The Unforgiven

US (1960) Dir. John Huston

While out riding young Rachel Zachary (Audrey Hepburn) is confronted by an old Bible spouting mad man Abe Kelsey (Joseph Wiseman) and questions her family lineage, suggesting she is actually a Native American of the Kiowa tribe. Abe later arrives at the Zachary homestead where he is chased off by matriarch Matilda (Lillian Gish) who angrily denies his accusations.

The rest of the family – commanding Ben (Burt Lancaster), simple Andy (Doug McClure) and hot headed Cash (Audie Murphy) – defend Rachel when three members of the Kiowa turn up to claim their stolen child. When a potential suitor for Rachel, Charlie Rawlins (Albert Salmi), is killed by the Kiowa, word gets out about Rachel’s true heritage and the Zachary family are excommunicated by the rest of the villagers and a split appears among the family.

I’m not a big fan of westerns so I was only drawn to this due to the presence of the legendary Lillian Gish, who receives an incommensurate “also starring” billing despite having more screen time than her younger co-stars and playing an important central role – and out acts them all in the process. This however is the least of the film’s problems, which was fraught with off screen troubles and ultimately stricken from the memories and CVs of much of the cast and crew.

The most prominent is the (mis)casting of Audrey Hepburn as Rachel, who couldn’t be more out of place in a Western than a Kabuki performer! Not to mention she is hardly any darker skinned than the rest of her adopted family which kills any credibility of her supposedly being a Kiowa. Aside from this, Hepburn suffered a severe back injury after falling from a horse which reportedly lead to a miscarriage and suspended filming for a year. As a result, she pretty much disowned this film.

Lillian Gish (who sports a deathly white pallor for some reason) fell out with Audie Murphy, whom she said was too irresponsible with his gun off camera. Co-producer and star Burt Lancaster would often argue with director John Huston leading Huston to proclaim this his least satisfying work.

Anyway, back to the film and this adaptation of Alan Le May’s novel was considered a brave tale at the time as it confronts the racism in the Old West towards the Native Americans. This didn’t please the film’s producers who clashed with Huston to make a more commercial film hence the lack of punch the tale packs, turning it more into a melodrama than a thought provoking essay.

Any discrimination shown or spoken against the “Injuns” is as edgy as it is going to get for the 60’s without being unnecessarily provocative but doesn’t seem anything too out of the ordinary in lieu of the other “cowboy” speak in previous Westerns. Where the difference lays here is that the Native Americans are, until the final act, not the antagonists here and it is the ignorance and short sightedness of the white man that provides the conflict.

Where the film falters is in its pacing with Rachel’s big secret not revealed to create the crisis pit until over an hour into the running time. It is only from here that the pace and sense of drama picks up after a dragging first hour. Had this appeared in the first thirty minutes the plight of the family defending themselves against both the Kiowa and their fellow neighbours would have made for a much more dynamic yarn.

As it is the cast do as much as they can with this scrappy script with the acting ranging from the caricature to the solid. I may be biased but it is a hoot seeing Miss Gish as a feisty, “yee-haw” talking old matriarch while the men get to show their pre-Political Correctness bravado as men did in the Old West.

The Unforgiven (not to confused with the 1992 film with a similar name) is saved by its final second hour minutes thanks in part to the earnestness of its cast. It might not be enough to convert anyone not fond of westerns to supporting the genre but those who already are will no doubt find this a solid if unspectacular curiosity.