Throughout cinematic history many films have gathered as much fame for their off screen happenings as their on screen ones. Casablanca is possibly the best known for this even though the end result belies the off screen dramas that be-deviled its production. It is now considered, depending on which side of the divide you choose to stand on, the second greatest film ever made. Or the greatest worst film ever made! Suffice to say when the off screen dramas are analysed it is surprising the film was ever made at all.
John Huston's 1960 adaptation of Alan Le May's novel, The Unforgiven is also notorious for its off screen problems. But unlike Casablanca The Unforgiven was unable to shake them off, and the end result is a deeply flawed film.
Probably the best known drama is that of Audrey Hepburn being thrown from a horse and breaking her back. She was pregnant at the time, and her subsequent mis-carriage is blamed on this fall. Hepburn wasn't initially interested in making this film as she was afraid of horses. It is a sad indictment that her fears panned out the way they did. But professional that she was, she came back to finish the film after her recovery. Suffice to say with the lead actress out production had to reshuffled around her absence.
But as much as this was a hurdle John Huston faced an even bigger one. In making The Unforgiven he wanted to make a film about racism in America, with particular regards to the treatment of the Indian. In 1960 this was unheard of and he faced stiff opposition from Rick Height, and his company, who were financing the film. Height wanted a more commercially appealing, less controversial picture, compared to Huston's desire for a racial statement. The pair clashed constantly with Height trying to control the direction of the film. The end result was that neither party got what they wanted. And it showed.
Without knowing the particulars regarding the prohibitive conditions Huston worked under, means an uninitiated watcher could do nothing but say he produced a poor film. Yes it is a poor film from a director who made the likes of The Maltese Falcon and The African Queen. But all great artists have their off days. When the final product is seen it would have been interesting to know what The Unforgiven would have been like if Huston had been able to make the film the way he wanted. But he wasn't given free reign and the film must be judged on what it is.
I must admit I didn't enjoy this film. It is a muddled mess and the first 30-40 minutes are all but incomprehensible! Honestly I watched it going WT.... is going on here?? It compromised of lots of jumping on and off horses, some desert shots, the arrival of a remarkably tuned piano, an old man and his sabre,........and a distinct lack of plot. It really was a complete mess and I came very close to giving up on it. But fortunately, just as my patience gave out at about the 45th minute, some plot kicked in.
We find that the old man with the sabre has a story to tell. He states that Rachael Zachary ( a poorly thought out casting of Audrey Hepburn ), is an Indian by birth, who had been secretly adopted into the Zachary family after her own family of Kiowa Indians had been wiped out. The local white population want rid of her ( calling her a 'red-nigger' ), and the local Kiowa Indians want her back. Ben Zachary ( Burt Lancaster ), is in love with her, refuses to give her up, and withdraws from the white population to stand by Rachael. Then internal family squabbles rupture the family, and only four members are left to defend her as the Kiowas mount an attack on the Zachary homestead.
The last 30 minutes of the film are actually quite good but somewhat cliched, as it becomes nothing more than a western shootout...quite literally classic cowboys and Indians stuff. The only really redeeming feature is that Rachael Shoots her Indian brother, and in the process deciding which side of the racial divide she wants to be on. The film ends with a bizarre shot of a flying gaggle of birds and the three survivors staring at it....again a bit wt....?
I didn't enjoy this....more to the point, I couldn't. It is a poorly executed film all round. The first 30-40 minutes are an absolute mess. The editing is extremely poor which leaves the watcher bewildered because there is literally nothing happening! But for me the worst point is the foolish decision to cast Audrey Hepburn as an Indian. To be sure she is meant to be playing a white looking Indian but surely using an appropriate Indian woman would have been better considered. I mean if this was meant to be a serious look at racism against Indians, as John Huston intended, what better way to belittle that message by using a Dutch born, English passport holder? ( Even slapping in Medal of Honor winner , and America's highest awarded soldier, Audey Murphy, wasn't going to save the wreck ).
Audrey Hepburn went on to dis-own the film and I don't blame her. I've read a few Hepburn biographies and she didn't want to do this fill. But under contract she was all but forced to. She does a professional job but her performance feels forced to me. You can see just lurking under the surface her unhappiness with the role. She was mis-cast but that was not her fault. The rest of the cast feel as if they are working under a cloud to. It must have been a difficult set to work on with all the off screen dramas that dogged its production.
In 1960 The Unforgiven was ambitious in premise. It's controversial nature saw battles over its production which ultimately affected the end product. What we get here is a neither here nor there type film. It tries to delve into Indian racism but fails to delve deep enough. It is neither a commercially made film either. Quite literally, the off screen dramas are replicated on screen, and the film is a forgettable mess! This mess makes it an extremely difficult film to watch ( let alone follow! ), and one can fully understand why Audrey Hepburn distanced herself from it.
Frustrating, messy, clumsy, poorly edited, incomprehensible. The Unforgiven can never be forgiven for being so poorly made. Thank goodness it is only 116 minutes long as anymore would have been intolerable.