John Huston said this about The Unforgiven: “Some of my pictures I don’t care for, but The Unforgiven is the only one I actually dislike. The overall tone is bombastic and over-inflated...I watched it on television one night and after about half a reel I had to turn the damned thing off. I couldn’t bear it.” He most likely saw the dreadfully distorted formatted-to-fit-the-screen version with a washed-out print, and understandably his negative reaction to all the hysteria magnified. And he likewise probably remembered incidents during filming: Audrey Hepburn fell from a horse and her injuries halted production for three weeks; Audie Murphy and a Huston friend almost drowned; and his own attitude went from a director-artist intent—“a story of racial intolerance in a frontier town, a comment on the real nature of community morality”—to acquiescence to Burt Lancaster’s demands the movie be “a swashbuckler about a larger-than-life frontiersman.” It’s quite a bit of both, and maybe it wouldn’t be what Dwight Macdonald labeled it—“profound phoniness”—if not for Franz Planer’s visual and Dimitri Tiomkin’s musical scales, which so hyperbolize the story it’s like a grand horse opera without much that’s grand and more than once you flash on and hope for a few redeeming laughs ala Duel in the Sun. (Tiomkin’s score was recorded in Rome and has that damning farawayness ensuring estrangement.) The Unforgiven is not Huston’s worst film—The Barbarian and the Geisha, The List of Adrian Messenger, A Walk with Love and Death, The Kremlin Letter and The Mackintosh Man rank, I think, considerably lower—and, via letterbox, there’s a compulsive curiosity for viewers as nearly everyone is miscast and whooping up Ben Maddow howlers the likes of which few other Huston-directed actors ever whooped, thus explaining some foofs’ partisanship. However, many turkeys do play better years away from their initial release and severe critical pounding; thanks to TCM’s insistence on widescreen presentation, this may be one. Filmed in Durango, where the one name Huston sought most for fortification was probably Jose Cuervo; when we watch Lillian Gish pounding out Mozart on the pie-ana in the front yard of the family dwelling to spook the injuns, there’s no one more handy to blame for the madness.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2005 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.