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In 1850’s Texas, the Zacharys live in relative peace despite the far from neighbourly presence of the same Kiowa Indians who killed the family patriarch. As Ben (Burt Lancaster) and his racist brother Cash (Audie Murphy) prepare to lead a cattle drive to Wichita, Abe Kelsey (Joseph Wiseman), a mysterious saddle tramp known to Ben’s mother, Mattilda (Lillian Gish), comes to stir up family and racial tensions as the Kiowas try to claim Mattilda’s adopted daughter, Rachel (Audrey Hepburn) as their own. Only Mattilda knows the full story of Rachel’s origins but there will be blood on white and Kiowa hands before the truth is out.

Review by Keith Lofthouse:
What happened, out there on the parched plains of Mexico in 1959? Why was the making of John Huston's first western such a bitter experience for the master director that he not only labelled it a "mistake" but said: "Some pictures I don't care for, but The Unforgiven is the only one I actually dislike." What went wrong? Well, for starters, Huston felt he compromised his own vision of the film for commercial concerns. He wanted a film that made serious social commentary; they wanted a swashbuckler that would cover the $4 million price tag. Huston blamed himself when first time rider Audrey Hepburn broke four vertebrae in her back when she fell from Diabolo, the white stallion she so prizes in the film. With Hepburn in hospital the production was forced to shut down for six months (at a cost of $250,000) and it was during this period that America's Most Decorated war hero, Audie Murphy, who couldn't swim due to an old wound to the hip, almost drowned while duck hunting in Durango and had to be rescued by a female photographer.

Hepburn's injury might explain why Huston allowed this prairie woman, gorgeous as she is, to look and sound as if she has just tiptoed from Madame Fifi's Finishing School, and why he was soft on her performance which is as gushy and irritating as they often were. She is simply terrible, although I have seen a review in which she is lavishly praised - clearly someone bewitched by her. As usual, Burt Lancaster is sturdy and solemn as Ben who becomes head of the Zachary clan after his father is killed in an Indian attack.

But the film is stolen by Lillian Gish as Mattilda, the matriarchal pioneer widder-woman who totes a shotgun and is as fiercely protective of her brood as she was so memorably in Night Of The Hunter and by Joseph Wiseman as Abe Kelsey, the vengefully demented sabre-rattling ghost-rider who rants on about being "the sword of God." Gish shares a priceless moment with her ill-fated piano (pronounced pie-ana by the pioneers), pounding out a little Mozart "magic" to counter the menace of thumping Kiowa war drums.

The real surprise is Murphy (replacing Tony Curtis), who only had to look boyishly heroic to be effective in most of his moth-eaten westerns, but here as Ben's Indian-hating brother Cash, he rails against those "red hide niggers," yelling "hell fire, Ben, there's only three of them, we can kill 'em all before breakfast!" Murphy even has the best line of comedy when a willing redhead comes-a-wooing, he quips: "I may be drunk ma'am, but I ain't that drunk!" Bigotry and prejudice is at the core of this uneven but underrated saga which is unrelated to Clint Eastwood's 1992 Unforgiven, except by genre.

Oddly enough, its anti-racist stance seems to be muddled by its rough treatment of the Natives. The Texas community of cowpokes and settlers depicted have a deep-seated hatred for the Kiowa and turn against anyone "tainted"; they are deeply suspicious of the Bible-bashing Kelsey and the working men have to know their place, respect their imperious employers or lose their jobs. All this, plus some smashing photography; Ben's secret love for his sister, Rachel, and a ferocious Indian attack on the Zachary homestead in the guns-a-blazing finale, help to distinguish The Unforgiven from umpteen other run-of-the-mill horse-operas. Well, I said it was underrated. Name your ten best westerns and I'll argue that Unforgiven tops at least one or two of them.

Published August 19, 2004

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(US, 1960)

CAST: Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Audie Murphy, Lillian Gish

DIRECTOR: John Huston

SCRIPT: Ben Maddow

RUNNING TIME: 121 minutes

PRESENTATION: 2:35.1 Anamorphic widescreen. Dolby digital 2.0 mono. Languages: English, Spanish. Subtitles: English, Spanish, French.

DVD DISTRIBUTOR: MGM Home Entertainment

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