Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
One of the better Westerns of its day, The Unforgiven has top talent doing memorable
work in service of a superior story that in some ways is a better-told reworking of author Alan
LeMay's The Searchers.
The Zachary family of West Texas are expecting good times ahead, with possible
intermarriage between their family and their partners in cattle ranching, the Rawlins'. But
trouble looms when a crazy old loner, Abe Kelsey (Joseph Wiseman) appears on his horse in a tattered
Union uniform and declares that the Zachary daughter Rachel (Audrey Hepburn) is an Indian. Soon
the neighbors fear another Indian war, when Kiowa brave Lost Bird (Carlos Rivas) tries to buy Rachel
with horses. Mother Mattilda Zachary (Lillian Gish) swears that Rachel was a white foundling,
pleas that do no good when Rawlins son Charlie (Albert Salmi) comes a courtin', and is slain by
The Rawlins patriarch Zeb (Charles Bickford) wants Rachel 'examined' to see if she's Indian, but
the head of the Zachary clan, Ben (Burt Lancaster) refuses, even when his own brother Cash (Audie
Murphy), an out and out racist, disowns his own adopted sister. Then Mattilda finally succumbs to
pressure and reveals her secret ... as the Indians prepare to take Rachel by force.
The Unforgiven is a fascinating picture that gives a wholly
believable account of white-Indian relationships on the frontier, which mostly adds up to racial
hatred caused by generations of violence and reprisals. It's especially interesting in its
depiction of white culpability - not as guilt per se, but as a consequence of racial denial. The
Zachary matriarch denies the truth and ruins the fragile fontier society, causing families to crumble
and neighbors to fall out. The wholesale killing is seen as inevitable, given the natural opposition
between the alien cultures of the native Americans and the anglo settlers.
The Unforgiven is a reworking of The Searchers, using remarkably similar
elements to tell another tragic story of frontier identities. Ethan Edwards (the John Wayne character)
of The Searchers is left as a rootless drifter, shut out of the family and 'doomed to wander
forever between the winds'. In The Unforgiven, the Joseph Wiseman character Abe Kelsey arrives
Ethan, with a uniform and saber, but this time spouting mad bibilical prose about a stolen Kiowa
babe, now living as white. Like Ethan, he's a vagrant without a home, obsessed with memories of
children killed by or lost to the Indians.
Ethan Edwards combined several contradictory impulses that The Unforgiven spreads
out among its characters. Kelsey is the wanderer, and Ben and Cash Zachary are brothers with opposite
ideas - Ben loves Rachel but doesn't know it, and Cash would like to see her dead.
The Searchers may be the classic and The Unforgiven the wanna-be, but John Huston's
film has a better handle on its themes. We don't have to interpret the conflict from thematic hints;
here the whites brag about the massacres of tribes and commemorate their
battles against attacking savages. The past event that motivates the action of The Unforgiven
is not an Indian crime, but an act of
needy love by Lillian Gish's Mattilda. Given a babe in arms after just having lost her own,
motherhood overcame racial considerations - Mattilda hates Indians more than ever, but has simply
decided that her love makes Rachel white.
The Unforgiven astutely equates righteousness with self-destructive racial hate. The
Godfearing good people who turn into vengeful zealots when they lose a son. Cash Zachary's lives and
breathes his hatred so openly that living with his own sister becomes intolerable.
Mattilda is so desperate to maintain her lies, she murders a man whose only crime is to tell an
unpopular truth. Even Ben seems to know that Abe Kelsey's lies are too powerful to be
all lies - the first act of our heroes is to sneak out on a shameful murder hunt. The story
is wonderfully complex, where The Searchers more poetically leaves its messages to
be read between the lines.
The characters here are the same archtypes as John Ford's, presented differently. There are
intimations of the incestuous hatred in The Searchers, where Ethan seems to want
Debbie dead for being a piece of his beloved Martha defiled by the Comanches. Burt
Lancaster's hearty rancher battles the feeling that his love for his sister is incestuous (when
they're not related and could marry) and is confused enough to allow her engagement to the
likeable but stupid Charlie Rawlins. Albert Salmi's Charlie doesn't sing, but he's an exact
counterpart to The Searchers' goofy Charlie McCorry character.
The other males are virile types with various levels of experience. Audie Murphy's Cash shows the
dead end of trying to avoid marriage in a land where prospective husbands are rare, and has
some great comic scenes fending off desperate neighbor girl Georgia (Kipp Hamilton). When he
stumbles drunkenly onto her farm asking to sleep in the barn, she enthusiastically offers that
he can sleep in her bed, if he marries her. Audie: "I may be drunk, but I'm not that drunk."
Once again under the sensitive direction of Huston, Murphy gives perhaps his finest performance.
At the time considered Star material, John Saxon is surprisingly effective as Johnny Portugal, an
Indian horse tamer who seduces a mare with undiluted sex-talk and wows the crowd around the corral.
Of course, Cash would like to shoot him, and Ben goes beserk when Portugal touches Rachel's hair.
Likewise, Doug McClure does well as the youngest Zachary brother, Andy, going gaga over French postcards
from Wichita and regretting that he might die before he ever has a ... beer. The acting is always
good in Huston movies, but this is a perfect cast.
That includes Audrey Hepburn, who some curmudgeons think is too delicate to play a frontier girl.
She does an excellent job of portraying the fear and panic of having her identity
turned upside-down, as well as communicating without dialogue her ploy to attract Ben by getting
herself engaged to sad sack Charlie.
The most remembered parts of the movie are the baroque touches, the kind of weirdnesses John Ford
wouldn't have handled well. Abe Kelsey appears in the dust like a demented prophet or a vengeful
ghost, with his military regalia implying an old-testament wrath. In the midst of an Indian attack,
Mattilda plays a baby grand piano in the front yard, creating a bizarre setpiece of feminine
strength against the savages.
The disappointment in The Unforgiven is that its Indian politics aren't as developed as the
story's themes. The ruthlessness of the interplay - at one point, Ben has Andy shoot an Indian under
a flag of peace in cold blood - gives way to strange moments such as Charlie's murder,
which seems to be prompted by his kissing Rachel. The raw dialogue also skirts taboo, with the
epithet 'red nigger' used more than once, by whites of both sexes.
The movie ends in a big Indian battle, a siege on the Zachary house, but the dramatic conflict that
preceded it was so unpredictable that a standard 'action finale' comes as a disappointment. In all
the fighting, the Indians are blasted down much too easily. This is either meant to be the days of
the naive honor-combat portrayed at the beginning of
Little Big Man, or just a lazy cliche,
because these Kiowa surely aren't fighting to win. The frontier women fire panicked shots into
the dust and bring down a galloping brave every time.
Cash's last-minute rescue is satisfying, as is Rachel's traumatic confrontation with her brother,
Lost Bird. With the equilibrium restored by mowing down what the rest of the movie has
shown to be honorable men, the happy reunion under a sky of flying geese doesn't have a good
feel. The Unforgiven pulls off miracles of sophisticated storytelling, only to graft an
ending no different from dozens of conventional Westerns. The earlier part of the story shows how
society is destroyed from within by racial hatred, yet the commercial ending has a shining Anglo victory.
The Unforgiven looks great on MGM's DVD. Franz Planer's Panavision vistas are parched but
attractive, giving the landscape a unique look. The Zacharys' windscow, with
its pool of water out front, is identical to but much more believable than than the homestead in
The show sounds good, with reservations. The audio on VHS
and laser was always thin and slightly distorted, and the engineers seem to have solved a lot of
the problems of what might always have been a poorly re-recorded track. It's good but not 100% clear.
Dimitri Tiompkins' fine score sounds as it always has, as if we were hearing it from an
echoey and indistinct distance. Perhaps the original Italian recording was done on the cheap.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Unforgiven rates:
Video: Very good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson