The Unforgiven (1960)

Director: John Huston – Cast: Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Audie Murphy, John Saxon , Charles Bickford, Lillian Gish, Albert Salmi, Joseph Wiseman, Doug McClure, Carlos Rivas

The Unforgiven is an adaptation of a novel by Alan Le May, who also wrote The Searchers, the source novel for John Ford’s famous movie. Both novels were supposed to be ‘adult’ western stories about racial hatred and tension.

The story is about a young girl, Rachel, who was adopted as a child by the Zachary family. This is stipulated early on in the movie, most probably to avoid suspicions of an incestuous love affair. The point is that Rachel (although she is courted, more or less successfully, by the neighbors’ son) adores her older ‘brother’ Ben, and we soon understand it’s not just sisterly love. There’s also a mysterious old man who claims the girl wasn’t a foundling, as stated by her ‘mother’, but was stolen from the Kiowa. When this tribe is on the warpath, Rachel’s fiancé is killed, provoking a burst of anti-Indian sentiments among the settlers. Her identity is now revealed to all concerned and Ben’s younger brother Cash leaves the family because he doesn’t want to live under one roof with a dirty Indian.

And then the Kiowa attack and claim the girl ...

The Unforgiven was a troubled production. Director John Huston wanted to make an strong anti-racist statement, but was constantly at odds with his producers, who preferred a more audience friendly western. The works had to be postponed because Audry Hepburn was severely hurt when she fell off a horse. In the end Huston almost disowned the film, calling it one of his least accomplished works. 

Admittedly, the movie has its flaws, especially on script level. To avoid problems, Rachel’s foster parents have always sustained that she was a foundling, a girl who’s real parents were killed by Kiowa. We're supposed to believe that her friends, and even some of her relatives, have never noticed that Rachel was an Indian. In one particular scene Hepburn paints a red line on her fore-head, apparently to underline the idea that she has become aware of her descent. This all feels forced, the more so since Rachel is played by an actress like Audrey Hepburn; she tries hard and she’s not a bad actress, but it's not easy to accept her in this role. 

But if the movie has its shortcomings, it has its strong points too. The intricate story of white people stealing an Indian child without even considering the feelings of her relatives, is compelling and incisive. The haunting atmosphere of family secrets and the mysterious messenger threatening to reveal them, give the film an almost biblical aura of doom; there are also strong similarities to Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, the classic gothic story about an adopted child (in that case a boy called Heatcliff) who disrupts the harmony of a seemingly happy family. On a different level, the film also manages to transmit the spirit of the settlers, living in the middle of a hostile nowhere. And the Indian attack which concludes the movie, is mesmerizing, one of the best ever filmed.