Unforgiven, The (1960)

Unforgiven, The (1960)

“May the Lord deliver us from evil — Red or White.”

When a mysterious one-eyed man (Joseph Wiseman) shows up on horseback claiming that the adopted daughter (Audrey Hepburn) of widowed Mrs. Zachary (Lillian Gish) is of Kiowa ancestry, racial tensions emerge, with Gish’s three cattle-ranching sons (Burt Lancaster, Audie Murphy, and Doug McClure) as well as the family’s neighbors — Lancaster’s business partner (Charles Bickford) and his wife (June Walker), son (Albert Salmi), and daughter (Kipp Hamilton) — becoming involved as well.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Audie Murphy Films
  • Audrey Hepburn Films
  • Burt Lancaster Films
  • Charles Bickford Films
  • John Huston Films
  • John Saxon Films
  • Lillian Gish Films
  • Native Americans
  • Race Relations and Racism
  • Westerns

Although John Huston purportedly hated this film more than any other in his directing oeuvre, it remains a surprisingly compelling western featuring several strong performances, unique imagery, and a refreshing attempt to address anti-Indian racism head-on. Based on a story by Alan Le May — who also wrote the novel John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) was derived from — the film sets up a mysterious scenario from the very beginning, as a creepy man on a white horse rides up and tells Hepburn, “You’re no Zachary.”

Hepburn retorts that while she may not be “Zachary born,” her “Ma says it’s no different than if [she] were flesh and blood,” and asks the man how he claims to know her. His response — “I am the sword of God, the fire and the vengeance, whereby the wrong shall be righted and the truth be told.” — sets the pace for the entire narrative, which is predicated on determining the presumably crucial issue of whether Hepburn’s Rachel is “Kiowa born” or was simply a White foundling taken in by the Zachary family. Indeed, racial tensions between the White settlers and the Native Kiowas remains high throughout, and the script doesn’t sugarcoat their precarious co-existence.

The early arrival of a piano on the wide prairie (purchased by Lancaster during a trip to Wichita) adds a Gothic flavor to the proceedings:

… and eventually becomes a potent symbol in the battle between Settlers and Natives. The presence of sharp-shooting Gish, meanwhile, immediately evokes memories of her comparable role as a protective mother figure in The Night of the Hunter (1955). While some have complained that Hepburn seems miscast, I disagree; and Lancaster is suitably toned-down for his role here as the hard-working, father-figure head of the family.

One of the major complaints made about the film is its “conventional” ending — and it’s true that a different outcome would have felt both more authentic and more satisfying; but overall, this remains an engaging western that’s worth at least a one-time look.

Note: Watch for John Saxon in a small role as an Indian horse trader known as Johnny Portugal.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Fine performances by the cast

  • Franz Planer’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a fine if flawed film by Huston.


  • Good Show
  • Important Director


One thought on “Unforgiven, The (1960)

  1. A once-must, as a solid Huston film that should be better-known. As posted (5/2/21) in ‘The ’40s-’50s in Film’ (fb):

    “Red nigger as ever was!”

    ‘The Unforgiven’ (1960): I often check backstories of films but the one for this (cusp) film is esp. puzzling. According to Wikipedia: “[Director John] Huston battled with Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, the production company financing the film. Hecht-Hill-Lancaster wanted a more commercial and less controversial film, while Huston wanted to make a statement about racism in America. The result was that neither side received exactly what they had wanted.”

    The source material was written by Alan Le May, author of ‘The Searchers’ – which, of course, John Ford had filmed a few years earlier. It told the story of a young white girl abducted by Indians; John Wayne goes after her. ‘The Unforgiven’ is basically the opposite story, though perhaps more complicated in its details.

    ‘The Searchers’ was apparently only slightly successful financially. If Burt Lancaster’s production team wanted to improve their film’s own chances of box office appeal, how exactly did they hope to avoid the controversy (re: racism) which was so deeply embedded in Le May’s work?

    It doesn’t make sense. (I haven’t read Le May’s novel – but Huston’s film doesn’t hide its points about racism.)

    Adding strangeness to the film’s history is the fact that Huston is quoted as saying it is the only one of his films that he disliked. (An odd statement, considering some of the more-genuine turkeys in the master filmmaker’s career.) During filming, Audrey Hepburn was thrown from a horse – while pregnant! – and ultimately lost the child. Hepburn blamed herself – but finished the film; later disowning it. Huston, understandably, felt responsible – which could be why he turned on his own film. But who knows? We can only go by what’s reported.

    The film itself… is actually rather powerful. It smolders during its first hour – then suddenly packs a giant wallop, one that the film rides for its second half.

    The fine supporting cast includes: Lillian Gish, Audie Murphy, Albert Salmi, Doug McClure, Joseph Wiseman, Charles Bickford and John Saxon. Beautifully filmed by Franz Planer; Dimitri Tiomkin provides a haunting score.

Leave a Reply