The Unforgiven


2h 5m 1960

Brief Synopsis

Indians try to reclaim a rancher's adopted daughter.

Film Details

Also Known As
The Siege at Dancing Bird, The Siege at Dancing Burg
Genre
Western
Adaptation
Release Date
Apr 1960
Premiere Information
New York opening: 6 Apr 1960
Production Company
Hecht-Hill-Lancaster; James Productions, Inc.
Distribution Company
United Artists Corp.
Country
United States
Location
Durango, Mexico
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel The Unforgiven by Alan LeMay (New York, 1957).

Technical Specs

Duration
2h 5m
Sound
Mono (Westrex Recording System)
Color
Color (Technicolor)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
2.35 : 1
Film Length
10,859ft

Synopsis

In the Texas Panhandle sometime after the Civil War, young Rachel Zachary is enjoying a free-spirited gallop on the open range, when she is disturbed by the sight of a strange man. The old man lifts his saber aloft, tells her she is "no Zachary" and shouts that he is "the sword of God." Later, the man appears outside the Zachary cabin, prompting Rachel's mother Matilda, who recognizes the man, to aim her gun at him and chase him off. Soon after, Rachel's brother Ben, who has been on a long trip to Wichita, joins his two younger brothers, Cash and Andy, as they round up horses for the next drive to Kansas. Ben's partner, Zeb Rawlins, brings his family to the Zachary ranch for a visit, during which young Georgia Rawlins announces her interest in Ben, and shy Charlie Rawlins admits he hopes to marry Rachel. Over dinner, the families also discuss their various victories over the "Kiowa devils," Indians from the nearby hills who killed Will Zachary some years earlier. Ben and Cash later search for the mysterious old man, whom Ben knows to be "a Kelsey," but he disappears into a wind storm. One day three Kiowa Indians appear on the Zachary ranch. A young man named Lost Bird offers several horses in exchange for Rachel, who, Abe Kelsey has informed him, is his long-lost sister. Ben angrily replies that Rachel was adopted by the Zacharys after her white parents were massacred in their wagon by Kiowas. The Indians ride away, but after they begin frequenting the area, the local cowboys and their families start to gossip among themselves. When Charlie finally proposes to Rachel, she kisses him in the hope of arousing jealousy in Ben, whom she loves. On his way home, however, Charlie is killed by Kiowas as Kelsey looks on. Rachel attempts to comfort Charlie's mother, but the grief-stricken woman screams that it was Rachel, "a red-hide nigger," who caused his death. Anxious to settle the ugly rumors about Rachel, Ben and his men capture Kelsey and lead him before Charlie's bereaved parents with a noose around his neck. When Zeb demands the truth, Kelsey reveals that years before, he and Will Zachary had killed many Kiowas in revenge for an Indian-led massacre. Zachary took a crying Kiowa baby back to Matilda, who reared the child as her own, then later, when the Indians had kidnapped Kelsey's son Aaron, Zachary refused to swap little Rachel for Aaron. Kelsey had hounded the Zachary family for years after his boy was killed. At this public disclosure of Rachel's secret identity, Matilda beats Kelsey's horse, causing the old man to be hanged. The settlers all shun the Zachary family, and when Matilda later admits that Will had taken the Kiowa infant to replace the baby girl Matilda had just lost, Cash insults Rachel, calls the Zacharys "Injun lovers" and rides away in a drunken stupor. Lost Bird and two warriors approach the Zachary cabin under a sign of peace while dozens of Kiowas wait on the far side of the river. To prevent a battle, Rachel insists on joining them. Finally exhibiting his love for Rachel, Ben orders her to stay in the cabin and has young Andy kill one of the warriors. The shooting leads to a full-scale battle, and the four Zacharys kill many Indians. Rachel, who had wondered if she could kill her "own kind," is assured by Ben that they are similar in blood only. At the Rawlins ranch, Cash hears gunshots and prepares to respond, but Georgia begs him to stay and marry her. The Kiowas send cattle to stampede the Zachary cabin, whereupon Ben sets the house on fire and retreats to the root cellar with Andy, Rachel and his mortally wounded mother. As the fire subsides and the Indians prepare to enter the cellar, Cash arrives, and he and Ben shoot the remaining Kiowas. Lost Bird, however, quietly enters the cellar and looks questioningly at Rachel. In response, she shoots him dead. The Zacharys climb out of the cellar and survey their burned home, their dead mother and a landscape littered with Kiowa bodies. Then, however, their attention is drawn skyward as a flock of birds takes flight.

Film Details

Also Known As
The Siege at Dancing Bird, The Siege at Dancing Burg
Genre
Western
Adaptation
Release Date
Apr 1960
Premiere Information
New York opening: 6 Apr 1960
Production Company
Hecht-Hill-Lancaster; James Productions, Inc.
Distribution Company
United Artists Corp.
Country
United States
Location
Durango, Mexico
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel The Unforgiven by Alan LeMay (New York, 1957).

Technical Specs

Duration
2h 5m
Sound
Mono (Westrex Recording System)
Color
Color (Technicolor)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
2.35 : 1
Film Length
10,859ft

Articles

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
The Unforgiven

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

Quotes

Ben, what did those Indians want?
- Rachel
They offered to buy you for those five horses.
- Ben
Well, did you sell me?
- Rachel
Nope; held out for more horses.
- Ben
Dammit, Ben. We can kill them before we eat breakfast.
- Cash Zachery
I've left my family. They've changed. Turned into Indian lovers; Injun lovers. I'm a little drunk, Georgia.
- Cash Zachary
C'mon, Cash. You can sleep it off in the barn. There's a nice bed in my room if you'll marry me.
- Georgia Rawlins
I might be drunk; but I ain't that drunk.
- CAsh Zachary
We come in peace.
- Lost Bird
My land. My sky. You are welcome.
- Ben Zachary
Young horses. Good for fighting. Good for hunting. You take.
- Lost Bird
I am ashamed. I have nothing to offer you.
- Ben Zachary
In house. You have woman. One our women.
- Lost Bird

Trivia

Before the filming of the movie, director 'Huston, John' and star Burt Lancaster took actress Lillian Gish out to the desert to show her how to shoot, which she would have to do in the movie. Huston was astounded to discover that Gish could shoot more accurately, and faster, than he and Lancaster, both of whom thought of themselves as expert marksmen. It turned out that early in her career, Gish was taught how to shoot by notorious western outlaw and gunfighter Al Jennings, who had become an actor after his release from a long prison sentence for train robbery and was in the cast of one of her early films.

Audrey Hepburn was seriously injured when she was thrown by a horse between scenes. Hepburn, who was several months pregnant, spent six weeks in the hospital and completed her role wearing a back brace, which her wardrobe had to be redesigned to hide. Sadly, she suffered a miscarriage a few months later, which some blamed on her injury from this movie. 'Huston, John' blamed himself for the mishap and hated this movie. Hepburn, however, bore no ill will towards the director. While Hepburn was in hospital, Huston filmed scenes using a double.

During the filming Audie Murphy and another decided to go duck hunting on a nearby lake. The boat capsized and Audie Murphy nearly drowned, but was saved by a female photographer who had been taking pictures near by.

Notes

The film's working titles were The Siege at Dancing Bird and The Siege at Dancing Burg. LeMay's novel, The Unforgiven, was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post under the title Kiowa Moon (6 March-27 April 1957). Onscreen credits state that Dimitri Tiomkin's music was "Recorded in Rome, Italy with the Santa Cecilia Orchestra." On January 29, 1957, Variety reported that J. P. Miller had been given the assignment to write the screenplay version of Alan LeMay's novel, but his contribution to the final film has not been confirmed.
       Contemporary news items listed a number of actors and actresses who were considered for parts in the film: Richard Burton, Kirk Douglas and Robert Mitchum (probably for the role of "Cash Zachary"), Eva Le Gallienne (for the role of "Matilda Zachary") and Natalie Wood (for the role of "Rachel Zachary"). An April 1958 item in Daily Variety noted that Delbert Mann was set to direct the picture, but by August 1958, Huston had been signed.
       According to publicity items, the film was shot entirely in Durango, Mexico. A February 27, 1959 Hollywood Reporter item reported that production was halted when Audrey Hepburn was thrown from a horse during filming. According to a March 9, 1959 article in Los Angeles Times, Huston recruited Mexican director Emilio Fernández to work on the production as the supervisor of the outdoor action scenes. The article stated that Fernández would also play the role of a "bloodthirsty Kiowa Indian." The extent of his contribution to the completed film is undetermined.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States Spring April 1960

Released in United States Spring April 1960