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Race & Hollywood: Native American Images On Film
Remind Me

The Unforgiven

A big-budget Western with a top cast and challenging themes (racial violence and the suggestion of incest), The Unforgiven turned out to be a disaster for just about everyone involved. With Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn as stars and John Huston at the helm, expectations were high. But the production was plagued with deaths, accidents, miscarriages, and a disgruntled, disinterested director. In the end, for all the considerable interest the film has for us today, it failed to find an audience and proved to be the undoing of the HHL production company that Lancaster and partners Harold Hecht and James Hill had started several years earlier with such high ambitions.

The sometimes bizarrely structured story tells of racial tension dividing a family and a community in the old West. A mysterious stranger, Abe Kelsey, shows up out of nowhere one day, accusing the Zachary family of harboring an abducted Kiowa child, now grown into a beautiful and spirited young woman. The revelation brings down the wrath of the Kiowas, the townspeople, and even the younger Zachary brother, whose racism spills out vehemently against his adopted sister.

The script was based on a novel by Alan LeMay, the same writer who fashioned a similar story of anti-Indian hatred that became the basis for John Ford's masterpiece The Searchers (1956). Huston hoped screenwriter Ben Maddow, who had scripted Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950), would concentrate more on the serious racial intolerance theme. But the director soon felt that producers Lancaster and Hill were more interested in a conventional action picture. "Quite mistakenly, I agreed to stick it out, thus violating my own conviction that a picture-maker should undertake nothing but what he believes in, regardless," Huston later said in his autobiography, An Open Book (Knopf, 1984). "From that moment on, the entire picture turned sour. Everything went to hell. It was as if some celestial vengeance had been loosed upon me for infidelity to my principles."

If, indeed, there was "celestial vengeance" as Huston suggests, it was visited on others with almost Biblical horror. Three crewmembers were killed in a plane crash on their way back from the States to location shooting in Mexico. Audie Murphy nearly drowned when his boat capsized in a lake, and he was saved by the quick action and skill of still photographer Inge Morath (although news reports tried to paint it as a publicity stunt). Hepburn, who was pregnant, was thrown from a horse and suffered fractured vertebrae that required six weeks of recuperation in Los Angeles. When she returned to the set, she had to complete the film in a stiff back brace. Shortly after shooting completed, she suffered a miscarriage, although it's unclear if it was related to the fall. Maka Czernichew, an artist Huston met in Mexico and with whom he began an affair during production, claimed she also suffered a miscarriage. The baby was Huston's, which may have been the spur for another incident, a knife attack against him by Lorrie Sherwood, a personal assistant referred to by one newspaper as his "secretary-mistress."

And although its only loss was monetary, it was the death knell for the business founded by Lancaster and his partners. HHL had been started not only to give the actor greater creative control and range but also to produce prestigious projects he didn't appear in. After some early box office successes, as well as such critically praised work as Marty (1955) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957), HHL's efforts grew more expensive, more chaotic and fraught with conflict, and ultimately less and less financially successful. This was the company's last production. With the stars' and director's high salaries, the cost of delays brought on by Hepburn's accident, and the huge expense of creating not only the Zacharys' frontier house but the hill that encased part of the structure (designed by the same man who made the whale for Huston's Moby Dick, 1956), even a decent box office profit could not have brought the picture into the black.

Unfortunately, the behind-the-scenes drama has obscured some very interesting work by Huston and his cast. The film is rather oddly put together, with sudden shifts in tone and characters who inexplicably disappear from the story. But there are several effective and memorable moments - Lancaster's attempt to save the half-buried house from a cattle stampede, the hanging of Kelsey, Gish playing classical music on her piano in defiance of the Kiowa's war dance, and the subsequent attack on the piano by the furious Indians. Critics were divided on whether Hepburn gave a top performance or was totally miscast in the role, but most everyone agreed it was former war hero Murphy's finest work on screen (in a part that was originally to have gone to Tony Curtis).

As for Huston, he always insisted it was the only one of his films he actively disliked and couldn't bear to watch. Evidence suggests, however, that much of what he considered unpleasant about the production may have been his own fault. Several crewmembers have stated he was thoroughly unengaged in the filming process and may have taken the job only to raise funds for renovation of a castle he bought in Ireland. Some suggested he signed onto the location shoot in Mexico as a way of furthering his generally illegal but lucrative collection and importation of pre-Columbian art and artifacts. In any case, he abandoned the project immediately after principal photography, leaving the studio to shape the final cut.

Director: John Huston
Producer: James Hill
Screenplay: Ben Maddow, based on the novel by Alan LeMay
Cinematography: Franz Planer
Editing: Russell Lloyd
Art Direction: Stephen Grimes
Original Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: Burt Lancaster (Ben Zachary), Audrey Hepburn (Rachel Zachary), Audie Murphy (Cash Zachary), Lillian Gish (Mattilda Zachary), John Saxon (Johnny Portugal), Joseph Wiseman (Abe Kelsey).
C-122m. Letterboxed.

by Rob Nixon



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