Thursday, March 6, 2008

Essential Cinema - 22

The Unforgiven

Burt Lancaster
Audrey Hepburn
Audie Murphy
John Saxon
Charles Bickford
Lillian Gish

John Huston

Ben Maddow

Franz Planer

A Mid-Western frontier family is torn apart when it is discovered that their adopted sister is actually of Native American descent.

The hypocrisy of ethnic stereotyping and bigotry. How racial hatred is learned and the consequences of realizing that all you were taught and held as true is a lie.

I started watching this film not knowing what to expect. Based on the credits, it should be a good film. Directed by John Huston, featuring Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Lilian Gish and Audie Murphy with a soundtrack by Dimitri Tiomkin. As the story unfolded it turned out to be a very good film.

Much of our impression of the American West is overshadowed by the films of John Ford and the acting of John Wayne. This film takes a different slant on the American West and touches on some of the themes in John Ford's "The Searchers". It is more gritty and less heroic than most westerns for its day. This film was made when Hollywood was addressing the concepts of segregation and race relations in America. Similar films of this era that touch on the same themes were "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner", and "Giant".

The cinematography (shot in 70mm) along with the score by Tiomkin give a vivid portrait of the Western Plains, with broad rivers, endless skies and a sense of life on the frontier. While I have always thought of Lancaster as a bit of a one dimensional actor, he is good in this film and very believable. Audrey Hepburn as the mixed blood sister is a bit of a stretch, but she is pretty to look at. Audie Murphy as the bigoted brother is a departure from most of his western roles.

The plot of the film isn't obvious in the beginning. In the end, this is a soul searching film. By the time it has run it's course, the viewer sees the folly of racial hatred on a personal level. Even the Native Americans in the film are seen in a slightly empathetic light, willing to make amends for past mistakes, but the hatred between them and the 'white man' is too great to overcome in the end.

This is a good western and I am surprised that I had never heard of it before. It is worth seeing on numerous levels, preferably on a big screen in its original aspect ratio and with a good sound system.