(I considered including Dances with Wolves but decided not to, even though it did win Best Picture at the Oscars, because it's basically a ripoff of A Man Called Horse but for the re-inclusion of the soldiers as villains in the final act. So, we'll move on past it into the '90s.)
The fun Western didn't last long. Like that final bit of Young Guns II, with Billy recognizing that all those deaths were his fault, the Western had to realize it was far darker than it had been pretending to be. All those casual deaths, all that violence--that doesn't come without consequence. The brothel in that film was burned to the ground, its women run out of town. Here, we begin in a brothel, sex and violence twisted together to start us off. We get a clearer image of the status of prostitutes in Young Guns II (as trash to run out of town) and Unforgiven (as property that can be damaged without monetary (or the equivalent) restitution only), than in many a previous Western. And, The Wild Bunch had actual prostitutes in it. True Grit and Duel in the Sun were a strange sort of exceptions for Westerns in raising up the women. Pearl and Mattie were both punished for stepping outside the usual bounds, Pearl with her life and Mattie with her arm. Female roles in Westerns tend to be subservient to the men or, more likely, were just irrelevant, as much window dressing as the drunks in the corners of the saloon or the occasional Mexican.
Here, the women--the prostitutes--are the driving force behind the plot. But, the force they awaken is something much bigger. Eastwood's William Munny is not just a retired gunfighter, anymore than Clint Eastwood is a retired Western star. He's more like a force of nature and calling him up is dangerous. (Eastwood had the story in his sights back in the '70s but, supposedly, sat on it until he was old enough to play the lead properly.) His name is no coincidence. Possibly based on John Wesley Hardin, who claimed to have killed 42 men, or Cullen Baker, whose gang killed hundreds, Will Munny is a force of will and, technically, money since there is a reward in play.
In his original review, Roger Ebert supposedly complained about there being too man characters, and he or Siskel complained about the English Bob (Richard Harris) subplot because that character didn't interact with the stars. But, English Bob seems to serve a very clear purpose in this story. With writer W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) in tow, he's like Pat Garrett, making himself famous as he goes through the written word. He's a legend in the making, whether or not he deserves to be. Little Bill (Gene Hackman) later dissects the stories about English Bob. That right there is the point to Unforgiven. The gunfighter is not a man to be glamorized in dime novels or even Westerns. Not anymore. Being a gunfighter meant being ready to kill a man. This is a role surrounded by death. Now, maybe a lot of the real-life gunfighters weren''t as prolific as some of their cinematic counterparts, maybe it's a whole lot of legend playing up their exploits. Or maybe it isn't. But, that difference is not important in the face of what it means. Recall the famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." The thing is, when it isn't fact, you still just print the legend. The legend is more interesting. The legend is about men being men, wearing guns at the their sides and fighting for what's right, fighting for honor, fighting for revenge, or just fighting to be fighting. It's a testosterone-based legend, the Western.
So, there are two things at play in Unforgiven. First, while the film leaves them aside for a while, you've got the women who have been mistreated not just by the men who cut one of their faces, not just by Little Bill, but by the whole West, by society itself. Still, we see the women occasionally, reminding us of their role, and reminding them that they have no power. After English Bob is run out of town, the women are yelled at by their... owner Skinny (Anthony James). But Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher) sees that a rain is coming. More than she knows. The second thing is, you've got Will and Ned (Morgan Freeman) and the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) approaching like an oncoming storm. I'm reminded of the Saint of Killers in Garth Ennis' graphic novel Preacher.
Ennis, more than once, cited Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin as his inspiration for the character who is effectively the Angel of Death. The Saint of Killers began (well, sort of), much like Josey Wales, with a dead family. The Saint of Killers became a force of nature, fueled by anger and hatred. (By the way, Stephen King's otherworldly gunslinger Roland Deschain was also modeled on Clint Eastwood.) Will Munny--Clint Eastwood--is like the Saint of Killers, bringing death to the town of Big Whiskey. He tells the Schofield Kid at the beginning of the film that whiskey killed the men he was supposed to have killed, "as much as anything." And here he comes to a town named for the drink that he says fueled his killing. When he pushes away the shot of whiskey on the night he arrives in town, he is beaten. But, he is drawn to the town like the drink, as addicted to killing as to alcohol I suppose.
The problem with this setup is that, taken metaphorically, the women as a force of life are impotent. They are prostitutes, employed to have sex but not to bear children. And all the men are killers or wannabe killers, the force of death. But, arriving in town ill as he does, Munny is also impotent; he may refuse to give up his gun but he cannot fight to hold onto it. Then he meets an "angel"--the cut up prostitute Delilah (Anna Levine). (Given her name, it's probably a good thing that Munny turns down a "free one" from her. He probably would have lost all his strength.) When he tells her that his wife is back in Kansas, sure he's lying, but this is one more link between Munny and death. He is married to death.
He has power over life and death. When he shoots Bunting (Rob Campbell) in the gut, and Bunting wants water, Will tells the men with Bunting to get him water, that he won't shoot them, and he doesn't. Sure, he has fatally wounded Bunting but he doesn't want him to suffer. He has seen too much death, clearly. Meanwhile, it turns out Ned no longer has it in him to take a life. And, the Schofield Kid is basically blind, and also hasn't the stomach for killing. This trinity of death quickly turns into a solo venture.
Then, finally it turns to revenge after Ned is killed. And, once again it is raining when Munny comes into town.
The opening and closing crawl of text imply a true story, but this is no true story. At least, not in the sense that it is based on specific real characters and specific real events. It is of course, nonetheless, quite true, like many a Western is. Regardless of the facts.