By Linc Leifeste | August 12, 2014
Director: John Huston
Writers: Ben Maddow (screenplay), Alan Le May (novel)
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Audie Murphy, John Saxon, Charles Bickford, Lillian Gish, Albert Salmi, Joseph Wiseman
Kino Lorber Studio Classics continues their impressive series of Blu-ray releases of classic films with John Huston’s 1960 Western, The Unforgiven. Based on a novel by Alan Le May, the same author who wrote the novel that The Searchers was based on, the film tells the tale of the Zacharys, a rugged frontier family ranching in the harsh post-Civil War Texas panhandle. The father is dead, a victim of Indian violence, but the mother and her three sons and adopted daughter struggle on, raising cattle and trying to maintain a foothold in a harsh and challenging environment.
Of course the Zacharys are not alone in their efforts. There are other families nearby, another prominent family being the Rawlins family, all facing the same challenges and working together to keep their herds alive, to drive them to distant markets, to keep the hostile Kiowas at bay. For as much as the settlers and the Kiowas hate one another, both groups are equally dependent on their fellow people to survive. It’s not a place where one can go it long alone. So when a mysterious old man (Joseph Wiseman) suddenly begins to appear among the settlers and Kiowas alike, ghost-like, covered in dust from head to foot, wearing a dusty soldier’s uniform and calvary sword, spouting Old Testament fire-and-brimstone warnings and spreading rumors about the lineage of the Zachary daughter, Rachel (Audrey Hepburn), it’s more than just the Zachary honor that is put at stake. Their very ability to survive is threatened.
Much like The Searchers four years earlier, The Unforgiven deals with issues of race and identity and is a fascinating, frustrating mix of progressive and backwards impulses. In the former, a white girl was abducted by Native Americans and raised as one of them only to have a relative come to take her back by force, with or without her consent. In the latter, the story is reversed. The mysterious old man’s claim is that Rachel is a Kiowa, her life saved by the Zachary patriarch during a slaughter of her people. Those claims lead the Kiowas to attempt to get her back and they also lead to division both within the frontier community and within the Zachary family. Middle brother Cash (Audie Murphy) has a burning hatred of the Kiowas because of the murder of his father and can’t live with the idea of having a Kiowa-born sister.
It’s a complex story of racism, perceptions true and false, and the unintended repercussions of our actions down the line. Much like The Searchers, the film’s story deals with fascinating and intensely thought-provoking concepts up to a point. And then it doesn’t, instead ending with a protracted, climactic and intense confrontation that finds the Zachary family holed up alone in their cabin, disowned by their fellow settlers and even by their brother Cash, facing an intense (but wildly unsuccessful) Kiowa onslaught that ends with Rachel having to decide once and for all with whom she sides. And considering that this is a 1960 Western, it’s no surprise how she chooses or that the film ends with all issues simplistically resolved.
But despite it’s ultimate inability to follow through on its honorable premises, The Unforgiven is still a gorgeous, striking and masterful film. Huston manages to get inspired performances from virtually his entire cast, with Lancaster as the elder Zachary brother, Ben, having a rugged intensity and striking charisma. While some of the characters are written a bit simplistically, there’s not a false note hit by the cast. And Director Huston and cinematographer Franz Planer show themselves to be masters of camera placement and movement, both in interior and exterior shots. There are countless breathtaking shots and sequences, whether they be of humans struggling against the great wide open spaces under endless skies, rendered momentarily inconsequential by the sheer vastness of their environs, or of the Zachary brothers hunting for the mysterious and ghost-like old soldier during a dust storm, or the seamless movement of the camera through and about the small Zachary cabin as the family members interact or as the Kiowas attack. In the end, the lasting power of those artful images, the actors’ intense performances, and the deeper questions the film ultimately waltzes around, are enough to overwhelm the film’s marked flaws.