The Unforgiven (1960)
A small settler community tears itself apart when rumours circulate that Burt Lancaster’s sister (Audrey Hepburn) is actually a ‘red-skin’. When Indians come to claim her, trouble begins.
John Huston’s sensitive western has been mostly considered as a pale imitation and a reverse telling of genre classic “The Searchers” (1956).
Burt Lancaster’s authoritative, if complicated, performance is more than matched by an insatiably rabid Audie Murphy as his loose-cannon brother. Lillian Gish sparkles as the family matriarch harbouring an old secret. I’m not sure if Audrey Hepburn is believable as a ‘red skin’ but she doesn’t need to be.
The star performer is surely Joseph Wiseman, whose evangelical one-eyed civil war veteran struts around the plain espousing a bitter vendetta against Hepburn and her family. Whilst, the stand-out set-piece has Gish play the piano on the prairie as Indians gather a war party for an attack on her farmhouse. However, Huston’s greatest achievement is in the morality of the tale and the richest scenes force the viewer to question who the heroes are in the picture. I’d likely consider this movie one of the first serious entries in the revisionist sub-genre.
There are negatives. The relationship between Hepburn and Lancaster is a little close to incest, even though they aren’t blood relatives, for my taste and it unsettled me. It also dilutes your appreciation of the chemistry between Lancaster and Hepburn. Furthermore, the attack on the homestead at the film’s close straddles the stereotypical ‘indians-ride-round-in-circles-while-settlers-take-pot-shots-from-behind-a-wagon’ scenario too heavily.
This isn’t the best Western you’ll ever see, but is worthy of a genuine reappraisal. An under-valued film.
Hotdog rating: 8/10