The Unforgiven is darker than most psychological westerns of the 50s, yet less explicit than the Revisionist westerns of the coming decades. This makes it a distinctive film in the genre. It’s the story of the Zacharys, a family that has grown prosperous even though the patriarch was killed by Kiowa Indians some years previously. When mysterious old Abe Kelsey (Joseph Wiseman) reappears and claims that the Zacharys’ adoptive daughter, Rachel (Audrey Hepburn) is herself a Kiowa, the Zacharys find themselves friendless and under threat from the Indians.
The Unforgiven does not actually show much violence, but it feels like a violent film. Peckinpah could have done much with the last half hour, in which the Zacharys are besieged within their home, but the extreme emotional turbulence the characters experience is more important than showing blood and gore. The story is full of dark themes, from racism to mental trauma to borderline incest.
If The Unforgiven were made in the 70s, it would push all of its material further, but it certainly doesn’t feel like the 50s either. The film does not operate through Hays Code-conscious inferences. Even a moment of innuendo is something so blatant that it probably wouldn’t have flown a few years previously: an Indian man tells a horse he’s breaking in that it won’t hurt much after the first time, before telling Rachel (who’s often dressed in white, symbolic in more ways than one) that she has a burr in her hair.
The film is more impactful because it feels grounded in reality. In addition to its landscapes, which are not Ford-ian in their grandeur but are shot with an eye for natural beauty, the people’s lives are depicted in ways that show how they are shaped by the circumstances of time and place. The Zacharys’ house is set into a hill, something that becomes first a strength and later a weakness as the film progresses. When the family has visitors, once of them, a young woman, asks her parents to stop their carriage so that she can run into the bushes and change into a dress that she hopes will impress Cash Zachary. The convivial gathering involves songs and entertainment that are certainly not modern. The film creates its world through small details, unfamiliar to us but not to its happy characters, so that it can tear it down by the story’s end.
The Unforgiven has a curious mix of onscreen talent. Lillian Gish is a fine choice for the mother of the family, Mattilda, who makes every effort to hide her secret for her daughter’s sake. Burt Lancaster brings an appropriate anguish to Ben Zachary, who has long been in love with his adopted sister, and Wiseman is genuinely unnerving as mad Kelsey. Most surprisingly, Audie Murphy, unrecognisable beneath a moustache, gives one of his best dramatic turns as racist, increasingly unhinged Cash.
The film’s biggest flaw was probably inevitable in 1960, but remains a glaring one nonetheless. The Unforgiven delves into Rachel’s sense of self and of her place in the world, and the ways in which she is accepted or rejected. Much of the power of these issues is undercut by the fact that Rachel is being played by Audrey Hepburn, and not an Indian actor. Hepburn is fine in the role, exhibiting an effortless radiance that makes it easy to believe that Rachel is dearly loved by some, and that makes the injustice of her persecution by others more obvious. It’s doubtless, however, than an Indian actor could have connected better with the character and added weight to her troubles, and done more to challenge the audience.
Though The Unforgiven is not so resonant as it would like to be, it is a western not easily categorised, and one that’s full of tension and powerful emotions. Most of all, it’s a film undeserving of its relative obscurity.