While most preceding cowboy movies focussed on the heroism of their protagonists, Unforgiven deals in the darker themes – its own protagonist, Clint Eastwood’s William Munny, is a former gunslinger with a horrifically violent past: “That’s right, I’ve killed women and children. I’ve killed just about everything that walked or crawled at one time or another.”
Munny, now a widowed pig farmer with two young children, is hired by a group of prostitutes after one of their number has been disfigured by a pair of cowboys; his and his companions’ job to dispense Old West justice to the miscreants, but there are two obstacles in his way: his reluctance to return to a life of murder; and local lawman Little Bill Dagget (Gene Hackman), another former gunfighter who takes an extremely dim view of assassins.
We won’t ruin the plot, but suffice to say that quite a lot of blood is shed, some memorable lines spoken and an ending that works brilliantly.
Unforgiven (also directed by Eastwood) features few good deeds and not a whole lot of rip roaring action, but its fresh – and no doubt more realistic – take on the Western makes it a true classic, and an influence on more recent, grittier Westerns like The Proposition and Appaloosa.