Unforgiven, The (1960)

The Unforgiven (1960), directed by John Huston.

A frontier family hides an unspeakable secret: the daughter is a full-blooded Kiowa Indian, adopted as a baby. Vengeful ghosts from the past appear to revive old hatreds, and her Indian family want her back.

Sort of a reverse The Searchers (1956), this is a very odd production. Huston fought with the studio and apparently no one was very happy with the final result.

In a sense it is a race-hatred Message film, but the moral is confused. The unremitting revulsion of the settlers for the Indians seems well-earned by their history, but is also wearying. Can anyone let go of it? Burt Lancaster will keep loving his adopted sister no matter what anyone else thinks, which is encouraging. On the other hand: during the siege the settlers mow down the attackers by the dozen. I don't think the sharpshooting pioneers miss once.

When Audrey Hepburn chooses her white family, is she being a race traitor to her biological people? Is that supposed to confirm that unity of the spirit trumps loyalty to the flesh? Or is she just sticking with the people she has known all her life, those who feel like her own blood?

We have a long 45m setup before the main plot emerges, although this gives us a chance to know everyone. It's always a pleasure to see Lancaster and Hepburn (although she always seems Euro-modern to me), as well as Lillian Gish (in the movies since 1912) and Charles Bickford, always fierce and unsmiling.

Joseph Wiseman is extremely spooky as a wild man of the plains. His quiet, deranged account of the massacre of an Indian village is nightmarish: "We come to an Injun camp. We killed... and we killed, and we had to lay down, tired of the killing".

Some good period detail of a working cattle ranch: note the crutches adapted from rifle stocks and a roughly tied hangman's noose.

Dimitri Tiomkin score. The mix is distracting, way too up front and intrusive.

Filmed in Mexico.

Available on Blu-ray.