The film tells the story of a frontier family fighting to survive when it is discovered that one of them—played by Hepburn—is actually a Native American who had been secretly adopted by the white family. The film spotlighted the issues of racism in the Old West.
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.
Another bit of thematic oddness that I trace to the film's racism is the growing attraction between Rachel and Ben. At first it's playful teasing, then there are some meaningful glances, but the old incest taboo is working at full strength: even though the two of them aren't blood relatives, they've been raised as if they were. But after it turns out that Rachel is an Indian, things change. ... I think that had Rachel been white, she and Ben never would have—or could have—ended up together, but because she's an Indian, all bets are off. Her options become instantly limited to various classes of sexual degradation: the savagery of the Indians, life as a prostitute in Wichita, or pseudo-incest with her brother Ben.
Several reviewers noted that The Unforgiven has a story and theme similar to that of The Searchers. The racist depiction of Indians that ultimately outweighs any message of tolerance is also similar. This was an era of changing values, when moviemakers couldn't decide whether Indians were good or bad.
As with Cheyenne Autumn, the setting is a problem. The characters talk about riding into Dodge City as if it's near, implying they're somewhere in Indian territory (the southern Plains). But there are hints of Monument Valley-style buttes, and one scene takes place in a forest of cactus. I'm guessing The Unforgiven was filmed in Utah and Arizona, not Oklahoma or northern Texas.
Everything about this movie--the casting, the plot, the message--is quirky and uneven. Which at least makes it watchable if not exceptional. Rob's rating: 7.0 of 10.