To say that this is the best western ever made, or to say that it's Clint Eastwood's best film, would be wrong. Why? Because such droll understatement would be woefully misleading. This film isn't just those merely those things. Unforgiven ranks as one of the greatest films of all time. Period. No delimiters or qualifiers apply. And what follows is my view of this film's place in Hollywood history.
When John Wayne died in 1979 it was emblematic of the state of the western genre in Hollywood. In fact, Wayne's last film, The Shootist, dwelt on exactly that, and indeed that was what The Shootist was all about: the end of the wild west, the end of westerns in Hollywood, and, of course, the impending demise of John Wayne. Hey, to say these things --to make these statements-- is precisely why they ever took the time and the bother to make The Shootist. So then when the Duke really did die, the keys to Hollywood's westerns kingdom were handed off to Clint Eastwood, a bequeath almost by default. Through the 70s Wayne and Eastwood were just about the only ones left making westerns, and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), his then most recent effort, was arguably Eastwood's best film to date. But Clint deserved receiving those keys, because he had earned them. Clint patiently waited nine years to release his next western, Pale Rider, a homage to the western classic, Shane. In 1985 the general consensus was that Pale Rider was Clint Eastwood's finest film, his defining masterpiece.
But, as it turned out, Clint wasn't done. Seven years later, in 1992, he released what is now said to be his last western, Unforgiven. And with Unforgiven Clint hits all the classic western themes. I won't belabor retelling the story, because that's been done very well elsewhere in other comments. Nor will I dwell too much on the myriad layering of the characters. I will say that in watching and re-watching and re-watching numerous more times it became quite clear to me that Unforgiven was Clint's labor of love. It's the little things, subtleties, that reveal that truth. Things like the classic cowboy lines that roll off the character's tongues, without a second thought, but which reach deep and stay with you. Too many of those to list, but just read all the other reviews on this site, where they are recounted nicely.
One striking thing is the implicit irony that the characters, as ostensibly depicted, are to a one exactly opposite of their true nature, or of how they themselves want to be. The Schofield Kid, blustering braggadocio notwithstanding, is no killer. "I ain't like you Will," a chastened Kid says as he departs. And Little Bill Daggett remonstratively represents law, order, and justice, the supposed peace officer keeping the peace, is in truth corrupt and sadistically violent, unable to rise above his own vicious lawlessness. English Bob, the erstwhile cosmopolitan gunslinger, is a fraud and a coward to boot. And William Munney keeps saying he's a changed man, that he "ain't like that anymore." But, oh yeah, he is. The only honest character, the only compassionate character, is Ned Logan. He's the only one who kills no one, because of all of them, he really isn't like that, and yet he is the only one of the hired killers to get killed and to suffer the consequences of being a supposed killer.
To tell this story that plumbs the depths of human depravity, telling it convincingly, exploring various relative degrees of the human character, holding the requisite feet to the fire, and doing it all tightly in 131 minutes, Clint assembled great cast to work with: Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, and Richard Harris. All are marvelous. The film is a masterpiece.
Is Unforgiven to Eastwood as The Shootist was to Wayne, i.e., his own swan song of sorts? Well, certainly Clint, unlike John Wayne, wasn't dying, but the fact is Clint has never made another western. It appears that he has said all he has to say in that genre, and is finished with it.
And to the critic poseur who suggests that Dances With Wolves was a slightly better western, puh-leeeeze. Kevin Costner can't carry Clint Eastwood's jock strap, literally or figuratively. At least couldn't back then, at that point in his career. All too often, and certainly in Dances With Wolves, Costner's main attribute is his gargantuan --yet wholly unwarranted-- ego, and a self-absorption that runs amok, chewing scenery and stepping all over everybody else. And Costner's dime store cultural anthropology, while earnest, is laughable. The combination of Costner being Costner, a corn pone and contrived story, and the 4 hour length of the movie is a definite mind number. Dances With Wolves's real value is as a sleep aid. None of which is to say that Kevin Costner did not possess the capacity to make and leave an indelible mark on Hollywood's westerns. He did, and he did. But it wasn't with Dances With Wolves that it happened. In 1993 Costner's career took a fortuitous turn when he worked with Eastwood in the contemporary western, A Perfect World. There Costner learned and showed an ability to sublimate himself into a role, and to keep his egocentric tendencies in check. Immediately following that experience Costner released Wyatt Earp, a better film and a better western than Dances With Wolves. Then, in 2003, Costner, working with Robert Duval, made Open Range, arguably Costner's best work to date, and certainly the best western made since Unforgiven.
We can all hope that Clint has more westerns in him. If he doesn't, the keys he inherited from John Wayne appear destined for Kevin Costner. Again, by default.