June 14, 2007

Review of The Unforgiven

The Unforgiven (1960 film)The Unforgiven is an American western film released in 1960. The film was directed by John Huston and starred Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Audie Murphy, Charles Bickford and Lillian Gish. The story was based upon a novel by Alan Le May.

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.
Plot summary for The Unforgiven (1960)Odd Western about racial intolerance focuses around Kiowa claim that the Zachary daughter is one of their own, stolen in a raid. The dispute results in other whites' turning their backs on the Zacharys when the truth is revealed by Mother. Murphy plays Cash, the hotheaded brother who reacts violently to learning his "sister" is a "red-hide Indian." He leaves the family but returns to help them fight off an Indian raid during which Hepburn kills her Kiowa brother, thus choosing sides once and for all.The UnforgivenHepburn just doesn't work as an American Indian. She has neither the appearance nor the accent. One character comments that her skin is a little dark. Now, I know there was nothing wrong with my television set, and let me tell you, she's just as white as everyone else. One baffling scene has Hepburn looking into a mirror and opening her shirt. Her expression suggests that she just realized the truth about her background. Really? What did she see that she didn't notice before?The Unforgiven(spoiler)

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 (1960)At first, it seems like there might be a message here about intolerance. It comes close when the old man lets the secret out—Rachel is indeed a Kiowa—and the townspeople reject both her and the family, and even closer when her brother Cash flips out and rejects her. But the remainder of the film proceeds to stomp that hesitant grasping at enlightenment into the dust, underneath the hooves of several dozen Indian horses as they attack the Zachary household in an unreconstructed circle-the-wagons scene that wouldn't have been out of place in an early John Ford western. At this point, the film becomes something else, a treatise on the age-old nature versus nurture question: will Rachel's corrupt Indian blood win out, or will her white upbringing triumph and allow her to take part in that whitest of actions—killing Indians? The white people never miss, and the Indians seldom shoot; they're superstitious, losing several warriors in an all-out attack on the family piano; they conveniently ride around in circles past the waiting rifles.

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.
Comment:  I think these reviews captured the strengths and weaknesses of The Unforgiven. The half-breed Johnny Portugal (played by John Saxon) comes off reasonably well, enduring racist taunts with quiet dignity. The Kiowas initially seem human as they negotiate for Rachel's return, but they turn into unrelenting animals as they throw away their lives in a vain attempt to retrieve her.

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.

2 comments:

russell said...

Writerfella here --
The language spoken in the film was Kiowa, as writerfella's distant uncle George Pawh-gyai was the Technical Advisor. He did the same work on CHEYENNE AUTUMN, but there he had the Cheyennes speaking Kiowa! In THE UNFORGIVEN, when the Kiowas claim the girl, Burt Lancaster says -- "Haw-nay! Thaw-koy! Mah-ton" No! White! Girl!! and says it badly, at that.
All Best
Russ Bates
'writerfella'

Chris said...

Alan LeMay wrote the novels on which both The Searchers and The Unforgiven were based, the difference being that The Unforgiven was made more contentious by transposing the ethnic background of the girl from white taken by Indian to Indian taken by whites.

The language spoken in Cheyenne Autumn is DinÄ— (Navajo) because the extras were from nearby and the film was made on their land in Monument Valley. Apparently the words they speak translate as very funny profanities about the leading stars.

For more see my website www.nativeamerican.co.uk, it would be great to hear from you.