Before filming began, director John Huston and star Burt Lancaster took actress Lillian Gish out to the desert to teach her how to shoot, which she would have to do in the film. However, Huston was astounded to discover that Gish could shoot more accurately, and faster, than both he and Lancaster, who thought themselves expert marksmen. It turned out that early in her career Gish was taught how to shoot by notorious western outlaw and gunfighter Al J. Jennings, who had become an actor after his release from a long prison sentence for train robbery and was in the cast of one of her films. She found that she liked shooting and over the years had developed into an expert shot.
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According to Audie Murphy's biographer Don Graham, the script called for Burt Lancaster to slap him. That enraged the war hero to such a degree that witnesses thought that Murphy, who carried a gun, might have killed Lancaster under different circumstances. John Huston eventually defused the situation.
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Audrey Hepburn was seriously injured when she was thrown by a horse between scenes. Hepburn, who was several months pregnant, spent six weeks in the hospital healing from a broken back, and when she returned to the set, was able to complete her role wearing a back brace, which her wardrobe had to be redesigned to hide. Sadly, she suffered a miscarriage a few months later, which some blamed on her injury from this movie. John Huston blamed himself for the mishap and hated this movie. Hepburn, however, bore no ill will towards the director. While Hepburn was in hospital, Huston filmed scenes using a double.
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In his autobiography, John Huston describes this film as the only one he ever made that he entirely disliked. Ironically, the critic David Thomson, not normally in the vanguard of Huston's admirers, called it his best film.
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Audrey Hepburn's weight fell to 98 lbs during filming, and she increased her smoking habit to three packs of cigarettes a day.
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During the filming Audie Murphy and a friend decided to go duck hunting on a nearby lake. The boat capsized and Murphy nearly drowned, but was saved by Inge Morath, the female photographer who had been taking pictures nearby.
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Bette Davis turned down the role of Mattilda Zachary, because she didn't want to play Burt Lancaster's mother.
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The original writer J.P. Miller and original director Delbert Mann originally envisioned the movie as a gritty, unglamorous, but accurate picture of post-Civil War Texas life, much as John Ford had earlier done with Alan Le May's The Searchers (1956). Hecht/Hill/Lancaster wanted to ensure its commercial viability and changed the film's direction. They wanted to cast Kirk Douglas as Burt Lancaster's character's brother, which would throw off the balance in the brothers' relationship. His first effort at a rewrite did not work and after fifty pages into the second rewrite, the writer quit the film and broke off his relationship with the producers. Mann soon followed. They were replaced by Ben Maddow, John Gay, and John Huston. When it was decided not to use Douglas, Tony Curtis and then Richard Burton were cast before Audie Murphy was ultimately chosen.
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According to Burt Lancaster biographer Gary Fishgall, Lancaster and Audie Murphy were engaged in an invitational tournament at a new golf course near Durango. John Huston had an airplane filled with 2000 ping-pong balls with anti-Mexican and profane language and had them dropped all over the course, making it impossible to continue as none of the players could find their golf balls. Lancaster, who co-sponsored the event, was furious with Huston.
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Natalie Wood was considered for the role of Rachel Zachary.
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John Huston saw the film as an opportunity to make a serious comment on race relations, but the company thought anything along those lines should take a back seat to making it a commercial success as action/adventure. Burt Lancaster's biographer Gary Fishgall quotes two of Huston's biographers who assert that Huston did not quit because he needed his $300,000 salary to restore his Irish manor house and saw the location shoot as an opportunity to indulge his passion for pre-Columbian art.
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Richard Burton was originally cast in the Audie Murphy role but declined it due to his strong superstitious beliefs. A fortune teller had predicted he would die at 33, so he did not do any film work at all in 1959. He also rejected $350K to play Christ in Nicholas Ray's King of Kings (1961) in Spain for the same reason. In reality Burton was an atheist and did not want to make a film about Christianity.
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Tony Curtis refused the role of Cash Zachary, feeling that at this point in his career, he no longer needed to play second leads.
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The first film on which John Huston worked with assistant director Tom Shaw, who subsequently became one of his most trusted and frequent collaborators, and to whom he played generous tribute in his autobiography.
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Audrey Hepburn meant to take a vacation after filming Green Mansions (1959), but the thought of a western lured her into making this film instead.
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John Huston intended the film as a response to John Ford's "The Searchers". Ironically, novelist Alan Le May wrote both The Unforgiven (1960) and The Searchers (1956).
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Though Audrey Hepburn was thirty six years younger than Lillian Gish who played her mother, Audrey died exactly thirty eight days before Lillian, in 1993. Audrey was sixty three at the time of her death and Lillian was ninety nine.
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John Huston confessed in his biography that he was so deceived by his picture that when he saw it aired on TV, at night, he turned the whole thing off.
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Early in the movie Burt Lancaster has a line saying the sun was so strong it tanned your skin through your clothes, which becomes relevant as to the skin tone of another character later on. Ironically, in a scene before that line, Lancaster is seen shirtless in a creek, his pale torso decidedly untanned.
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Average Shot Length (ASL) = 8.7 seconds
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Eva Le Gallienne was considered for the role of Matilda Zachary.
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DOP Oswald Morris says in his memoirs he was offered this film.
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