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Monday, September 16, 2019

"The Unforgiven" 1960 Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn. A Missed Opportunity

One problem with watching a great movie like "The Searchers" is that it makes you want more. There aren't that many great movies out there so repeating the experience is not easy.

When you read about "The Searchers" a movie that comes up frequently is "The Unforgiven." Novelist Alan LeMay wrote the books on which both movies were based. "The Searchers" is a 1956 movie about a girl, Debbie, kidnapped by Comanche. Her Uncle Ethan and adoptive brother Martin search for her for ten years before they find her.

"The Unforgiven," made in 1960, is a sort of mirror story. It's about a Kiowa baby girl, Rachel, who is kidnapped by white men and raised as a white girl. Years later, her Kiowa brother tries to get her back. "The Unforgiven" is nowhere near the great movie that "The Searchers" is, but it is interesting and it has its moments.

"The Unforgiven" was directed by John Huston, the giant who directed "The Maltese Falcon" and "The African Queen." It stars Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Audie Murphy, John Saxon, Charles Bickford, Lillian Gish, and Doug McClure. With that kind of fire power, you'd expect a superior film. What you get is a series of gripping set pieces that never gel into anything coherent. You also get an unbelievable plot and a couple of chilling, horrific moments where main characters you are supposed to love do really awful things.

The obvious, insurmountable problem: the plot revolves around Rachel, a Kiowa, growing up in a white community and no one noticing that she is Native American. This is patently absurd. Google "Kiowa" and you can see photographs from the time of the film, the late nineteenth century. Kiowa women look as little like Euro-American women as do Chinese women. There's no way the Zachary family could have hidden the real identity of their adopted daughter from their neighbors.

The second big problem with the movie is that whoever wrote and supervised the script (Ben Maddow is credited) had no idea how to get the story started. The first forty minutes of the movie flounder around. You're looking at great stars on a fascinating set in the Mexican desert, so you've got lots of eye candy, but nothing that happens in the first forty minutes or so makes much sense or advances the plot in any meaningful way.

A pointlessly weird character brandishing a saber, speaking gibberish, and riding a horse appears. This "Old Man" is played by the 42 year old Joseph Wiseman, who would go on to play Dr. No. His appearance is depicted as the appearance of a ghost. He has white powder, perhaps road dust, all over his face, and he speaks in riddles with lots of Biblical allusions. The so-called Old Man is the one telling people that Rachel is really a Kiowa, not a white girl. Finally, he's lynched.

The main story is that that Zachary family, widowed matriarch Mathilde (Lillian Gish), her sons Ben (Burt Lancaster), Cash (Audie Murphy), Andy (Doug McClure) and daughter Rachel (Audrey Hepburn) are pioneers scratching out a living herding cattle in Texas. Their house is museum-worthy. It's made of mud bricks and built into an earthen rise. Cattle occasionally feed on their roof. There are numerous metal-reinforced holes in the windows and doors, signs of their need to be prepared to fight off Kiowa. The father, we are told, was killed by a Kiowa spear.

Their nearest neighbors are the Rawlins family, headed by Zeb (Charles Bickford.) The Rawlins have more money and clout than the Zacharys. Zeb's son Charlie Rawlins wants to marry Rachel. (Gossipy Tidbit. Albert Salmi, who plays Charlie, was briefly married to child actress Peggy Ann Garner. He later married another woman whom he murdered, before taking his own life.)

The Old Man shows up and throws a monkey wrench into everything by telling everyone that Rachel is a Native American. GASP!

Mind: this is a movie where an actor named John SAXON can play a Native American.

About forty minutes into this meandering movie, a handful of Kiowa men show up at the Zachary homestead, offering to trade some fine horses for Rachel. Ben goes out to "parlay" with them. Lost Bird, one of the Kiowa, explains that Rachel is his sister. Another incomprehensible plot point. How does Lost Bird know that Rachel is his sister? Why did Lost Bird need some old muttering lunatic to tell him that the Zacharys have his sister? If Lost Bird knew that Rachel was his sister, why didn't he show up earlier? It's all pretty far-fetched, and no explanations are offered.

Lost Bird is handsome. He's played by German-Mexican-American Carlos Rivas, who played the star-crossed lover Lun Tha in "The King and I." Yes, an Hispanic playing a Thai. Ironically, he later formed an organization advocating for better treatment for Latinos in films.

The name "Lost Bird" has a tragic history. Lost Bird was a four-month-old Sioux infant found alive at the Wounded Knee massacre. Four days after the massacre, the baby was under a cover of snow, still tied to her dead mother's back. Lost Bird was adopted by General Leonard Colby. He and his wife abused and neglected her. She lived a tough life and died in poverty at 30.

Back to "The Unforgiven." Lost Bird was one of the most sympathetic and unambiguous characters in this film. He lost his sister; he wants her back. He is willing, courteously, to offer Burt Lancaster good horses for his sister. The film never besmirches Lost Bird or his motivations.

Ben Zachary (Burt Lancaster) is contemptuous toward Lost Bird. He says you can bring as many horses as you can steal; I will not sell Rachel to you. Lost Bird retreats, but he later pins, with a spear, a hide to the Zachary home floor. The hide is covered with illustrations that recount the tribe's history. The hide shows Rachel being kidnapped from her people by white men.

This detail is historically accurate. Kiowa and other Plains Indians did practice hide painting and ledger art. The painted hide in "The Unforgiven" looks a lot like the "winter count" illustrated on Wikipedia here. You can read more about hide painting here and ledger art here

Charles Bickford plays a mean old man so well I have always hated him. I'd like to punch him in the face. Gossipy tidbit about Charles Bickford. When he was nine years old, he was tried for attempted murder. Some bastard ran over his dog. Okay, so maybe Bickford wasn't so bad.

The Rawlins family, headed up by Zeb (Bickford) believes the crazy old man on a horse, and rejects the Zacharys. They call Rachell a "red-hide n-----." The Rawlins' rejection of their neighbors is very serious on the frontier. You need neighborly support when the cows run wild, when the locusts strike, or when the Kiowa decide to raid your house to take back their kidnapped child.

Again, there are many gripping set pieces in this film. There's the desert, the breaking of horses by cowboys, a lynching scene that really had me on the edge of my seat. But, again, the plot is so convoluted and implausible that it lost me.

Here's how, if I had a magic wand and super-duper skills at Deepfake videography, I'd fix "The Unforgiven."

Get rid of the old man. Delete him entirely.

Everybody knew all along that Rachel was Kiowa. Again, Kiowa do not look European. Everyone would have had to know.

Lost Bird had been arrested. That's why he never came for his sister before this. He's now out, and ready to take back his sister.

The community, represented by the Rawlins, had previously accepted Rachel. But, now that her brother Lost Bird is on the warpath and ready to take her back, the community suddenly decides that the girl they had previously loved, the girl they were ready to marry their beloved son Charlie to, is a "red-hide n-----." And she is the scapegoat. If one person's sacrifice can save a community from a Kiowa attack, then she's got to be given up.

More ways to fix the film:

Amp up the love affair between Ben and Rachel, and try to defuse some of the brother-sister incest ick factor. Ben is much older than Rachel. The film could explain that he left home before she was adopted. *Something.*

Amp up Rachel's inner struggle about being white or Kiowa, and about being in love with her adoptive brother.

I loved / hated the Ben / Rachel love story. Burt Lancaster was 47 when this film came out. Audrey Hepburn was 31 but she looks twenty. Lancaster is just so much older than she. Don't get me wrong. They are exciting together. Lancaster and Hepburn are like precious gems from different galaxies colliding and striking sparks. But he's playing her *brother* here. The incestuous love story is weird and demanding enough on an audience. And Ben's behavior is unhinged. There's just a lot that a viewer has to choke down to accept their love story. Remember: they grew up in a primitive dug out with little privacy.

The final scene of "The Unforgiven" was one of the most disturbing and scary I've seen. It was claustrophobic, hopeless, and terrifying, like a scene from a zombie movie.

I was invested in the Ben and Rachel characters. Lancaster and Hepburn are so charismatic, and so committed to their roles, I really wanted things to work out for both of them.

Ben, Rachel, Andy and matriarch Mathilda are at the homestead. Cash is not there. He can't stand suddenly discovering that his sister Rachel is a "red-hide n-----." He is with the Rawlins girl Georgia (Kipp Hamilton, Carol Burnett's sister-in-law), drinking and making out in a hayloft.

And the Kiowa arrive. This time, it's not four or five guys. They brought backup. "Maybe they just want to parlay," Andy says hopefully.

Rachel, with lamp soot, paints a black horizontal stripe on her forehead, meant to imitate Indian face paint, and announces that she is going to go out and be with her people.

At that moment, Ben does something that, if I had taken this movie more seriously, would have made me sick to my stomach. He orders Andy to murder a random Kiowa.

Andy treats Ben like the head of the household, and, though reluctant, he obeys, and shoots one of the Kiowa dead. This sets the entire party on fire, and they begin to attack the homestead.

"No point in your going out now, is there?" Ben asks Rachel.

Plainly, Ben ordered Andy to murder a random Kiowa in order to prevent the sister he secretly loves from rejoining her own people. This is pretty damn sick and disgusting. It's much worse than anything the notorious Ethan does in "The Searchers."

Ben's act is also completely irrational. He can see that he is outnumbered. He knows that his killing of a Kiowa will result only in retaliation. Never in the film does Ben attempt to talk respectfully, man to man, to Lost Bird about their shared sister, Rachel.

In any case, the final portion of the film, the Kiowa attack, was scary and disturbing. Ben, Mathilde, Rachel and Andy man the portholes built into the primitive earthen dwelling and start shooting. They kill dozens of Kiowa warriors. The Kiowa just keep coming, and you know the fate that awaits the family inside the home. So does Ben. As ammo runs short, Ben hands Rachel, his mother, and his brother Andy pistols that have one bullet each. "Just in case" he says. The suggestion is obvious: the pistols are for suicide once the Kiowa make it through their walls, which is inevitable. Andy regrets that he will die a virgin, though he phrases it in code, "I never made it to Wichita to have me … a beer."

There's an eerie break in the action when the Kiowa pause to play flutes and dust themselves with magic powder. This, Ben explains, will make them impervious to bullets, or so they believe. Ben answers them back by having his mother play classical music on the piano he recently brought back from Wichita. Afterward, the Kiowa ride their horses over the piano, destroying it. Savagery v Civilization is clearly the message here.

Dawn comes, and hope evaporates. In spite of the night's carnage, more Kiowa keep coming. They herd cattle over the roof of the Zacharys' dwelling. The Zacharys retreat to the root cellar, where Mathilde dies of battle wounds.

Inevitably the roof caves in and the family can see advancing Kiowa through the holes in their walls. Lost Bird, looking handsome and genuinely caring, moves toward Rachel. She shoots him.

That's the second moment in this movie that I really hated. First, Ben orders his brother to murder a random Kiowa, and then the script demands that Rachel murder her own brother, and treats that murder as a *good* thing. She's taken sides. She sides with the whites, with civilization. And she has to kill her own brother to do so. Rachel shooting Lost Bird to death was completely gratuitous. At that point, most of the Kiowa had been dead. Hideous.

Cash breaks free from the embrace of the Rawlins girl. He rides to the rescue. How Cash, alone, can fend off the remaining Kiowa, is beyond me, but Cash is played by Audie Murphy, who lived the life of ten men, and who, when he was just a teenager, held off an entire company of Nazi soldiers.

The Zacharys are surrounded by dead bodies, by people the viewer is not at all convinced had to die, and this is supposed to be a happy ending. Geese fly overhead, and the Zacharys look up and note them, as if the geese are a sign of some good thing. Too bad the smoking ruins of their home will smell like corpses for days.

Do the Zacharys mend fences with their racist neighbors? Are there more Kiowa out there, eager for revenge? Can a man and woman who grew up as brother and sister build a happy marriage? The film gives no clue.

I used to talk about film online with Nelle Engoron, who went on to write a book about Mad Men. She said something once about how a depressing movie is not, to her and other film lovers, a movie that handles unpleasant topics like death, disease, or heartbreak. Rather, a *well-made* movie, no matter what the subject matter is, exhilarates the film fan. A poorly made movie is a depressing movie.

I feel that way about "The Unforgiven." It had so much going for it, but it was poorly made, and it left me feeling bleh, whereas "The Searchers," a film about equally grim topics, exhilarates me.

1 comment:

  1. After watching untold hundreds of westerns as a child, I can't stomach them now. That gem doesn't ring any bells so I must have missed it and thank the stars that I did!