Release Date(s)1960 (August 12, 2014)
Studio(s)United Artists/20th Century Fox/MGM (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: B-
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: F+
The Unforgiven is another one of those movies that’s trying hard to find an identity tonally. It leans toward a much darker tone because of its subject matter, but it never fully sticks to it, leaving things a bit too uneven. The casting of Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn does anchor it and make it worth seeing, but the final product is a little disappointing.
While the people that made it were never happy with it, The Unforgiven is a bit of an anomaly of a movie, by and large. Based upon the book by Alan Le May, you can certainly see many similarities between this and John Ford’s The Searchers, which was also based on a novel by Alan Le May. The subject matter is much of the same and carries the same thematic material, which is white prejudice. The story is that a young woman that the Zachary family has been raising since she was an infant is rumored to be a lost member of the Kiowa Indian tribe. This prejudice is brought to the forefront against her and her family when the Kiowa begin attacking people and she is blamed for their actions.
The Unforgiven is notable for its use of racial slurs, as well as some candid dialogue from the Zachary mother character (played by Lillian Gish). It’s also a film that never sat comfortably with the people that made it. John Huston, in particular, wasn’t happy with the final product. The financiers of the film battled with him on making a more audience-friendly, commercial piece, but Huston resisted, instead wanting to make a much more serious film that dealt with racism in a more direct and honest way. The finished product tries to strike a bit of a balance between those two ideals, but never fully succeeds. We go from silly antics between some of the characters early on in the film to racism, death, and destruction. Burt Lancaster manages to hold things together, and is the main reason for seeing the film in the first place. His character has the real main arc of the story, more so than Audrey Hepburn’s character, a part in which her presence just doesn’t work at all. It’s no surprise that she didn’t care for the film at all upon its completion. There are also a few other names that pop up in the cast, such as the aforementioned Lillian Gish, John Saxon, and Audie Murphy.
The cinematography of the film is also worthy of note. The framing of shots appears to have been very much in the forefront of consideration for cinematographer Franz Planer, such as the moment when Hepburn and Gish are having a moment by the window, and in the distance, we can see a man on a horse riding up to meet them. It’s a nice touch, and it keeps one guessing as to when they’re going to notice that person outside their window. But unfortunately, shots like these are in service of a film that’s merely ok, and not great. There are some very good scenes, but there’s no ultimate payoff for the story as a whole, which the uneven tone is partly to blame for.
As for the Blu-ray presentation on this disc, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, but mostly worth it. There’s a very good grain structure throughout the film with some decent enough color reproduction, although I felt skin tones carried more of a pinker hue than they should have. Blacks are mostly deep, but sometimes contrast changes from shot to shot, particularly during the shootout at the end of the film between inside and outside. The frame is always stable, but there’s some film damage left behind, mostly scratches and minor holes in frames. I also noticed a bit of color molding from time to time, but never in abundance. This appears to be a print that very little was done to either improve it or detract from it. Still, image detail is always strong, so many viewers will be quite happy with it overall. The sound, which is a single English 2.0 DTS-HD track (stemmed from a mono track), is also a bit of a mixed bag. It definitely comes from a mix that doesn’t allow all of the sound elements to shine, especially the score, which is either buried in the mix most of the time or so low that you might not notice it. Sound effects benefit the most from the lossless experience, and dialogue is mostly audible. There isn’t much in terms of dynamic range either. It’s a mostly flat soundtrack with an unimpressive mix. There are also subtitles in English for those who might need them.
The only extra that’s been included is the original theatrical trailer. I personally would have liked to have heard some stories about the behind-the-scenes problems that took place during the making of the film, but I guess one will have to wait a little longer for that. The overall presentation of the film is a very good one, not a great one, but is likely to satisfy any fans of the film. All told, it’s not a particularly good film, but it’s on a good disc.
- Tim Salmons