I just watched the 1992 film Unforgiven and I liked it a lot. But how does the title of this movie relate to its story?
It's a good question, and sent me digging.
I found a terrific essay on the film written by William Beard, and here is an excerpt that pertains to your question:
That he should get away with killing while Ned dies horribly for not killing creates the moral abyss into which Munny plunges in forsaking his “good” self and embracing again his “bad” one. Here lies a way to an interpretation of the film’s cryptic title. Munny’s wife Claudia, in attempting his regeneration, in pulling him out of the maelstrom of nihilistic compulsive violence and drunken self-obliteration into a world of principle and language and family and human self-recognition, forgives him. The act of forgiveness produces the (feminine) redemptive result of self-forgiveness. In addressing at last the buried consciousness of horror and guilt, the fiery cycle of repression and violence whose first victim is the perpetrator is broken, and the functional person William Munny (the “good”) is dredged up into view.
Once established in the social world of human relationships, gainful occupation, the code of civility and “decency,” Munny is happier than before. Even after the death of his wife, and despite the rather naive and rudimentary nature of the precepts upon which he leans, he continues forthrightly in the same path. The process which pushes him back off that path begins with a condition of economic hardship and the unfulfilling nature of his labour. Pig-farming is dirty, frustrating, humiliating, and profitless. The temptation to move into another form of paid work—killing for hire—is very strong, when that work suffers none of the drawbacks just enumerated. In drawing Ned Logan into the business, Munny wishes not only to provide himself with a dependable co-worker, but to give himself a degree of orientation in this strange endeavour. Ned, like Munny (and like the Eastwood persona too), is a former hellraiser, now a respectable freeholding family man.
As the film proceeds Ned develops into Munny’s anchor to the world, his reassurance that he has forsaken the old ways (which Ned also witnessed), and his guarantee that his actions have some foothold in a worthwhile life-pattern, in decency and fellow-feeling. But Munny makes the mistake first of returning to killing (however different his motives this time) and second of pulling Ned with him. When this happens the results are different from what was anticipated (this too is morally instructive). It is Ned who is punished for the transgression, a transgression he did not truly commit; Munny does everything and goes free, and gets paid to boot. It is not just that any notion of a higher system of justice and moral equilibrium is derisorily contradicted by this development. The death of Ned is also Munny’s personal loss of his “good” self, his loss of Claudia’s forgiveness and his own self-forgiveness. When he walks into Greely’s to kill Skinny and Little Bill he is a creature who has lost salvation, a damned soul, “unforgiven.”
If that was too much to take in, in a nutshell Munny had been forgiven by his wife, society and, most importantly, by himself - but the lure of his old ways are too tempting and he regresses into the violent world he had left behind, ultimately destroying the last vestiges of his 'good' self through the death of Ned. Ultimately he realizes what he is, what he has always been; unforgiven.
To me, forgiveness is a running theme under all the major characters. The women refuse to forgive the cowboys, even after Bill fines them. Bill refuses to forgive English Bob for his past. The kid immediately seeks forgiveness when he kills the cowboy.
"forgiveness is a running theme under all the major characters" I agree. Women refuse to forgive the innocent cowboy even after he showed sincere remorse, perhaps because what they knew they already did (hire assassins). Most importantly, Munny never forgave himself over what he had done in the past, felt sure he was going to hell. And he certainly will never forgive himself for getting Ned killed. As he says: "Ned didn't kill anyone."
Unforgiven seems to have a lot of unforgiving, but the whole story is based around the decision of the girls, especially the leader, not forgiving the cowboys (knife slasher and his companion).
If they had taken the horse, or negotiated for a bit more, then the town's whole law enforcement would have all have survived and not been shot dead, directly reflecting back to the prostitutes' bounty.
One comment on other posts:
Bill doesn't like English Bob - not necessarily connected to forgiving - He doesn't like English Bob for his very bad treatment of Chinese people, including shooting them for no reason, apparently. Also, he doesn't like English Bob because he knows Bob's there to assassinate someone, murder in his eyes.