The Unforgiven (1960 film)

The Unforgiven is a 1960 American romantic Western film directed by John Huston. Filmed in Durango, Mexico, it stars Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Audie Murphy, Charles Bickford and Lillian Gish. The story is based upon the 1957 novel by Alan Le May.

The Unforgiven
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJohn Huston
Produced byJames Hill
Written byBen Maddow
Alan Le May (novel)
StarringBurt Lancaster
Audrey Hepburn
Audie Murphy
Music byDimitri Tiomkin
CinematographyFranz Planer
Edited byRussell Lloyd
Color processTechnicolor
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • April 6, 1960 (1960-04-06) (New York City)
Running time
125 minutes
121 minutes
(Turner Library print)
CountryUnited States
Budget$5 million
Box office$3,200,000 (rentals)[1]

Uncommonly for its time, the film spotlights the issue of racism against Native Americans and people who were believed to have Native American blood in the Old West. The film is also known for its problems behind the scenes. Huston often said this was his least satisfying movie.


The Zacharys are a thriving and respected family on the Texas frontier. Father Will Zachary was killed by Kiowa Indians, leaving his oldest son Ben (Burt Lancaster) as the head of the family. Both Ben and his mother Mattilda (Lillian Gish) are very protective of the latter's daughter, Rachel (Audrey Hepburn), who was adopted as an infant; her other brothers, Cash (Audie Murphy) and Andy (Doug McClure), treat her as they would any sister. The family is supported by their closest neighbor, Zeb Rawlins (Charles Bickford), the patriarch of a family whose shy son, Charlie (Albert Salmi), wants to marry Rachel. Ben is reluctant for this to occur.

Ranchers from all around gather to prepare for a cattle drive to Wichita, Kansas. An old man thought to be crazy, Abe Kelsey (Joseph Wiseman), hides in the brush nearby after claiming that Rachel Zachary is an Indian. Believing this to be a lie, Ben and Cash engage in a gunfight with Kelsey, killing his horse, but he steals a replacement. Later, a group of Kiowa led by Lost Bird appears and offers to give some horses to Ben in exchange for Rachel. Lost Bird claims that she is actually his sister, and that an old white man told him so.

Soon after, Charlie – to whom Ben has decided to give permission to court Rachel – is killed by the Kiowa. In her grief, Charlie's mother accuses Rachel of being a "dirty Injun". Ben leads the ranchers in tracking down Kelsey; they bring him back to the Rawlins ranch to hang him as a horse thief.

With a noose around his neck, Kelsey tells the gathered ranchers that, on a retaliatory raid against the Kiowa that he led with Will Zachary, he found a baby and was about to kill it when Will, sick of all the killing, intervened and took the baby as his own. Kelsey claims that his own son was captured by the Kiowa and demanded that Will return Rachel in exchange for his son, but Will refused. Ben intervenes and tells the gathered group the story he knows, that Kelsey's son was actually killed in the fighting, but that Kelsey refused to believe it, inventing the story as justification for vengeance against the Zacharys. Kelsey followed them from town to town, poisoning peoples' minds wherever they moved.

Mattilda, driven to the edge by Kelsey's rant, strikes Kelsey's horse, causing him to be hanged. This convinces Zeb that Kelsey was telling the truth, and he and all of the ranchers turn their backs on the Zacharys.

Back at their own homestead, Mattilda admits to her family that Will had taken the Kiowa baby and brought it to her to replace an infant daughter whom they had just lost. Cash, unable to accept an Indian as his sister, abandons the family. The Kiowa return in force, demanding Rachel, who tries to save her family by going over to the Kiowa. To stop her from doing so, Ben deliberately breaks the truce by ordering Andy to kill a Kiowa, forcing a fight to the finish. Mattilda is killed during the fighting that follows. Just as the family, almost out of ammunition, is about to be overwhelmed, Cash arrives and turns the tide. Rachel, protecting a wounded Andy and aware that Ben loves her, is confronted by Lost Bird. She kills him, ending the battle.



Publicity photo of Lancaster and Hepburn during filming.

The Unforgiven was the final Hecht-Hill-Lancaster production. It had a projected budget of $3 million, which expanded to $5.5 million. Original screenwriter JP Miller was replaced by Ben Maddow, original director Delbert Mann was replaced by John Huston and plans for Richard Burton in the role that eventually went to Audie Murphy were stopped when Burton demanded equal billing with Burt Lancaster, which Lancaster refused.[2]

Production was suspended for several months in 1959 after Hepburn broke her back when she fell off a horse while rehearsing a scene. Although she eventually recovered, the accident was blamed for a subsequent miscarriage that Hepburn suffered. According to several published biographies of Hepburn, she blamed herself for the accident and all but disowned the film, although she did complete it when she was well enough to return to work. Hepburn would step away from acting the next year in order to successfully have a child, returning to the screen with Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961).[3]

Huston battled with Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, the production company financing the film. Hecht-Hill-Lancaster wanted a more commercial and less controversial film, while Huston wanted to make a statement about racism in America.[4] The result was that neither side received exactly what they had wanted.[5]

Huston's cinematographer of choice, Oswald Morris, was unavailable, causing Huston to not talk to Morris for several years.[6]

John Saxon had signed a three-picture deal with HHL.[7]

The name "Lost Bird" is applied by some Plains Indian tribes to native children adopted by whites. It was popularized by Zintkala Nuni, a Hunkpapa Lakotah survivor of the Wounded Knee Massacre, taken by Leonard Wright Colby and raised by his wife Clara Bewick Colby, whose widely circulated feminist newspaper The Woman's Tribune carried a column on Zintkala for many years. The Lost Bird Society helps to reunite these adopted children with their birth families.[8]


Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic described the film as "ludicrous".[9]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Rental Potentials of 1960", Variety, 4 January 1961 p 47.
  2. ^ pp. 151-152 Larkins, Bob & Magers, Boyd The Films of Audie Murphy McFarland, 19 Aug. 2009
  3. ^ "The Unforgiven (1960):Genesis" Retrieved 9 June 2015
  4. ^ Schwartz, Dennis (2005-01-18). "Ozu's World Movie Reviews - The Unforgiven".
  5. ^ Schmidt, Rob (June 14, 2007). "Review of The Unforgiven". Archived from the original on October 28, 2007.
  6. ^ Field, Matthew, "Goodbye Mr. Morris" in Cinema Retro Vol. 10, Issue 30.
  7. ^ Vagg, Stephen (July 29, 2020). "The Top Twelve Stages of Saxon". Filmink.
  8. ^ "Lost Bird of Wounded Knee". South Dakota Public Television. Retrieved 13 June 2017.
  9. ^ Kaufmann, Stanley (1968). A world on Film. Delta Books. p. 147.

External linksEdit