Unforgiven, The (1960): John Huston’s Western Starring Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn

John Huston directed The Unforgiven, a liberal-minded Western after two artistic and commercial flops, though he was not pleased with its results either.

The star power—Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn at the height of their careers and in their only teaming together—did not help either.

Ahead of its time in terms of racial politics, The Unforgiven, based on Alan Le May’s novel, aimed to bring a more realistic angle on the problems of the Native Americans.

The Zacharys are a respected family on the Texas frontier, having endured the killing of patriarch Will Zachary by Kiowa Indians.  His oldest son Ben (Lancaster) and his mother Mattilda (Lillian Gish) are protective of the Zacharys’ adopted daughter, Rachel (Hepburn), and her brothers, Cash (Audie Murphy) and Andy (Doug McClure) also like Rachel.

The family is supported by their neighbor, Zeb Rawlins (reliable character actor Charles Bickford), the head of a racist family, whose son Charlie (Albert Salmi) wishes to marry Rachel. Problem is, Ben, aware that she is not actually his blood sister, also loves Rachel.

As the ranchers prepare for cattle drive to Wichita, Kansas, an old “crazy” man, Abe Kelsey (Joseph Wiseman) claim that Rachel is an Indian. Refusing to believe, Ben and Cash try to kill Kelsey, but he steals a horse from them.

Some Kiowas appear one night, led by Lost Bird, offering to trade horses to Ben in return for Rachel, presumably Bird’s actual sister.  The Kiowa kill Charlie when he returns to his ranch from courting Rachel, and his grieving mother accuses Rachel of being a “dirty Injun.” Ben tracks down Kelsey and brings him back to the Rawlins ranch to be hanged as a thief.

Kelsey then tells the mob that, on a retaliatory raid against the Kiowa, he found a baby. Claiming that his son was captured by the Kiowa, he now demands that Will return Rachel in exchange for him.

Ben refusing, arguing that Kelsey’s son was killed in the fighting, and that Kelsey made up the story to justify vengeance against the Zacharys.  Mattilda reacts to Kelsey’s rant by striking the horse Kelsey is on, causing his hanging. As a result, Zeb and the ranchers turn their backs on the Zacharys.

Mattilda admits to her family that Will had taken the Kiowa baby and brought it to her to replace an infant daughter they had just lost. Unable to deal with his sister being a “red-hide nigger,” Cash abandons the family. The Kiowa return, demanding Rachel, who tries to save her family by going over to the Kiowa.

Ben deliberately breaks the truce by killing a Kiowa, forcing a fight, during which his mother gets killed. In the end, Cash returns and turns the tide. Aware of Ben’s true love, Rachel kills her brother during a confrontation, thus showing her commitment to the white men.

The casting of Hepburn as Native American stirred controversy. Additionally, production was halted after the star broke her back when she fell off a horse; the accident was blamed for a subsequent miscarriage. Upon recovery, she completed the movie.

For his part, Huston was in conflict with Rick Height company, which financed the movie. Height’s company wanted a more commercial, less controversial, film, while the director was more concerned with its political ideology.