The Unforgiven (1960) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
10Dec/100

The Unforgiven (1960)

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

Danny DISLIKEI have a pair of friends who often engaged in a pointless rhetorical debate about a rather rare occurrence. One posited that falling in love with an adopted sibling with whom you'd been raised was a more morally repugnant scenario than if you fell in love with a blood relative whom you didn't meet nor knew existed until late adolescence.

Frankly, it's a purely academic argument-- and when I say 'academic', I mean it's idiotic to try and make a blanket assumption in cases composed of nothing but generalities-- but Audrey Hepburn's first and only foray into a Western flirts with one of those taboos.

Hepburn stars as Rachel Zachary, frontierswoman with an inexplicable English accent. Her hair is dyed rather dark, meaning either she's been out in the sun too long or, in old Hollywood tradition, she's playing someone of a different race.

Hepburn spends most of the film as the object to be won rather than any tangible person of her own.

Yes, she is a Native American, who was kidnapped from her tribe when she was just a babe. Raised by a white mother and three brothers, including the stolid Burt Lancaster as the eldest, the ghost of who she really is finally comes back to haunt her when one of her father's old friends comes lurking about.

He doesn't shy away from telling the nearby Indian tribe about the girl, and suddenly the Zacharys are in a lot of trouble. Abandoned by their white friends and under siege by the Indians, Rachel must come to grips with her heritage and also survive.

There are a few details I'm skimming over-- John Saxon plays a magical Indian who seems to have an Irish accent to match Hepburn's-- but most importantly is that the entire first hour of this movie is much more devoted to the betrothals and cattle herding that were typical sites of the films of the day. This makes for less than compelling cinema.

The brother/sister love I was alluding to before involves Lancaster's stoic older brother's barely contained lust for Hepburn. Lancaster and Hepburn don't seem to mesh very well-- Hepburn at her darkest is still far more sunny that Lancaster at his brightest-- and Lancaster's penchant for being larger-than-life doesn't fit into the domesticity of the film. Lilian Gish plays the mother of the two with wide-eyed raving sensibilities, and the actors who play Lancaster's brothers are uniformly cheesy and terrible.

Lancaster is about as humorless as he can muster here.

The film tries to make several points about racism, but it is so sloppily constructed that it's hard to make sense of the message. If you raise a girl and love her very much it doesn't matter what race she is? That still kind of sounds creepy. Add to that the sheer number of Indians massacred-- ten die to destroy Gish's piano for Pete's sake-- and the film's deeper message of understanding might be a little lost.

Hepburn struggles through the movie with her character who is supposed to be going through a serious crisis of conscious. There isn't enough there for her character, and what little resolution she gets seems like an afterthought. Hepburn herself apparently had a hard time making this movie, as she was injured when she fell from a horse and suffered a miscarriage from said injury.

She finished making the film like a trooper, but her tangible discomfort ripples through the film. It's a grandiose dullard.

Audrey Hepburn Sundays

Posted by Danny

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