The Unforgiven takes place in Texas cattle country, far away from Wichita, which, in the constricted geographical context of the movie, is practically the only other place. Wichita is where the cattle are driven. In between drives, the families of the spacious panhandle create their own rustic Peyton Place to pass the while. The Rawlins, Zacharys, and whoever else court, marry, and extend their families. But one thing they never do is mingle with the Kiowas. Enter Rachel Zachary (Audrey Hepburn), the elfin daughter of Matilda (Lillian Gish) and sister of Ben (Burt Lancaster), Andy, and Cash (Audie Murphy) Zachary. If these are not enough Zacharys, there is yet another, William, whose tombstone is seen now and again in passing.
Abe Kelsey, a gaunt gargoyle on horseback with a saber and whiskey jug, occasionally singing Glory Glory Hallelujah, is someone who knows how to wreck someone else’s day if not life. Now, it should be said that the Zacharys are not dukes and earls. Nevertheless, the assertion by Kelsey to Rachel that she is not a Zachary is enough to set in motion a Shakespearean spiral into the infernal pit. Most reviews make mention of the fact that Alan Le May (1899-1964) wrote both The Unforgiven and The Searchers, novels made into movies. There can be no doubt that the overarching themes are exactly the same and can be distilled further into a single thread: intolerance.
The rumormill spreads the word. Soon Lost Bird learns of his sister’s existence and attempts to exchange horses for her. No deal. Charlie Rawlins asks for her hand. She accepts. Ben approves. But he is killed by an arrow. Then Kelsey, whom the Rawlins suspect, tells how long ago his son was captured by Kiowas. According to Kelsey, the Zacharys would not give up their foundling, a Kiowa girl, in a fair swap. No trade for the life of Kelsey’s son, a white. At this point, no character in the movie can stand it. Kelsey hangs. Rachel has to endure an “examination” to determine if she really is an Indian. Then Andy goes on a binge after Ben refuses to just get rid of the young woman who cannot ever hope to measure up to being sister, daughter, and bride within an acceptable, white household.
The fifties was certainly a decade during which race became a heated subject. Without having read Le May it is hard to know what his more personal concerns were. But in the domain of American-Native American relations, the idea repeatedly surfaces in these two films that there must be strict segregation with no exceptions. Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in The Searchers might want to rescue his neice or, failing, take her life. He cannot abide her abduction. This little girl was not meant, in Edwards’ mind, to live a full life as a hostage (if that is his objection). It simply cannot be. Lost Bird, too, cannot put up with his sister’s existence among non-Indians — even though she is content to pass for white among whites. He risks life and limb in a brave attempt to return her to tribal life. Her reply puts the final touch on the whole altercation.
Le May’s novels are aptly named. The Searchers truly seek over a long period of time, looking painstakingly for both Debbie (Natalie Wood) and a resolution to an unbearable circumstance. Likewise, The Unforgiven remain just that. The unwritten laws of unmixed color cannot be violated. Anyone who thinks he or she knows better is subject to merciless ostracization. The personage of Zeb Rawlins (Charles Bickford) is the very embodiment in human form and content of a pig-headed, thick-skinned culture that fights tooth and nail not to be superceded. The Searchers is universally accepted as a masterpiece of classical American cinema. But The Unforgiven commands respect, too.
The latter is as star-studded as the former, and it is certainly a treat to see Lillian Gish, one of D.W. Griffith’s favorite actresses. But the substance of which the film consists, racial purity, is not a source of entertainment. Today’s audiences might consider itself enlightened, but the Klan and other likeminded associations are certain that as once it was so it shall be. Genealogy, for instance, longtime pastime of the Klan, is more popular than baseball. That a subject so disruptive can be introduced into a medium tending toward the lighter side and be fashioned into a gripping drama speaks well for the seventh art. Layers of composition, moreover, are involved. The movie can be looked at as a deft western or a kind of document on how intrinsic racism is in a country famous for the melting pot.