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The Unforgiven

Based on a novel by Alan Le May, John Huston's The Unforgiven (1960) is a leisurely paced tale of revenge and assimilation that never accrues much thematic heft as it plods through its rote storytelling mechanics with little enthusiasm or visual invention. Huston was never afraid to shoot an ugly picture — his one unassailable masterpiece, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, is visually as dirty as its characters' souls — and here he often keeps the camera at low angles, the better, it would seem, to obscure what would normally be very picturesque surroundings with billowing plumes of dust. And when there isn't enough grit clogging the air, there are endless masses of clouds hanging in the sky to obscure any of the brilliant blue so typical of the era's color westerns. One assumes that, for Huston, "magic hour" must've been cocktail hour. If only the director and his screenwriter, Ben Maddow, were so similarly inclined to muddy their potentially difficult story. As with Le May's most well-known novel The Searchers, The Unforgiven is blessed with a very intriguing premise. In this story, the kidnapping angle is altered; it's the white man who's (allegedly) guilty of abducting an Indian girl. The stolen child in question is Rachel Zachary, who's grown up into the lovely form of Audrey Hepburn. Though her tanned skin looks as natural as Michael Dukakis in an Army tank, Hepburn is winning as the suspiciously dark Texan lass who cats around with the guys, sending off signals that she's in dire need of a ravishing (the code word for which in those days was "husband"). This causes her brother Ben (Burt Lancaster), who's just returned from Wichita with a team of horse tamers and stories of his own sexual exploits, much consternation, no matter if the suitor in question is the son of his rancher partner, Zeb Rawlins (Charles Bickford), or an Indian named Johnny Portugal (John Saxon). As a big brother, Ben is an equal-opportunity hard case, but it's apparent early that this two-fisted resentment to the courting of his adopted sister is less de rigueur fraternal protectiveness than white-hot jealousy born out of deep-seated lust. Considering how Ben likes to cavort with Indian prostitutes when up in Oklahoma, it's surprising how long it takes him to piece together the mystery of her true ethnicity. By the time he arrives at this horrible realization — helped along by a ghostly transient played by Joseph "Dr. No" Wiseman — Ben has already broken ties with Zeb and the rest of the ranching community, ostracized his brother Cash (Audie Murphy), and invoked the ire of the Kiowa tribe from which Rachel was taken as a baby. The Unforgiven is disappointing for the way it falls back on genre conventions, especially since it's guided by a director notable for being fearless in tackling tough subject matter. Though Huston was no stranger to phoning in an effort or two, this seems the kind of material that would spark his interest in ignoble human behavior. Lancaster's a natural, too, for a darkly conflicted figure like Ben, and while he brings his classic intensity to the role, the ambiguities go unexplored. Finally, the picture seems to suggest that it's a victory for the kidnapped Rachel to be able to kill off her own family in defense of her illegitimate one, by which point the enterprise's sole virtue is watching a tough-as-nails Lillian Gish wield a rifle. No woman ever seemed so at home toting a firearm. MGM presents The Unforgiven in an acceptable anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with monaural Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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