Some critics refer to Unforgiven as a revisionist western, but it is actually anti-revisionist: it says that the reality was more glorious and heroic than the myth.
“The Schofield Kid” (Jaimz Woolvett), having heard fantastic stories about what a killer Bill Munny (Clint Eastwood) was in the old days, tries to talk him into helping him collect a reward on two men, one of whom sliced up a prostitute. The story he tells is full of embellishments that never happened, suggesting the way stories become exaggerated as they pass from one person to the next. Bill is a widower with two young children, struggling to make it on his small farm. He gave up his evil ways on account of his wife, and he tells the Kid he is not interested. But after the Kid leaves, he gets to thinking about how tough things are on the farm, and he changes his mind. He gets his old friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) to come along as well, and they eventually catch up with the Kid. The three of them then head for the town of Big Whiskey.
Along the way, the Kid asks Bill if the story about the two deputies having the drop on him was true, that he pulled his gun out and killed them both. Bill’s answer is evasive. Later, Ned says to Bill that he remembers that it was actually three deputies. In other words, the reality was more incredible than the story that had been told to the Kid, suggesting that the story had to be downplayed, reducing the number of deputies from three to two, in order for people to believe it. This is the first indication that sometimes the truth is greater than the legend.
At the same time, English Bob (Richard Harris), who has also heard about the reward, arrives in Big Whiskey with his biographer W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek). Beauchamp has written about Bob’s exploits in The Duke of Death, which we are a little suspicious of because Bob is British. Being a heroic gunfighter is an American preserve. “Little Bill” Daggett (Gene Hackman), sheriff of Big Whiskey, does not approve of the reward put out by the whores, and so he puts up a sign notifying people as they arrive in town that they must turn in their guns to the sheriff for the duration of their stay. Bob does not comply with this ordinance, and he is immediately arrested and put in jail as a result. After reading some of The Duke of Death, Daggett belittles the stories in that book, which he refers to as “The Duck of Death,” telling Beauchamp how it really happened, giving a revisionist account that renders the stories unheroic and farcical, as ugly and ridiculous as the house he is building. (According to his deputies, who laugh behind his back about what a lousy carpenter Daggett is, the house hardly has a right angle to be found anywhere in it.)
Eventually, the Kid, Bill, and Ned get to Big Whiskey. They too have trouble with sheriff Daggett’s attempt to thwart their plans of collecting the reward, and they end up hiding out for a while just outside of town. They locate one of the two men with the reward on their heads, Davey (Rob Campbell), and Ned shoots his horse, which falls over, breaking Davey’s leg in the process. Ned cannot bring himself to finish him off, and the Kid is nearsighted, so after much suffering on the part Davey, Bill finally manages to kill him. Ned says he cannot do this any more, and he heads for home.
Later, Bill and the Kid find out where Mike (David Mucci), the other man with the reward on his head, is holed up. When Mike comes out of the house to use the outhouse, the Kid sneaks up on him and shoots him just as he finishes taking a dump. If Davey’s death was unromantic on account of being drawn out and miserable, Mike’s death is downright ignominious, and the Kid can take no glory in it. In short, the deaths of these two men seem to confirm Little Bill’s account of how messy and unpleasant things really were in the Old West.
The prostitute whose face was carved up brings Bill and the Kid the reward money, and tells them that Ned was captured and put to death. The Kid says he is not like Bill, that he wants no more of it. Bill gives the kid his share and Ned’s telling him to take Ned’s share back to his wife. Now by himself, Bill is determined to avenge his friend’s death. Finding Ned’s body displayed in front of the saloon that also functions as the whorehouse, where Daggett and his deputies are having a party, Bill walks in for the showdown. Beauchamp witnesses what happens next, which is far more astounding than the sensationalized stories he wrote about English Bob in The Duke of Death.
Though Bill’s last name is Munny, a homonym for “money,” and though he originally set out to make money by collecting the reward, yet this final act is for revenge, which is the motive most congenial to the mythology of the Old West. And when Bill kills Sheriff Daggett, whose last thoughts are about that ugly house he was building, this is a metaphor for killing his ugly revisionism. Bill leaves Big Whiskey a better place than he found it, restoring the glorious mythology of the Old West in the process.