Today we reminisce about
The Unforgiven (1960)Directed by John Huston
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Audie Murphy, John Saxon, Charles Bickford, Lillian Gish
* Published specifically for the Audrey at 90: The Salute to Audrey Hepburn Blogathon hosted by Sister Celluloid *Premise
In the American Frontier circa 1870, the Zachary family lives on their sprawling property located on the Texas Panhandle. They are cattle ranchers who pool together with other cowhands in the area to herd combined cattle drives to Wichita. In this part of the country, it is dangerous to go off on your own and moreover, community support increases chances of survival.
While the menfolk are gone, mother Mattilda (Lillian Gish) and adopted daughter Rachel (Audrey Hepburn) must manage things on their own. They try to keep things as normal as possible so not to lose a track of time or the hope that their loved ones will come back alive. Luckily, the three Zachary sons come back safe and found. Ben (Burt Lancaster) is the oldest and has taken on the role as man of the house since his father’s untimely murder a few years earlier while Cash (Audie Murphy) and Andy are often at his side. They are all quite close with the Rawlins family headed by father Zeb (Charles Bickford) who wishes for his son Charlie to court Rachel so that their great families can be joined through matrimony.
All seems peaceful until one day when a strange old man who refers to himself as a prophet of God surfaces. Rachel meets him by chance while horseback riding and is startled by his claim that she is “not a Zachary” but does not think too much of it at the time. When the man comes close to the Zachary ranch, Mattilda becomes very upset and considers shooting him with a shotgun though she loses her nerve. She does not tell Rachel why she is so upset but Ben knows. The man is connected to the Zachary’s past, specifically in regards to how the girl came to be adopted into the family and is trying to cause trouble for them by spreading a false rumour that Rachel is a Kiowa Indian. Ben and his brothers, along with their hired helper Portugal (John Saxon), eventually track him down and bring him to be confronted by the other townspeople who have become suspicious of Rachel’s ethnicity. Meanwhile, the Kiowa tribe believe Rachel to be the long lost sister of their current chief, Lost Bird. They initially approach the Zachary’s in a peaceful fashion to try to get their kin back but it soon turns to violence as the family refuse to give Rachel up.
Is this crazy man mistaken and inventing this story about Rachel being a native Kiowan? Of what benefit is it to him? If it is proven that Rachel is in fact of Indian heritage, how will she and her adopted family deal with the situation especially since the Kiowa tribe wants to reclaim her as their own?
There are times when you are inexplicably drawn to specific filmmakers or certain actors and actresses which give you the chance to discover a good portion of their work. For me, that person has been John Huston. I had seen a handful of his films in the past but it was only recently that I really got into some of his better, and lesser, known pictures, not taking long to further my initial affirmation that Huston was a gifted storyteller as both a screenwriter and as a director. 1949 was undoubtedly the year he received the most critical compensation, winning Academy Awards in directing and adapted screenwriting for The Treasure of Sierra Madre. He would receive countless other accolades throughout his long-spanning filmography.
Huston was nearly at the midway point in his career when he signed-on to make The Unforgiven, originally referred to as The Siege at Dancing Bird / Burg. The film’s financing came from Hecht-Hill-Lancaster (HHL), a production company that had recently renewed their contract with distributor United Artists. Burt Lancaster had achieved much past success with his two partners, Harold Hecht and James Hill (then married to Rita Hayworth), especially in the films in which he had also starred. Sources say that Huston and HHL did not see eye-to-eye on the project, making it so that the two parties could not find a satisfactory middle ground. Nonetheless, Lancaster continued on being a complete professional performer and somehow the picture got finished in a timely manner.
From the start the film had unusually large shoes to fill. Its screenplay was based on a 1957 novel by author Alan Le May who penned a great number and short stories that were often set in the American frontier, some of which were adapted for the big screen. His most well-known works were The Searchers and The Unforgiven; the aforementioned being Le May’s third novel to be made into a feature film and was by far his most successful venture. Today, The Searchers is considered to be one of the best films ever made and is currently ranked in 12th place on the AFI’s list of 100 Greatest Films. The triumph of The Searchers put pressure on Huston to make The Unforgiven a meaningful film to match John Ford’s legacy and on HHL to have the same commercial impact. The end result was less than satisfying for all parties and the public seemed to agree as The Unforgiven failed to recuperate its costs, earning a paltry $3.2 million against a $5 million budget.
It has been noted that Huston was not happy with this film and held a low opinion of it for the rest of his life though he never outright disowned it. Along with the disappointment of not being able to make a film that was more historically poignant, several behind-the-scenes incidents bore him a heavy burden. Ironically, Huston’s next film The Misfits would be even further marred with dysfunction and tragedy.
Thoughts & Discussion
A majority of past critics did not have much redeeming praise for The Unforgiven, a sentiment which is still prominent amongst modern critics. The films averages three out of five stars and currently holds a lacklustre 59% Fresh rating from Rotten Tomatoes. Film reviewer and author Ronald Bergan had this to say in his reference book The United Artists Story:
“Although the film did not lose its pictorial felicities, it never lived up to the initial brooding atmosphere created by direct(or) John Huston. The screenplay by Ben Maddow took up themes but failed to develop them, and the characters remained skin-deep despite a promising cast.” (pg. 197)
This is a time that I must disagree with overall opinion although there are points to the story that definitely could be been improved and built upon. I feel quite lucky that I saw The Unforgiven before The Searchers and that I had no knowledge of the link between the two films because I had no expectations.
The foremost thing that draws you in to the film is the fantastic panoramic shot of the unspoiled countryside. It immediately immerses you in the setting of what life was like back then in the Old West. In fact, you get the impression that you are casually dropping in on the Zachary family rather than having them introduced to you in a formatted manner at the beginning of a story. As far as you know, the Zachary’s have always been there and will always remain, even after the film has finished. This very up close and personal perspective allows you to grow closer to the characters and really get a taste for what it was like to live as a pioneer. I really appreciated Huston’s direction and Franz Planer’s cinematography which had a very natural feel to it, making it seem as you were more than just a casual observer of events. (Planer had previously worked on the Western epic The Big Country and would later work with Audrey Hepburn on two other films: Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Children’s Hour.)
An amazing cast also helps bring the characters fully to life. Veteran stage & screen actors Lillian Gish and Charles Bickford are simply incredible and, as always, seem effortless in their roles. One Variety reviewer boldly states that Gish “has a tendency to over-react emotionally” though seems to forget that this more pronounced emotional display was an important part of Mattilda’s state-of-mind. We never get to know Mattilda as a happy housewife; rather, she is a widow whose husband was slain by Kiowas, the same tribe that soon threatens to take her daughter away. She must also relive the loss of her biological child who died right before Rachel came into their family. Speaking from a mother’s vantage point, I was trembling with anxiety along with Mattilda and understand every decision that she had to make. Most of the cast were playing characters that were much younger than their actual ages but it is not overly noticeable or troubling. Lancaster was very good as Ben and in having consistency in his character. Ben was not a fun-loving kind of guy as he had a massive amount of responsibility on his plate. His romantic feelings for Rachel are not overly obvious but, at the same time, he was technically her brother and it was unlikely that they could ever have a feasible future together. The idea of Ben and Rachel loving each other like this has been considered as quite scandalous but they always knew that they were not blood-related.
As for themes related to racial relations, I really do not know how the film could have done a better job showing the cultural differences between the white settlers and the Kiowa Indians. Rachel had a choice to make in the end that was hers and hers alone. Neither the settler nor the Indians were more correct than the other. I do not believe that there was any specific lesson to be learned from this film rather than to appreciate the story for what it is. One thing that did perplex me was the lack of Portugal’s character development. He seemed to be a prominent secondary player and then just disappears from sight after the old man is captured and brought to the Rawlins’ ranch for questioning. There is a moment in the film when he takes a petal out of Rachel’s hair and gets promptly attacked by a jealous and disapproving Ben. It is said that he would be let go from the cattle drive but not too long after this Portugal is accompanying them on the hunt for the old man. The film ends just as it began, with no flashy goodbyes or conclusions which are perfectly fitting in my opinion.
Some people found it surprising that Audrey was cast in The Unforgiven, a film that was a considerable departure from the more light-hearted romantic comedies in which she had mainly appeared. She was also around a decade older than Rachel Zachary who was still just a naïve girl in certain ways. At 30, Audrey was married and awaiting a child while Rachel was at an age that seemed barely suitable for courting. Rachel’s specific age is never mentioned in the film although it is suggested through her sometimes juvenile behaviour as well as from the hesitant reactions of her family, independent of them being overprotective. From my own judgement, I would say that Rachel is an older teenager at best which falls in line with how Audrey portrayed the character. (In doing a little research on the subject of post-Civil War marriages, I found that the general age for girls to get married was starting from around age 20. Considering that this was the Old West, some females could be married off as child brides while others could be more selective and wait until they were slightly older. Since there were relatively few people living near the Zachary’s and it was a mutual wish to have the Rawlins and Zachary families unite, the choices were obviously limited.)
Audrey’s Rachel is naturally free-spirited and curious about life. She knows what society expects from her as a woman and is able to complete associated tasks such as doing housework and preparing food. However, she is bored by these mundane chores and is easily distracted by other things. In the beginning of the film, she wanders off from the house to take an impromptu ride on her horse, Pago, while her mother is churning butter. When she comes across Abe “the prophet” on her stroll, she is not afraid of him per se though she is taken aback by his claims of her having Native American heritage. Back at the house later on, she is mystifyingly charmed by his odd presence as if he were a legendary figure. Her fearlessness is noted by Ben one afternoon when he and some other men are rounding up horses for an upcoming trip. Rachel’s presence there is not only out of place for woman folk whose place was in the home but also dangerous because she could have been severely injured or even killed by untamed horses. Although she was aware of these issues, she was too intrigued to stay away. To me, Rachel was a dreamer who saw the best in people and never questioned their actions. These characteristics stem from the sheltered environment in which she was raised but also from her natural, generous nature.
From my viewpoint, it is unimaginable to think of anyone other than Audrey playing the role of Rachel. Audrey brought freshness to this character that is mimicking of carefree youth, where everything is beautiful and the world is one’s oyster. At the same time, she showed intelligence and deep thinking that showed her more mature side. When it was time for Rachel to finally grow up once and for all, which occurred during the ending shoot-out, she assumed her responsibilities. I personally neither questioned Audrey’s age when I first saw this film a few years ago nor when I recently watched it again. It did not appear to me that a grown woman was attempting, and failing, to look much younger. Audrey’s youthful looks certainly helped her but it was mostly the attitude she brought to Rachel that was the most convincing aspect. Having seen a large majority of her films, it is not difficult for me to say that this is one of her best performances. I also admire her determination to finish the picture despite the huge setbacks she faced during filming, which including breaking her back and suffering the devastating loss of her unborn child. Ms. Hepburn was a fighter, consummate thespian and just an all-around beautiful person.
To honour Audrey’s legacy of humanitarianism, I’m including the link to Unicef where you can make a donation in her memory.