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.
Optional English subtitles are provided.