The Unforgiven

The Unforgiven


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

In John Huston's staggering film career there are two westerns. While The Life And Times Of Judge Roy Bean is a broad comedy, even a farce, The Unforgiven is much closer to a tragedy. While it forms an intriguing counterpoint to The Searchers, also written by Alan Le May, its various difficulties have resulted in it being overlooked.

One of the few surviving prints was shown at the 2009 Glasgow Film Festival as part of its Audrey Hepburn programme. While it was the film she made immediately before Breakfast At Tiffany's, and during production she broke her back, the real strength of the film is her performance.

Copy picture

The cast is tremendous - Hepburn as Rachel Zachary, sister to Burt Lancaster and Audie Murphy, cousin to Doug McClure, niece of Lillian Gish. Beyond all this star power, the Zacharys have a gigantic cattle herd, or at least a sizeable share of one, in partnership with the Rawlins family. It's a frontier idyll, a thriving community, though not without its perils; the Kiowa lurk on the horizon, making deadly raids, including the one that killed Rachel's parents.

These happy times are jeopardised by a haggard old man, Abe Kelsey. Played by Joseph Wiseman he's a ghost from the desert, emerging from scrub and sandstorms like a spirit of vengeance. Where he goes revelation follows. He claims to know the secret of the Zacharys, a seemingly terrible thing; Rachel is not their flesh and blood, but a Kiowa child, taken as their own. What follows from that is horrible, moving.

Beyond Huston's direction, Ben Maddow's adaptation is strong. This was his first open credit after he was blacklisted in the Fifties for his involvement in UnAmerican Activities. The wild open country is well presented by Franz Planer, with the same generous eye that he brought to The Big Country. The score is provided by Dmitri Tiomkin, who scored The Alamo that same year and, amongst various westerns, composed for The Guns of Navarone.

Huston wanted to make a film about racism, and succeeded. The language of the film is terrible to modern ears; 'red nigger' is heard on several occasions, and the violence is still shocking. A statement about race and family, it has languished in relative obscurity. It has perhaps been overshadowed by The Searchers. Nonetheless, it is a powerful film, and well worth seeing.

Reviewed on: 06 Mar 2009
Share this with others on...
The Unforgiven packshot
Gritty John Huston western about heritage and race.

Director: John Huston

Writer: Alan Le May, Ben Maddow

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Audie Murphy, John Saxon, Charles Bickford, Lillian Gish, Albert Salmi, Joseph Wiseman, June Walker, Kipp Hamilton

Year: 1960

Runtime: 125 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: USA


Glasgow 2009

Search database:

If you like this, try:

Rez Bomb
The Searchers