“I am the sword of God — the fire and the vengeance whereby the wrong shall be righted and the truth be told.”
The Unforgiven originated with a novel of the same title by Alan LeMay, author of the book that John Ford’s The Searchers had been based on. Hecht, Hill, Lancaster — Burt Lancaster’s production company — took on the project hoping to create a western that gave a real feel to what the West was really like, rather than a Hollywoodized version of it. Commercial decisions soon eroded this stance. Burt Lancaster would star, but his previous successes with Kirk Douglas suggested that another collaboration of the two in this film might be good. This particular story did not lend itself to two such powerful actors and attempts to twist the script to fit were unsuccessful and the idea of Douglas being involved was dropped. Meanwhile, the original director, Delbert Mann, was replaced by John Huston, who was interested because he saw an opportunity to examine the issue of racial intolerance on the frontier. This element had existed in the original novel, but was built up substantially under Huston’s involvement.
Filming was undertaken outside of Durango, Mexico in January 1959 and dragged on for months, partly because of injuries suffered by Audrey Hepburn when her horse bolted at one stage and also because of conflicts between Lancaster and Huston. The need for Lancaster’s company to have the film be a commercial hit led to efforts to blunt the racial intolerance angle somewhat, much to Huston’s displeasure. In the end, Huston distanced himself from the project during post production and later claimed that of all his films, The Unforgiven was the only one he actually disliked. The film opened in April 1960 to mixed reviews.
MGM has now made it available on DVD as part of its Western Legends Collection.
The Zachary family has managed to make a decent living from cattle ranching despite the almost constant threat of attack by the territory’s Indian population. The family patriarch was killed by Indians, leaving three sons (Ben, Cash, and Andy), their mother Matthilda, and sister Rachel who was adopted as a baby. The Zacharys are part of a fairly close-knit community of ranchers who pool their resources for protection and for marketing their cattle. Whispers begin that Rachel is in fact Indian by birth, and then a band of Indians demand she be returned to them. The Zacharys refuse, but when Indians kill a neighbor’s son who had planned to marry Rachel, their friends begin to turn on the Zacharys. Even Cash Zachary, a violent Indian hater, begins to question Rachel’s heritage. When real proof of her Indian ancestry eventually comes to light, the Zacharys are ostracized and find themselves forced to defend themselves from the Indians on their own.
One might expect that with all the turmoil that surrounded the making of this film, the results would be rather poor. Somehow, however, a consistently interesting film emerged, even if there are some loose ends that seem attributable to the desire to strike a balance between having a commercial product and strict adherence to the story’s basic theme of racial intolerance. One such is a character called Johnny Portugal, a half-breed who is constantly derided by many of the local cowboys, not to mention Cash Zachary. Portugal is even put in the position of being Ben’s rival for Rachel’s affections. But then the character just disappears half-way through the film, and the remaining theme of intolerance focuses entirely on the nature of the treatment that Rachel experiences when she is at first suspected and later confirmed to be of Indian parentage. Another incomplete subplot involves the character of Abe Kelsey, an apparently half-crazed old man who knows the truth about Rachel, but whose motivations for haunting the Zacharys are never clearly explained. Despite these lapses, the film’s theme of intolerance comes through clearly even if it has been somewhat tempered. The nod to commerciality is most obvious in the film’s ending, one that is typical of hundreds of Hollywood westerns.
It was said that director John Huston didn’t seem to be too engaged with his job during the lengthy shooting, but the results would suggest otherwise. The story is moved along briskly and a number of rounded characters are drawn out. He uses the Panavision canvas fully and introduces enough variety of camera angles and positioning to enhance the story without drawing attention to them. Aiding the basic interest of the storyline are several nicely-spaced action sequences that are effectively executed.
Burt Lancaster does his usual strong job as Ben Zachary, a man of character and the sort of strong man role that he was well known for. Audrey Hepburn doesn’t look out of place at all in a western, and in fact, turns in one of her stronger acting efforts. Audie Murphy got a chance to step up from his routine westerns for Universal, and as Cash Zachary shows a depth of ability that had only been hinted at previously. Unfortunately, he was never able to cash in on it. It’s also a delight to see Lillian Gish making the most of the important role of Matthilda, almost 50 years after her first film appearances.
MGM’s 2.35:1 anamorphic presentation is very fine. Colours are bright and clear and shadow detail is good. There is minimal debris evident on the image. Edge effects are minor and certainly don’t intrude.
The mono sound (both English and Spanish) is nothing startling. It conveys the story adequately, but denies any expansiveness to Dimitri Tiomkin’s appealing score. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided.
The only supplement is the original theatrical trailer.
The Unforgiven is a thoughtful and thoroughly entertaining western featuring a raft of fine performances. MGM’s DVD image presentation is first rate. The film would make a good double bill pared with The Searchers, a film that addresses similar concerns in many ways.