THE UNFORGIVEN, 1960
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Audie Murphy, John Saxon, Charles Bickford, Joseph Wiseman, Lillian Gish
The neighbors of a frontier family turn on them when it is suspected that their adopted daughter was stolen from the local Kiawa tribe.
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While not the greatest of westerners out there today, or even for its time, the combination of Huston, Lancaster and Hepburn provided an entertaining mix of characters from the talented cast that helped to carry the film over a few of its holes. Rachel Zachary (Hepburn) is accused of being a Native American, by Abe Kelsey (Wiseman), who mentions that she was secretly adopted as a child. Rachelís true brother and a gang of Kiowas return to reclaim her. He argues that she is a part of the Indian family and was stolen in a raid.
The dispute leads many of the whites to disown the Zacharys when the truth is revealed by the matriarch, Mattilda Zachary (Gish). Ben Zachary (Lancaster), tries to defend the family against the accusations. He loves Rachel and she loves him just as equally. However Cash (Murphy), his petulant brother, is unable to deal with his adopted sister being an Indian. He leaves, but returns to help them fight off an Indian raid, during which Rachel commits a violent act, thus choosing sides once and for all.
Racism is a pervading theme throughout the film, being the basis for much of the drama and tension among the characters. The prejudices beliefs come from every side, not just the whites, but the Indians who have been oppressed by the whites have an innate aversion towards them. There seems to be a message of intolerance, yet the film never conveys that message well. No character has any enlightening moment where they see pass color, and those that have already, we never see them earn that epiphany.
There are several reasons why this film should never have been completed. For one, Audrey Hepburn suffered a serious accident while horseback riding in which she fell off and broke her back. The accident led to a miscarriage, and although she recovered and returned to work, she decided to take a year off and try again at having a child, which she did. Huston has said that this was his least satisfying film.
The movie ends in a big Indian battle, a siege on the Zachary house, but the dramatic conflict that preceded it was so unpredictable that a standard 'action finale' comes as a disappointment. In all the fighting, the Indians are blasted down much too easily. Also, the film while it may try to create a message of tolerance, clearly takes sides.
Lancaster's character is seen as the noble defender of his family, which makes the Indians appear as the villains, despite their initial reasons for coming into conflict with the white family is to regain their lost family member. The film is too one sided and while the actors do their best with the rather uninspired script, itís not entirely enough to put this film on a list of western classics.
Aside from the Hepburn problems, there were also several problems Huston and Lancaster who had differences about the picture. There problems carried over into the film which gained a reputation for his off screen issues. Those issues overshadowed the film altogether, but whether the problems received more attention than the movie is irrelevant because the film, even with a stellar cast, was not one that anyone involved should be particularly proud of.