Cash Zachary: (Audie Murphy)'When the wind's in the right direction, I can smell Injun a mile off.'
Ben Zachary: (Burt Lancaster)'Well, I hate to disappoint you, but that smell is comin' off of me. I haven't changed my dirt since Wichita, Kansas'.

Audrey Hepburn and Burt Lancaster

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THE UNFORGIVEN, John Huston,1960

This is a fine film, well directed by John Huston and well acted by a sparkling cast. Burt Lancaster delivers a much more serious and less dashing performance than we might expect from Vera Cruz, showing that his acting skills were not all to do with panache. The story was taken from a book by Alan Le May, who also wrote the excellent novel on which John Ford's The Searchers was based. The theme of issues arising out of capture of a young person by Indians is turned on its head, for in The Unforgiven the youngster is a Kiowa girl played by Audrey Hepburn, who is adopted by Texas settlers. While The Searchers is an excellent film with a claim to being the best western ever made, Huston's film floundered, arguably owing to disagreements the director had with the studio which resulted in him walking away. The ending is far from satisfactory and does not sit well with the rest of the slowly built dramatically unfolding plot.

When contact is made by the Kiowa brother of the adopted girl, prejudices against the Indians within the Texan community are revealed much more overtly than in Ford's finest film. The anti racist stance in the Searchers was much more subtle, perhaps even oblique. Reputedly Huston's original cut made the anti racism even more overt, although falling well short of the gash preaching speech trotted out by James Stewart in Ford's weak Two Rode Together.

For The Unforgiven to be a classic there needed to be less pandering to the demands of the studio towards the end of the picture. In particular, final action sequence needed to be much less stereotypical. It is incongruous with the rest of the movie, it does not sit well at all with the thought provoking preceding drama. Maybe the problems stemmed from the conflict between Lancaster and Huston over the shooting of the film. And then there were the idiosyncrasies of the cast - Audie Murphy compulsively shot rabbits and Lillian Gish harped back to the skills of D W Griffith, not to mention accidents which befell them - Murphy nearly drowned and Audrey Hepburn delayed filming for three weeks when she fell off a horse. Despite all this the film is still good enough to contain scenes which look suspiciously similar to those in later films - like True Grit and Josey Wales, for example.

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Chris Smallbone March 2010