Odd Western about racial intolerance focuses around Kiowa claim that the Zachary daughter is one of their own, stolen in a raid. The dispute results in other whites' turning their backs on the Zacharys when the truth is revealed by Mother. Murphy plays Cash, the hotheaded brother who reacts violently to learning his "sister" is a "red-hide Indian." He leaves the family but returns to help them fight off an Indian raid during which Hepburn kills her Kiowa brother, thus choosing sides once and for all. Written by
Not to be confused with Clint Eastwood's 1992 film "Unforgiven", "THE Unforgiven" is a 1960 John Huston film that is almost worthy of joining Eastwood's as one of the top ten westerns of all-time. That it falls slightly short of that status could be because Huston withdrew from the project in post-production, after the studio insisted on toning down his message of racial tolerance to give the film more commercial appeal. Although this tampering tends to cloud his political message, it is still there if you do conduct a little analysis. "The Unforgiven" does lay claim to the distinction of being the most ambitious western of all time.
Based on an Alan LeMay novel, as was John Ford's "The Searchers", "The Unforgiven" presents the flip side of the search for a missing sister. Here it is an Indian looking for his sister who was abducted as a baby by a white man and then adopted by his family. The obvious complaint is that the Indians are the villains in both films, by a kind of damned if you do-damned if you don't logic. But there is a distinction as the little girl in "The Searchers" was abducted when she was nine years old and she retained a desire to be reunited with her white family. The girl in "The Unforgiven", Rachel (played by Audrey Hepburn), has only known her adopted family.
John Huston once said that a good story should have "excitement, color, spectacle and humor, adventure, high drama, tragedy, good conversation, truth and irony". Even the studio version of "The Unforgiven" does a pretty good job of bringing all these elements to the screen. The most obvious sign of studio tampering is the inconsistency in John Saxon's character (Johnny Portugal), a half-breed who is often harassed by the local cowboys and is meticulously set up to be Ben's (Burt Lancaster) rival for Rachel's affections. But Portugal mysteriously disappears from the film by the half-way point and there is no attempt to resolve his situation with Ben and Rachel.
Ben is the eldest son of a ranching family. Audie Murphy is the middle brother Cash. Doug McClure is Andy, the youngest brother. Lillian Gish is their mother Mattilda. Since their father's murder by the Kiowas Murphy has been a violent racist.
The film's title refers to the attitude of Abe Kelsey (Joseph Wiseman-later to play Dr. No), a bearded half-crazy avenger who has tormented the family for many years, ever since his son was abducted by the Indians and Ben's father refused to trade Rachel for Abe's son. The twist is that only Wiseman and Gish know that Rachel's biological parents were Indians, everyone else (including Rachel) believes that she was the only survivor of a massacred settler family.
Rachel has grown up to be a loving and happy young woman. Huston's intention is to demonstrate that one race is not inferior to another; that while cultural differences are very real, there is no biological reason for racism. When Rachel's actual parentage is revealed it divides the family; Cash leaves to go on a wild bender, the other two brothers distance themselves from Rachel and she from them, and the surrounding settlers shun the family.
One scene is absolutely riveting, Rachel is comforting the mother (played by June Walker) of the boy she was to marry. Walker slowly looks up at her and then suddenly goes absolutely ballistic. Hepburn's stunned reaction appears to be absolutely genuine, as if Huston had altered the script and not told her about the change.
Interestingly, the climax actually occurs just after this and before the final shoot-out. The Indians come to the homestead to take Rachel. She attempts to join them, reasoning that they will spare her family once they have her. Ben physically restrains her and has Andy shoot one of Indians, rendering Rachel's intended sacrifice useless because the Indians will now attack to avenge the killing. But more important, this demonstrates to Rachel that they still consider her their sister, the first sign of this since everyone learned of her Indian parentage.
You can quibble that Hepburn is physically miscast, at a minimum they should have made her hair darker, but the story requires that the character look "non-Indian" as she has been successfully passing for a white girl for many years. Watch for the scene where she is on the corral fence watching the cowboys break horses. She simply glows in this shot. How ironic that someone who was so closely associated with high fashion and glamor would look her most beautiful as a dusty tomboy and a dirty-faced flower girl.
My only real criticism of the film is the moronic nature of the final shootout. There was no need for a war party, a handful of Indians would have been better. Otherwise this is a thoughtful and entertaining story that moves along briskly as Huston nicely crafts a number of rounded characters. He utilizes a variety of camera angles and positions, which enhance the story without drawing attention to the technique. Lancaster is excellent as man of character and conviction who manages to convey the conflict between brotherly love for his adopted little sister and the growing sexual attraction between them. Gish is amazing and Murphy turned in the best performance of the whole ensemble, playing against type and showing an unexpected range..
Then again, what do I know? I'm only a child.
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