Lars Ulrich explained that the band wanted to try something new with the idea of a ballad. Instead of the standard melodic verse and heavy chorus – as evidenced on their previous ballads "Fade to Black", "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)" and "One" – the band opted to reverse the dynamic, with heavy, distorted verses and a softer, melodic chorus, played with undistorted electric guitars. The opening section contains percussive instruments performed by Ulrich, and also a small amount of keyboards.
The horn intro was essentially taken from The Unforgiven (a Western movie) and then reversed so its source would be hidden, as Hetfield later explained on the documentary Classic Albums: Metallica - Metallica.
"The Unforgiven" was played live as part of Metallica's "Wherever We May Roam" and "Nowhere Else to Roam" world tours, which lasted from 1991 to 1993, in support of The Black Album. It was played again on the Madly in Anger with the World world tour in 2003 and 2004 and has been continued to be played during all of the bands' tours since.
The live version of "The Unforgiven" includes a second solo near the end of the song that the original recording did not have, although this part has rarely been played since the early 2000s.
An accompanying video was released for the song. The black-and-white video is themed around a boy born in captivity who spends his life in a windowless stone room. As the video progress, he ages into an adult and then an old man. He spends his entire life carving into the stone to create a window while occasionally grasping his one possession: a locket. It is implied that another captive lives on the other side of the stone room. The video ends with the old man finally creating a window, through which he deposits his possession. He blocks off the tunnel through which he crawled to access the cell using the square of stone he created when he made the window, then lies down to die. An 11:33, "theatrical" version of the video exists, featuring several minutes of introductory scenes that precede the timeline of the main portion of the video. This version was featured on The Videos 1989–2004, the band's 2006 music video compilation.
|1.||"The Unforgiven" (Radio Edit)||4:59|
|3.||"The Unforgiven" (Demo)||6:15|
|4.||"The Unforgiven" (Demo)||6:18|