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The Unforgiven (1960)

The Unforgiven JH.jpg

Death for death and blood for blood. The Zachary family live quietly on a border cattle ranch in post-Civil War Texas. A sabre-wielding stranger called Kelsey (Joseph Wiseman) appears and disturbs their bucolic existence by spreading a malicious rumor that their adopted daughter, Rachel (Audrey Hepburn), is a Kiowa Indian. Soon, the Zachary brothers Ben (Burt Lancaster), Cash (Audie Murphy) and Andy (Doug McClure) and their mother Matilda (Lillian Gish) must defend themselves from both racist whites and vengeful Kiowa as they prepare a cattle drive to Kansas while Rachel’s relationship with Charlie (Albert Salmi) the son of  neighbour Zeb Rawlins (Charles Bickford) triggers a murderous intervention and ruins the family’s partnership … Nothing could kill me except lightning out of the sky and then it would have to hit me twice. A positively strange and tantalising cast in one of John Huston’s more unusual outings, this adaptation by Ben Maddow of Alan Le May’s novel is an ‘issue’ movie and that issue is racial prejudice, specifically that of Native Americans.  What an odd but interesting role for Hepburn and she paid for it with a broken back while horse riding (she was assisted in her recovery by the real-life character she had played in The Nun’s Story!) and the clash of acting styles is really something:  Lancaster (who produced with his company) is the man of the family who thinks nothing can surprise him but it’s Gish who provides the spectacle as the matriarch and moral centre, anchoring a narrative oriented towards death in both a poetic and real sense. Bickford is her equal as the patriarch in mourning. Wiseman’s odd and fearsome character is an augury, with his Sword of God and Biblical portents.  The question of Rachel’s origins provides the engine for a story about stories and lies and what families do to survive. The final siege with Cash absenting himself from his ‘red-hide nigger’ sister as the Kiowa surround the Zachary family is brilliantly executed. Will Audie ride in to save the day? Will Audrey be loyal to her Kiowa brethren? So many of these performances hinge on what we know of the actors from their previous roles.  Maddow had written The Asphalt Jungle for Huston ten years previously and spent much of the interim on the HUAC blacklist fronted mostly by Philip Yordan (whom he castigated).  He and Huston would co-write an episode of Jungle‘s TV series the following year. A splendid almost visionary film about different ways of death that’s paradoxically full of life. The year of falling stars a baby strapped to a crib

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About elainelennon

An occasional movie-watching diary.

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