Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Frontier of Revisionism

I guess it was the late 1950s when Hollywood was just starting to feel vaguely and awkwardly guilty about portrayals of Native Americans in Westerns. 1960's The Unforgiven is an example of how these feelings were manifesting in movies, in this case much too broadly and with too much of its weight rested on the unstable, unexamined political attitude. Still, it's a John Huston movie--John Huston's least favourite of the movies he made, but a John Huston movie nonetheless--and it therefore inevitably has value.

Elements of the plot bear a striking resemblance to John Ford's 1956 film The Searchers. In both movies, the characters are motivated by their reactions to an innocent girl's relationship with Native Americans. In The Searchers, a girl kidnapped and raised by Indians provides a prompt to explore racism in the lead, John Wayne, while in The Unforgiven, Audrey Hepburn plays a young woman whose possibly Indian blood incites violently racist reactions from the community.

Casting is one of the biggest problems with this movie. Audrey Hepburn certainly gives it her all--she broke her back during production, and one can see she actually does a couple dangerous horse stunts in the movie, but this can't make up for the fact that she doesn't seem remotely like an American frontier girl. The hint of a southern accent that worked well enough for a couple scenes in Breakfast at Tiffany's is simply totally unconvincing here. But even worse, for me anyway, is Burt Lancaster as her adopted brother.

Maybe it's just me but Lancaster always seems like a narcissistic douche, regardless of what character he's playing. Every performance I've seen him give has been thoroughly unconvincing and self conscious. Half the time I expect him to finish a scene by saying, "I am an actor!"

The only really good member of the cast was Lillian Gish as Hepburn's adopted mother. She ably balances an ingrained racism with a noble maternal instinct.

And there're a lot of beautiful location shots, showcasing Huston's ability to get beautiful footage.

But Lancaster's heavy handed battle against the racist population feels much too forward. He's a blank paragon and the community is composed of cardboard, snarling villains. The Searchers shines next to this film for several reasons, but mainly because Ford let his characters be characters first and foremost rather than pawns in a political message, and consequently the message comes across a lot better in The Searchers.

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