There are many aspects of The Unforgiven that elicit comparison with Shane, particularly in regard to the composition of the scenes and the photography. Director John Huston and cameraman Franz Planer have teamed to provide an intelligent use of the medium for eye-pleasing effects, filmed in Mexico.
The screenplay from a novel by Alan Le May – although many parts are better than the whole – provides a good framework for the talents of Huston and his performers. Audrey Hepburn gives a shining performance as the foundling daughter of a frontier family. As her foster brother, obviously desperately in love with his ‘sister’, Burt Lancaster is fine as the strong-willed, heroic family spokesman and community leader.
The scene is the Texas Panhandle immediately after the Civil War at a time of unbending hatred between the white settlers and the local Kiowa Indians. The antagonism is marked by senseless massacres and excesses on the part of both sides. In the midst of this tension, it’s discovered that Hepburn is actually a full-blooded Indian. The desire of the Indians to recover their own ‘blood’, the resentment of the settlers in having an ‘enemy’ in their midst, and the determination to hold on to the girl who has been a member of the family almost since birth provides the crux of the conflict.
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Lillian Gish, a silent film favorite, is okay as the mother who guards the secret of her foundling daughter. However, she has a tendency to over-react emotionally. There are good performances by Charles Bickford, as the head of another frontier family; June Walker, as his wife; Albert Salmi, as his son who courts Hepburn; Kipp Hamilton, as his daughter, and Doug McClure, as Lancaster’s youngest brother. Audie Murphy is surprisingly good as Lancaster’s hot-headed brother whose hatred of Indians causes him to abandon his family.