Please Note: The screen captures used here are taken from an earlier DVD release, not the Blu-ray edition under review.
The only western that Audrey Hepburn ever made, The Unforgiven pairs the actress with co-star and producer Burt Lancaster and legendary director John Huston for a decent if not dazzling cowboy drama.
This Texas-based tale casts Lancaster as Ben Zachary, a cattle rancher who has served as head of the household since his father was killed in a fight with a neighboring Native American tribe. Ben has only just returned from a big drive when he finds out that a mysterious old Confederate soldier (Joseph Wiseman) has been lurking about stirring up trouble. He has been spreading rumors that Ben's adopted sister, Rachel (Hepburn), is not a white orphan, as the Zacharies would have everyone believe, but an Indian girl that their late father found stranded in the aftermath of a skirmish. Ben and his brothers (Audie Murphy and Doug McClure) deny this slander, but when the rumor spreads and draws the attention of the Indians, including one warrior (Carlos Rivas) who believes Rachel is his long-lost sister, their mother (iconic screen actress Lillian Gish) finally comes clean with the truth.
Huston (The Misfits) intended The Unforgiven as a serious response to The Searchers, but MGM balked at a western dealing too seriously with race relations and pushed instead for a more commercial narrative. The result is that the 1960 release ends up as a case of neither/nor. The script by Ben Maddow (The Asphalt Jungle) touches on some of the deeper matters inherent to the basic conflict, allowing for the reactions of the different characters affected by the revelation to serve as commentary. The heavier questions remain largely unanswered, however, when the story moves on to become a more familiar shoot-'em-up. The Unforgiven's final act is essentially a siege on the Zachary cabin, as Rachel's true blood relatives come to try to take her back. Little is really made of their very real claim on the kidnapped woman, especially after Rachel has chosen to stay with her adopted family and fight at their side. Differences amongst the whites are dismissed in order to slaughter the "red."
Setting aside the politics, there is some intriguing interpersonal drama that keeps The Unforgiven going. Lancaster and Hepburn have decent chemistry, and it's too bad Maddow and Huston didn't go further with the young girl's crush on her adopted brother, especially when there is so much discussion of marrying between the Zacharies and the family living on adjoining property. Lancaster delivers the expected stoic, morally grounded performance, making an effective leader and hero. Hepburn isn't exactly convincing as a Native American girl, particularly with that posh accent, but she delivers the best scene in the movie. Shortly after finding out the truth about herself, Rachel goes to her room and ponders her shifting identity. It's a solo scene, performed in front of a mirror, and Hepburn's despair and confusion is powerful.
All in all, The Unforgiven is a decent effort, it just feels like it's holding back. There are so many missed opportunities here, there was a chance to make it something unique, progressive; instead, The Unforgiven comes off as genuinely average.
Kino Lorber's 2.35:1 widescreen high-definition transfer (1080p) of The Unforgiven is of fair quality. While the overall picture lacks sharpness and there are times when excessive grain can be distracting, the general image is clean and the colors are nicely rendered. The transfer appears stable with no poor edits or problems with pixilation.
The original mono soundtrack has been remastered as a DTS track and sounds good. There is no evident distortion or obvious glitches. The dialogue is clear, and the music has nice tones.
Optional English subtitles are provided.
The original trailer
Recommended. John Huston's 1960 western drama The Unforgiven stars Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn as a cattle driver and his adopted sister whose lives are turned upside down when the girl is revealed to have been kidnapped from a nearby Indian tribe. Though Huston's intention was to delve into the deeper emotional and political questions posed by such a scenario, studio meddling saw the director pull back and instead deliver a middling effort that never goes all the way with any of its themes or scenarios. Still, the narrative is solid and the cast is excellent, making for a decent cowboy tale that mainly suffers from the fact that it could have been so much more.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.