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The Unforgiven (1960)

Posted on the 27 April 2014 by Christopher Saunders
The Unforgiven (1960)John Huston's The Unforgiven (1960) is one strange Western. Based on an Alan Lemay novel, Unforgiven mixes incongruous elements (message movie, action film, gothic melodrama) with a bizarre cast. Trying to recapture The Searchers' magic, Huston produces an indigestible mess.
Rachel Zachary (Audrey Hepburn) is the adopted daughter of Texas rancher Mattilda (Lillian Gish), harboring romantic feelings for Ben (Burt Lancaster). But drifter Kelsey (Joseph Wiseman) arrives, claiming that Rachel isn't white. Dismissed as a madman, his ramblings reach the Kiowa Indians, who think Rachel's a child lost in a long-ago massacre. Soon the Zachary's neighbors start believing Kelsey leading to trouble with the townspeople and the Indians.
The Unforgiven is overpopulated with themes, subplots and characters that don't really mix. The anti-racist posturing doesn't save the Kiowa from third act target practice. Ben's too rigid for his actions (punching farmhands, shooting unarmed Indians) to carry weight; he's less conflicted antihero than a jerk. Mattilda's unconditional love for Rachel is touching, yet she seems more delusional than tragic. For each inspired idea, like Kelsey (portrayed like an Old Testament prophet) or the cattle-driven climax, there's something dumb or inexplicable.
Nor does the story work. Lovebirds Rachel and Ben show zero chemistry, while scenarist Ben Maddow dawdles on inconsequential supporting players. But Unforgiven really crumbles once Kelsey spills the beans. Rachel seems so upset she's willing to join the Kiowa... but nothing comes of it. Brother Cash (Audie Murphy) and neighbors denounce Rachel, then exit. Unforgiven settles for a standard siege finale which resolves little; killing Indians isn't enough for a happy ending.
John Huston found working on Unforgiven unpleasant, from disagreements with Lancaster to Hepburn suffering an injury which caused a miscarriage. He provides some effective set pieces, like the Zacharys tracking Kelsey through a dust storm, but often settles for indifferent coverage and slack pacing. Or weird, artsy touches (Mattilda playing piano as the Kiowas attack) befitting a better movie. Huston's dispassion shows in his erratic direction.
Burt Lancaster is uncommonly bland and inexpressive, while Audrey Hepburn proves quintessential miscasting. She's convincing neither as a frontier girl or full-blooded Kiowa. Audie Murphy's subplot shows potential, but his character's sidelined just as he gets interesting. Lillian Gish's frothing anguish makes a strong impression. Joseph Wiseman makes a chilling doomsayer while Charles Bickford's solid as a turncoat rancher. John Saxon, Albert Salmi and Doug McClure have early roles.
The Unforgiven is a mess. Perversely watchable for its off-the-wall moments, it's a weird residue of good ideas poorly realized.

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