November 22, 2012
The Unforgiven – US, 1960
John Huston’s western The Unforigven is a film that will confound some viewers. It is a film in which a party of Native Americans breaks out a bunch of flutes in order to play a melody that is intended to make them invincible. This may not sound incredulous, but bear in mind that they do this only after their first attack on a family home is repelled. It is the kind of film in which someone comes across the tracks of a wanted man and instead of simply saying, “Everyone, come here,” elects to shoot into the air three times. So much for preserving the element of surprise. The film is essentially a family drama set in the Old West, yet it contains elements of both Cape Fear and 1950’s comedies about women looking for husbands. The film gets its Cape Fear comparisons from the creepy horseback rider who appears out of nowhere, knows everything there is to know about the people he comes in contact with, and quotes the Bible as a means of striking fear in those he is talking to. He’s the kind of eccentric character who sits on his horse in the midst of a dust storm with his sword raised for no apparent reason and shouts out Bible verses to no one in particular. However, characters such as this one can always be counted on to have bouts of clarity at the most opportune moments.
The stranger appears bent on getting a slow revenge on the Zachary family, whom we learn in the film’s early moments lost their patriarch years earlier in a skirmish with the Kiawa Indians. Responsibility for leading the family now belongs to the eldest son, Ben (Burt Lancaster), who along with his two brothers, Cash (Audie Murphy) and Andy (Doug McClure), is a rancher. Rounding out the family are the boys’ mother, Mattilda (the legendary Lillian Gish) and their sister, Rachel, who is obviously not related by blood. Rachel is played by Audrey Hepburn, and she seems a bit miscast in this film. While I can see Mrs. Hepburn riding on a horse as a princess in some faraway European kingdom, I can’t completely see her as a country girl raised in the American West.
The film is unfortunately awkwardly structured. Its clunky first half is filled with unnecessarily over-the-top characters spouting comic mispronunciations and oddball views on marriage that I can only believe were intended to be seen as true for the time. However, when a female character goes from brother to brother and implies that she would marry any one of them, it doesn’t seem timely. It just seems embarrassing. In fact, the film would have the audience believe that Rachel would settle for the first man that asked her to marry her, even a loveable loser like Charlie Rawlins (Albert Salmi). There’s little chemistry between Rawlins and Hepburn, and as Charlie is written, it’s hard to see why Rachel would be interested in him at all, let alone leap into his arms after he comes to court her.
In one of the film most ridiculous moments, Ben is questioning his mother rather seriously about the mysterious stranger at a time when his mother is equally serious about not talking about him. So what does she do? She runs to the piano and begins playing one of those old fashioned dance tunes of the time, which causes everyone to rise to their feet and begin dancing, as if they hadn’t just been talking about something serious a moment earlier. Nothing like music to make people forget that they might be in danger. The scene doesn’t work, yet to its credit, at least Ben does not partake in the merriment.
The film picks up in its second half, as it shifts as well as if can away from comedy and mystery. This the film succeeds at, and what follows, a rumination on race and family, is fairly involving. Tough decisions are made, and even when we don’t agree with them, we certainly believe that these characters would make them. The film climaxes in a long, drawn out battle that is essentially a fight for control over Rachel’s destiny, one that asks whether a person’s fate should be determined by blood ties or free will. At a different time in history, the choice might not have had to be made and the dispute might not have had to be settled with violence.
The Unforgiven was written by Alan Le May, who also wrote John Ford’s masterpiece The Searchers, and while there are similarities between them, it is fair to say that The Unforgiven in not in The Searchers’ league. There are too many moments of intended zaniness that fall flat and too many head-scratching moments that do not end up being worth the time it takes to try to understand them. The film is a noble effort, but an ultimately problematic one. (on DVD)
2 and a half stars