Set in 1870's Texas and written by Alan Le May, the movie is similar in may ways to The Searchers. But John Huston had some trouble on the set, and couldn't get full control over the movie'd direction. In his autobiography he wrote: "Some of my picture I don't care for but The Unforgiven is the only obe I actually dislike. Despite some good performances, the overall tone is bombastic and over-inflated. Everybody in it is bigger than life." Huston was interested in making a movie about racism but the production company was more interested in making it a star vehicle for Burt Lancaster and making the movie more commercial.
The movie had a great cast with Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Audie Murphy, Charles Bickford and Lillian Gish. Burt Lancaster played Ben Zachary and he was the oldest brother who head the ranch for his mother, two brothers and sister. His father, William, had been killed years ago by the Kiowa. The movie open with a view of his his tombstone that he had been killed by the redskins.
Across the landscape comes a skelton of a man in an army outfit, swinging a sword and quoting the Bible. Abe Kelsey tells a story of how Rachel Zachary (Hepburn) was reall a Kiowa who had been kidnapped by the Zacharys. When he tells the Kiowas they come to the Zachary household and demand her release, even though now she is a grown women. Ben refuse, partly because he is in love with his adapted sister and the Kiowas kill a neighbor's son. The homesteaders turn on the Zacharys and want to know if Rachel is indeed an Indian. Ben leads a party out and they capture Kelsey. he tells the story of how he and Ben's father led a raid in to a Kiowa camp years ago in retaliation for a massacre. When Kelsey went to kill an infant, the Zachary father stopped him, saying he had had enough of killing. He brought the child home to his wife, Matilda (Gish), to raise as one of their own. Kelsey also says that when his own young son was kidnapped by the Kiowas he came to William and asked him to let him trade the Kiowa child for his son, but William refused him. Matilda couldn't stand to hear any more of the the story and and hit Kelsey's horse to speed up the hanging.
When they got home, Matilda admitted that what Kelsey had told was the truth. Ben's younger brother, Cash (Audie Murphy), can't believe that his sister is an Indian. The racist Cash wants to send her away from the ranch, but Ben will have none of that. Cash then takes off and leaves the ranch.
The Kiowas then come to get Rachel back and Ben has his younger brother Andy shoot one, even though they under a sign of peace. There will be no negotiating for Rachel. Ben has made sure of that. Ben loves his little "red hide Injun."
The Zacharys then wait for the impending attack. The Zacharys begin to pick off the charging Kiowas one by one. Even Rachel gets in on the action, shooting her own people, but when her brother Little Bird gets in her sites, she doesn't fire. But the Zachary's with their repeating rifles hold off the Kiowas and the Kiowas head back to camp. The Kiowas have a ceremony with flutes to make themselves bullet-proof. Ben brings the family piano out to the front of the house and has his mother play it good and loud.
The Kiowas attack and try to destroy the piano and the Zacharys again begin picking them off. But Mom is hit and Ben makes her lie down. Ben tells Rachel that when this is all over he is going to take her to Wichita and marry her (this really opens up quite a few issues considering that Rachel is probably twenty years younger than Ben, she is an Indian and she has been raised as his sister). Then they discover that Maltilda has died from her wound. The Kiowas start burning down the house and it looks like Rachel, Ben and Andy are done for. Just then Cash returns to join the fight. In the second worse scene in the movie Ben and Cash join forces and kill about a dozen Kiowas. Then, in the worst scene in the movie, Lost Bird enters the house to rescue his sister, and Rachel shoots him in cold blood.
This movie is important because it makes the point that to judge someone by their race is ignorant. Everyone loves Rachel until they find out she is of Indian blood. These people are made to look really stupid. It was obvious that Rachel was the same person, no what her background was. Cash comes off looking ignorant and bigoted in a very strong way.
John Huston did not like this movie and it may be because of the ending he was forced to have. I'm sure it would have been much better if Huston had been given total control. But there were some good things in the movie.The Kiowas came off looking pretty good. The Kiowas are willing to fight for one of their own who have been kidnapped even though now she is "white". A Kiowa gets shot down under a sign of peace by whites who obviously don't respect the Kiowas as humans. Lost Bird, who is trying to rescue his sister, is also treacherously shot down. The movie ends with another bad scene, having Ben, Rachel, Cash and Andy looking up in the sky as birds fly over head. It's a shame that a pretty good movie had to be ruined by the last ten minutes.
But I still think The Unforgiven is an important movie. In The Searchers Ethan wanted to kill Debbie once she had been tainted by contact with the Comanches. The Comanches on the other hand willingly accepted Debbie as one of their own. In The Unforgiven the whites weren't willing to accept Debbie, as one of their own once they found out she had Kiowa blood. The Kiowas on the other hand wanted her back even though she had lived her whole life with the whites. There is a lot the white culture can learn from the Indian culture about accepting people for what they are, not where their blood came from. John Ford and John Huston did a good job in these two movies showing the racist instincts of the dominant white culture.