor”.  She devoted an entire chapter of her best known book, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense,  to this defensive maneuver.  She gives several examples from her own experience and that of other analysts of children who adopted the characteristics of someone they feared in order to cope with their own fear.  There was a boy who unconsciously grimaced like the teacher who was terrorizing him, another who angrily chopped things up after being hurt by the dentist, and a boy who roared like a lion and tried to strike people with a rod out of a fear that he, himself, would be punished.  This is a common form of defense, used not only by children, but by adults as well.  By taking on the identity of those we fear, we convince ourselves that we have their power, and we cease to be afraid.  It is this identification with the aggressor that causes people who were abused as children to become child abusers and sometimes causes victims of extreme abuse, such as concentration camp survivors, to transiently take on the role of their persecutors.

For Munny, the feared aggressor is the Angel of Death.  As he hears about what has happened to Ned, he takes on the identity of his persecutor and becomes himself the Angel of Death, revealing the dynamics that make him a “successful” killer.  Munny takes the Kid’s revolver.  He gives the Kid his share and Ned’s share to take to his children and to Ned’s wife, and he returns to town as the Angel of Death.


We do not see Munny ride into town.  The camera approaches Skinny’s saloon slowly, in the rain, past Ned’s body on display.  In film convention, this is a technique frequently used to represent the approach of a dark force.  We see Little Bill in the saloon, surrounded by the men of the town, preparing them for the ride the next day to catch the two “skunks.”  When we finally catch a glimpse of Munny, seen from behind in the doorway, rifle prominent, there is a loud peal of thunder, betokening an other worldly power.

Munny asks, “Who’s the fellow owns this shithole?”

After stunned silence, and Munny pointing his rifle at one of the deputies to get the information from him, Skinny identifies himself.  Munny tells the other men to clear away from him, and shoots him at close range while Little Bill is shouting for him to stop.  Little Bill calls him a cowardly son of a bitch for shooting an unarmed man. 

Munny, unmoved by the taunt, answers that “He should have armed himself, he’s gonna decorate his saloon with my friend.”  Little Bill says, “You be William Munny outa Missouri, killed women and children.”  If he expects to unnerve or shame Munny, he is dealing with a wholly different kind of mentality than he is used to.  Munny’s answer is in the style of The Book of Job.  He says, “That’s right.  I’ve killed women and children, killed just about everything that walks or crawled one time or another, and I’m here to kill you, Little Bill, for what you did to Ned.”


Little Bill approaches Munny, telling his deputies to fire at him after he unloads his one remaining barrel.  Clearly unafraid, Munny pulls the trigger, but the rifle misfires.  Little Bill is stunned, then pulls his gun, calling for his men to fire.  Munny throws the rifle, pulls out his pistol, and shoots Little Bill and several of his deputies in the ensuing gunfight.  When the dust has settled, Munny points his pistol at the remaining men, telling them, “Any man don’t want to get killed better clear on out the back.”  They make a hasty exit.

As Munny pours himself a drink at the bar, Beauchamp, the writer, extricates himself from under one of the bodies.  He thinks he has been shot, but Munny tells him, “You aint been shot.”  He is terrified, but slowly his admiration, really awe, takes over, and he begins to question Munny about the order of shooting Little Bill and the deputies.  Munny does not seem to recognize his admiration.  He tells him that he was lucky with the order, and is always lucky when it comes to killing.  Then he chases Beauchamp from the bar.


Beauchamp is a reflection of us, the ordinary people who fear death and may admire those who appear to master it.  In his fear of death, he also is a reflection of Munny.


As Munny takes a drink, Little Bill awakens and cocks his gun.  Munny turns and kicks the gun hand away as a shot rings out.  He points the reloaded rifle at Little Bill’s head.  The dialogue that follows could stand for that of anyone meeting his maker.

Little Bill says, “I don’t deserve this, to die like this.  I was building a house.”

Munny answers, “Deserves got nothing to do with it.”

A more ordinary man might have been tempted to argue that he does deserve to die for what he did to Ned, but Munny, in his identification with death, states the frightening truth.  He knows that neither Ned nor his own wife deserved to die.

Little Bill says, “I’ll see you in hell, William Munny.”

Munny says, “Yeh,” and shoots him. 


In reviews of the film, Little Bill is depicted as a villain.  In fact, it is hard to assign roles of hero or villain in this film.  In this scene, I find Little Bill heroic as he literally faces his death.                     


Shooting another groaning deputy as he leaves, Munny shouts into the street, ambiguously guarding his retreat while announcing his power,

“All right, I’m comin’ out.  Any man I see out there, I’m gonna kill him.  Any son of a bitch takes a shot at me, not only gonna kill him, I’m gonna kill his wife and all his friends and burn his damn house down.”

As he walks out, he is stopped for a moment as he sees Ned’s body, seemingly reminded of his grief.  Needless to say, no one dares to shoot at him.  As he is about to ride out, he makes one last God-like threat:

“You better bury Ned right!  You better not cut up nor otherwise harm no whores! Or I’ll come back and kill every one of you sons of bitches.”


As he rides off, Beauchamp looks on with awe.  The prostitutes look amazed.  We are left to wonder if they are pleased or horrified by the destructive force they have unleashed.

In the epilogue, we see Munny stand in front of his wife’s grave, then disappear as the writing tells us that he left with his children, possibly to become a merchant in San Francisco.


The film suggests that Munny kills out of a psychotic identification with death, born of his enormous fear of death as something totally beyond his control.  Death has taken his wife and his best friend, and will some day take him as well.  In effect, he is identifying with the aggressor.  Although I cannot say that I ever saw anyone quite like William Munny, I have heard many combat veterans describe their use of murderous revenge to dispel their own grief for a lost buddy.  One veteran, who cannot and will not weep, revealed his identifications with the aggressor and the victim by saying, “When I’m hurting, I want to make someone else hurt.”


Munny, as far as we know, was never in combat.  We can speculate as to what would lead him to such a state of mind, but we are provided no history that preceded his role as a killer.  However, the film does give us a clue.  In the prologue, we see him digging his wife’s grave.  We learn that she reformed him, taught him right and wrong, and remained the role model for his conscience.  In effect, she was a mother to him.                               

Field of Dreams also began with a prologue, in which we learn that Ray Kinsella’s mother had died when he was a small child.  Contact has no prologue, but we learn that Ellie Arroway’s mother died in childbirth.  In Unforgiven, we never see Munny’s wife, and her death is presented in a separate prologue before the action of the film, creating the illusion that she exists only as a memory, much like a child’s image of a mother who has died when he was very young.  I believe that like Field of Dreams  and Contact, Unforgiven represents the use of fantasy—this time a violent one—to cope with the loss of a motherly figure.

1.  Dr. Paul Palven first called my attention to Munny’s state of mourning for his wife.

Freud, A. (1936) The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense:  The Writings of Anna Freud,  Vol. 2.  International Universities Press  (1966)

Gilligan, J. (1996) Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and its Causes. New York, Putnam

Original Publication in the PANY Bulletin

Republished in Double Feature: Discovering our Hidden Fantasies in Film by Herbert H. Stein, M.D.  ereads (2002)

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5 Comments on ““Unforgiven”: Identification with Death”

  1. ‘Unforgiven’ and the Roots of Violence « god is not elsewhere / some conversation about movies, art, politics and spirituality with gareth higgins Says:

    [...] are some fascinating thoughts about this at the International Psycoanalysis blog here.  If the author (the post is anonymous so unfortunately I don’t know who wrote it – [...]

  2. allan merenick Says:

    Iwould like to know what was the make of the lever action, but loading shot gun used in the movie

  3. Wayne Says:

    allan merenick look here: http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/Unforgiven

  4. MonkeyKing Says:

    A horrible analysis steeped in bad science and experimentally unsupported psychology. Basically every tenet of Freudian psychology and psychoanalysis is completely unsupported by experimental evidence. Does Freudian psychoanalysis actually help individuals recover from illness? Unsupported. Phallic competition? Unsupported. The existence of the Ego, Id, and Super Ego? Unsupported. It amazes me that people supposedly schooled in the scientific method still go in for this stuff, and then still consider it ethical to use a nearly completely experimentally unsupported method of treatment to attempt to treat individuals.

  5. Guy WalksintoaBar Says:

    What a load of narcissistic, self-important, convoluted, pointless psycho drivel.
    Wait….this IS InternationalPsychoanalysis.com
    Just kidding, good article


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