Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Unforgiven (UA, 1960)

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Intense frontier drama

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The Unforgiven (not of course to be confused with Clint Eastwood’s 1990s Unforgiven) is very, very good. It is a marvelously written, intense psychological Western with fascinating characters, splendid acting, fine photography and stirring action.

 

The film ranks with The Searchers as a study of racial hatred and also reminds us of the excellent Flaming Star in its subject matter. Even the ‘good’ white people have an almost deranged loathing of the Kiowa. The very sight of one is enough to cause hysteria among the settlers. This is racialism on a passionate scale. We do not, however, see enough brutality of the Kiowa towards the whites to justify this almost insane hatred. If we had, it might have given a more nuanced picture. The one-dimensional Indians do slightly undermine the anti-racist message.
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Yes, well…
 
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John Huston directed, acted in and/or wrote eight Westerns or semi-Westerns, notably The Treasure of the Sierra Madre  in 1948. The Unforgiven was probably his second-best example of the genre. It was written by Ben Maddow (The Man from Colorado, Johnny Guitar) from a novel by Alan Le May, writer of some successful Westerns, in particular, The Searchers.
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The book
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The story tells of three brothers in a Texas-Panhandle family of settlers who discover, to their shock, that their adopted sister is a Kiowa Indian.

 

The members of the Zachary clan are wonderfully well played. Burt Lancaster is magisterial as Ben, the head of the family. What a fine actor he was at times. Yes, he could ham it up and he was in some Westerns which were average at best (Apache, Vera Cruz) or even downright poor (Lawman, The Hallelujah Trail) but he was magnificent with the right part. One thinks of Vengeance Valley, Valdez is Coming or Ulzana’s Raid. But The Unforgiven was probably his finest Western movie.
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The Zacharys: Doug, Burt, Audie, Audrey
 
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Similarly, Audie Murphy as Ben’s Indian-hating younger brother Cash was never better, except perhaps in The Red Badge of Courage (also directed by Huston). Murphy made a long series of conventional Westerns which had highish production values but were never really ‘art’. He was self-deprecating about his acting, saying he was working under a great handicap, “no talent”. It wasn’t true though. In The Unforgiven he is powerful, weighty and strong, a serious actor of considerable ability. Maybe it was Huston’s direction, bringing out the best in him.

 

The youngest brother, Andy, is played by Doug McClure. The Unforgiven was really the launch pad of his Western career. After a micropart as a soldier, almost an extra, in Friendly Persuasion (barely a Western at all), he had appeared in a fair number of TV oaters in the late 1950s before this, his first major role. From 1962 to 1971 he was of course famous as Trampas in The Virginian (I remember my mother thought he was very handsome). He was good as Sam in Shenandoah but really we think of him as a TV star. In The Unforgiven he plays the green teenage son with commendable enthusiasm, although he was in his mid-20s.

 

Lillian Gish, 67, is superb as the boys’ mother, Mattilda. As you probably know, she had starred for DW Griffith in three early silent Westerns in the 1910s, and later in the powerful Victor Sjöström-directed The Wind in 1928. She was also one of the McCanles clan in Duel in the Sun in 1946. But The Unforgiven was her first Western since and was her last. As a tender, tough frontier mother who is still violent enough to lash the horse away from under a man waiting to be lynched, she is magnificent.

 

Only Audrey Hepburn is wrong – miscast – as the adopted sister, Rachel. She is too delicate, too sweet (and really too posh) to be a frontier-raised Indian foundling.
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Hepburn miscast
 
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For the rest, we have Charles Bickford very good indeed (once again, this was probably the best Western of the 20 he did) as the disabled Zeb, head of the Rawlins family. John Saxon is also fine as Johnny Portugal, the Indian or half-breed cowhand, seen as an ‘enemy’ in the white ranks yet more or less tolerated – and what a good rider he was, Brooklyn boy or no. It was his first Western.
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Wiseman as Death
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And Canadian Joseph Wiseman, the icy Fernando Aguirre from Viva Zapata!, has the wonderful part of the ghostly Abe Kelsey who causes all the trouble. He appears on a pale horse and is, of course, Death. Perhaps Clint Eastwood was quoting The Unforgiven in his 1985 Pale Rider.
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Charles Bickford, excellent
 
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The acting is really top class.

 

The film is intense, occasionally earthily bucolic, and frontier-authentic. It starts with a very classical allusion: the Odyssey like cow-on-the-roof at the start is amusing and harmless and sets the happy-family tone, but the image comes back to haunt the Zacharys in a far more menacing way at the end of the movie. There are other striking images, such as the playing of Mozart on the wild prairie, or Zeb Rawlins’s crutches made from rifle stocks or the melting down of lead soldiers for bullets. Skeins of flying geese symbolize freedom.

 

The Dimitri Tiomkin music is grand, even grandiloquent, symphonic, impressive. The Franz Planer photography is often dark, always high-quality and very striking. He only shot two Westerns, this and The Big Country.

 

The Unforgiven is a big, two-hour, color Western and it came out the same year as the commercial movie that indicated the future of the genre in the coming decade, The Magnificent Seven, but it harks back to the classic tradition of 1950s Westerns more than looking forward to the next generation. It is no worse for that, however.

 

Apparently, John Huston and Burt Lancaster had considerable disagreements over the film. Lancaster produced it and his company was aiming at big box-office, whereas Huston was perhaps looking for something more. Huston distanced himself from the finished product and in fact claimed that “of all his films, The Unforgiven was the only one he actually disliked.” That seems strange to us, given the quality of the picture, because The Unforgiven is one of the great Westerns.

 

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8 Responses

  1. Agreed on all points (except I don’t mind Hepburn so much). Could it be that Huston had trouble separating his difficult experience filming with the end result? It’s easy to see how his opinion of it could potentially be colored by that. It really is a very interesting and fine film, and has become one of my favorites. I think I had read somewhere (perhaps you mentioned it in another article here) that Huston made this as a response, in a way, to The Searchers. I could be misremembering. Anyway, a fine pair of films that, in a way, complement each other. Excellent write up, as usual. Cheers

    1. That’s interesting what you say about THE UNFORGIVEN as a response to THE SEARCHERS. I guess it could have been. I wonder what Alan Le May thought of both…

  2. Hi Jeff. Love your blog. Hope you don’t mind me putting my 2 cents in again, but I just can’t help myself. I’m a lover of many types of films, but I find that there’s nothing so grand as fine Western, like this one is. Agree wholeheartedly with your comments on Hepburn’s miscasting and Murphy’s performance. I probably like Ulzana’s Raid as a film better, but I think your right about this being Lancaster’s best Western work. I kind of don’t care much for the score though. Just doesn’t seem to fit to me. Almost sounds like Maurice Jarre instead of Tiomkin. But it’s a minor quibble cause just about everything else works. Gish is also terrific. (Glad you mentioned “The Wnd” – it’s one of my favorite Silents).

    1. Your 2 cents’ worth always welcome!
      I think film music is a very personal thing and two people can easily have diametrically opposite views of the same score.

  3. This has turned up on YouTube in a good quality print so I took the opportunity to watch it. I think it’s very, very good – every single comment in your review was my own reaction to it. The thing that’s a serious distraction – and it says something for everything else that the drama becomes so intense that it almost stops being an issue – is the weird sound. The music sounds like it’s been recorded with the microphones outside the hall and across the street. The dialogue also sounds ‘pushed back’ – although the ear adjusts as the drama draws one in. Imagine the impact if the sound and score were of the more usual quality of, say, ‘Last Train to Gun Hill’.

    1. You’re not the only one to have doubts about the music (see comment by Thomas Leary) but myself I didn’t react negatively to it. Each to his own. Anyway, it’s a splendid Western.

  4. You may find Audrey Hepburn miscast like many others western amateurs but could it be because you can’t help seeing her as the movie star she is (was) instead of her character. One year later Truman Capote thought she was miscast (again !) in Breakfast at Tiffany’s as he had Marilyn Monroe in mind… it would have been a totally different film indeed.
    It is always uneasy not to watch the star instead of the character especially in Hollywood movies. Hard not to remark Monroe in River of No Return…!
    Thinking of other very famous actresses Janet Leigh was not such a star when she played in the Naked Spur (she reminds me Ingrid Bergman in For Whom the bell tolls maybe because of her haircut…). Same for Grace Kelly in High Noon, her second film only. Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar, Barbara Stanwyck and Olivia de Havilland, Julie London in Man of the West have maybe succeeded in fading into the background behind their character but I am not so sure. Ava Gardner in Judge Roy Bean is playing an actress… Dietrich is one of the few other big female stars who was cast in westerns. Where are the likes of Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Taylor, westerns are the exception in their filmography. On the contrary of the top male stars who made a lot of oaters but Grant, Bogart, Tracy except one or two films.
    Western actresses are maybe a special breed with Malone, Fleming, Jurado, Mayo, Miles etc…
    On top of that, playing a convincing indian girl was a difficult task anyway. Think of Debra Paget (close to 91…!), Natalie Wood, Elizabeth Threatt, you will find other examples I am sure…

    1. I agree that some actors and actresses had such fame and ‘presence’ that it risked putting the screen characters they played in the shade; you can’t help thinking of Bogart or Bergman rather than their roles in the story. But I suppose a really great actor can transcend that and ‘be’ Hamlet rather than Olivier, as it were.
      There were plenty of actors who played Indians, in the days when using an actual Native American was rare, with more or less success. In the worst cases they were simply ridiculous. Others almost managed to pull it off.

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