The Unforgiven (1960)
“A NEW TRIUMPH FROM ACADEMY AWARD WINNER JOHN HUSTON”
Director: John Huston
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Audie Murphy
Synopsis: The neighbors of a frontier family turn on them when it is suspected that their adopted daughter was stolen from the local Kiawa tribe.
The Unforgiven is a reversal of John Ford’s The Searchers. The pivotal character in both films is a young woman stolen from her people as a babe, and both films involve to different degrees a long search by her family to get her back. In The Searchers, the Indians were the kidnappers — in The Unforgiven it is the white man. But The Unforgiven, an intelligently written and thoughtful film, reverses more than just the roles of the representatives of the conflicting races — it also reverses the perspective so that it is those who have been wronged who are portrayed as the bad guys, and the thieves and killers, desperately defending a morally indefensible stance, who are the heroes. It’s a curious position for the film to take because it tempers any sympathy the viewer might feel for the members of the Zachary family, whose young daughter Rachel (Audrey Hepburn — Funny Face), is the now fully-grown child stolen from the Kiowa after a massacre of one of their villages. Perhaps it is meant as a comment on the inhuman treatment of Native American Indians by white settlers in the 19th Century, or as an observation on the nature of racism, which is the central theme that forms the core of the movie, and of the power of film — and any other form of media — to twist people’s perception of right and wrong. The Indians come across as the villains even though they are only ever victims. It is this paradox at the core of the film that makes it so fascinating while also clearly managing to alienate a large proportion of its audience.
There are a lot of flaws in The Unforgiven and a lot of curious choices, not least the relationship between vigorous patriarch figure Ben Zachary (Burt Lancaster — Apache, Sweet Smell of Success) and young Rachel, which is little short of incestuous even though the couple are not blood relatives. Audrey Hepburn, while giving a spirited performance, is as unbelievable as an Indian half-breed as you would expect her to be. She’s always enjoyable to watch, but you’re always aware of the effort you’re having to put in to maintain that suspension of disbelief necessary to truly get into any character. The rest of the cast give terrific performances, especially Audie Murphy as another of the Zachary clan battling with his innate racism and Joseph Wiseman (Stiletto) as a superbly sinister one-eyed drifter who, like the Indians, becomes another innocent victim of the Zachary clan. Murphy has a largely unsympathetic role in this film and, as he gives one of the best performances of his career, it’s a wonder he wasn’t offered more work in the same vein. John Saxon has a role that seems to be important but which eventually goes nowhere — his character could have been dispensed with completely with no noticeable loss to the coherence of the storyline, although he is given a hip name and a rather cool chase scene.
John Huston’s direction is as professional and assured as expected. He didn’t make many westerns, but he displays a natural skill for capturing the deceptive desolation of the sprawling landscapes — even though this film strangely lacks the epic sweep that its subject matter might suggest — and enhancing genre staples while exploring more adult themes than were the norm in the late 50s. Many of his characters are shot from a low angle so that they are framed by a huge sky, a technique reminiscent of 30s Soviet techniques. it’s a common practice in western movies but, it has surely never been used as much in one film as it is in this.
The Unforgiven isn’t a film to be dismissed lightly. It’s true that there are flaws in many areas, but they fail to detract from the movie’s many strengths, and from the themes and subtexts that make this so much more than just another western. Don’t let this one pass you by.
(Reviewed 14th September 2005)