Continuing my exploration of the influence of The Searchers (1956) on films, here the Western, I’m stopping in with The Unforgiven (1960) which shares and elaborates on some on the themes and even down to the imagery that’s heightened here. Also spurred on after reading a review last month of the film over at Bored and Dangerous who I in turn recommended Cheyenne Autumn (1964) to looking at the depiction of the Native Americans, which again I will touch upon.
Now I first caught this film about 5 years ago, I focused more on the mis-casting of Audrey Hepburn, now I’m not so concerned about that. I’ve also seen more films by both lead actors and the director John Huston who dabbled in practically every genre that Hollywood works it. Instead I felt from the very beginning of the film I was taken aback by the dark and mysterious soundtrack took me into a world where nothing is certain, the truth is hidden, even out in a landscape where being honest is the only way to survive and do business. It’s the arrival of a rider Johnny Portugal (John Saxon) with a saber, much like the beginning of a Shakespeare play predicting what will happen, spouting a very harsh truth that’s still cryptic enough that it lingers in the audiences mind throughout. He’s hiding in the bushes on his horse, ready to scare the life out of Rachel Zachary (Hepburn) still innocent to the world around her, the next few days are going to be quite revealing for her.
So how does this compare with The Searchers then? Well from the start, if Rachel is to be Kiowa as we are lead to believe she is the Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) or Debbie (Natalie Wood) has long been accepted into the Zachary family, with a white mother Mattilda (Lillian Gish) and three brothers who have taken in and raised this child, now a young woman as their own. Known as an abandoned child has been long been assimilated into White civilisation. So any revelation shouldn’t cause that much harm, can it? In the home of the Edwards in the John Ford original, Martin Pawley is seem as an Edwards, there’s no question of his place in the home or in the film, accepted. Debbie has been written off as a squaw, better off dead, there’s no place for her, that’s until Ethan finally on rescuing her, decides not to kill her, instead returning her to the home of the Jorgensens, in a memorable sequence that brings the film to a close. Of course that wouldn’t make much for a film in The Unforgiven, Rachel’s identity is kept secret until much later on.
This is a time which could have seen the Jorgensens move away and settle in a different town, a town that is not aware of Debbie’s past that saw her brought up and married to Comanche chief Scar (Henry Brandon), she is far from pure in the eyes of a Wild West society, she’s tainted. So what about Rachel, at the moment she’s open to the possibility but gives it little thought when her mother brushes it aside.
I’ve not even turned to the Zachary brothers lead by Ben (Burt Lancaster) who I naturally thought would be the Ethan (John Wayne) of the film. Starting out hating her, wanting to search and hoping to kill his niece for the dirty blood that runs through her veins. Instead he’s a doting son and wrangler who has returned with a big dealing in the air with another local family. You can see his love for his mother when he literally lifts a piano on his back from a cart for her. He’s a mother boy, and father of the family. Could this be the Edwards has they survive the massacre and fought off the Comanches? The Zachary’s are a happy cohesive family on the surface, they have built a home out in the frontier, even if cows like to graze on the roof.
Everything starts to go wrong when Charlie Rawlins (Albert Salmi) who had just started courting Rachel is killed by a Kiowa. This is after we have already met them at the Zachary’s homestead, wanting to trade horses for Rachel. An offer refused which backfires. The offers refused but the question of her identity now wont go away, is she a Kiowa or not, the presence of the Native Americans suggest they mean business. A posse’s formed and they go in search of who we think are the Kiowas, it’s methodical, long and good length montage that finally leads them to Johnny Portugal the blast from the past, whose placed on trial, at the wrong end of noose. The truths revealed, with no room for the Zachary’s to wriggle out of. The tone of the film now changes, the family are seen as outcast unless they release Rachel to the Kiowa’s. To the point they want to humiliate her by stripping her down to reveal the truth, making them worse than the Kiowas are perceived to be. The Whites are just as bad if not worse.
Now onto the scenes that I hazily remember, the gunfight in the homestead, the Zacharys surrounded, minus one disgusted brother (Cash – Audie Murphy) so its 4 against an army of Kiowa’s. This is like the massacre in The Searchers as we only saw before when the secure the ranch pre-attack. Just as we saw in The Stalking Moon (1968) when its was 3 against 1. Here its more dramatic, Huston doesn’t leave anything out, every character has a dramatic moment, it’s literally jam-packed for at least 10 minutes, wanting to make every second count whilst they’re cooped up in the house. Lancaster is stronger than Ethan, able to accept Rachel for who she is and even kill her own kind, where as the Indian hater would kill them indiscriminately.
Finally I must turn to the casting of Hepburn who I originally thought was mis-cast, yet it’s her innocence that makes her perfect for the role. Not aware of who she truly is, her heritage, never questioning it. Thinking for a time she can marry her oldest brother, she has no understanding of family relationship beyond the power of love. When Charlie requests to start courting with her, she jumps at the chance, maybe to make Ben jealous, not that he would be. When she sees her Kiowa brother though, the man who killed her potential husband it brings out her natural self that she has been resisting. Resulting in an unsatisfying conclusion for me. Much like friend over at Bored and Dangerous – the happy ending, her family accept her, but does the wider society that left them all to be killed. Is family love all she needs when she knows deep down what she now wants – to be with the Kiowa. Who again are treated as one dimensional – which I’m not really surprised at, they are however allowed if however briefly to enter the white mans world to claim what is rightly theirs – Rachel.
A much-needed re-watch which has come a year after reading into The Stalking Moon (1968) compared to The Searchers (1956) (again) which I had to watch once more to see all the readings into the films depiction of the Native American for myself. It comes across as another possible narrative strand of The Searchers which really ends where Moon picks up. After a group of Apache are rounded up by the army, possibly having escaped a reservation or going to. Either way their freedom is over and future is determined. We discover a single white and blonde female captive Sarah Carver (Eva Marie Saint) who has been assimilated into their culture, she has assumed their language, dress and thinking.
For all intent and purposes she is a Native American, that is in the eyes of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) who would more than likely left he to die or killed her himself. Not the army scout/Indian tracker Sam Varner (Gregory Peck) who readily accepts her as white or even just human and a woman (be that in 19th century terms). She is a free woman to do as she pleases, bringing her son with her, also that of Salvaje (Nathaniel Narcisco) which is Spanish for savage. If you know your Spanish you are already being given a pre-loaded conception of who this mostly un-seen figure is. Not unlike Scar (Henry Brandon) who we see a few times and interact with in the earlier film. The Spanish translation is cicatriz as the Mexican in the cantina tells Edwards.
I can’t really compare Varner and Edwards both are very different characters and that’s not the point of this re-exmination of the film. For me it’s about how the later film has been influenced, taking the same iconography and the depiction of the Native American. You could say they are one and the same film in some respects. A woman’s rescued from a life with the “Indians” which is either looked down on, mocked or pitied. In the genre you are better of dead than alive being a squaw. In reality women and children were only taken as prisoners, used as leverage with the army to stay on their land. Most of not all were later released, you can see where the myth begins though which has allowed the on-screen image to become bigger and more exotic. Being captured and living as one of a number of squaws with a one of the warriors or even chief, having a number of children, usually after being raped. Not a pretty picture but one that both dime novels and Hollywood and built up and reinforced.
So with this image built up on paper and on-screen, the Native American all but quieted on reservations the myth of conquest’s being formed and reinforced by clichés which we see in both The Searchers and The Stalking Moon, they are always seen through the eyes of the white man, usually the tracker who has a vast knowledge of them, which the audience dripped fed. Edwards is delivered with hate and disgust, whereas Varner’s more about the survival skills which he uses against them in order to stay alive. There is no real hatred behind his eyes, he is even close friends with his younger partner in the army a mixed race Nick Tana (Robert Forster) who looks up to him as a father figure. We can see that the fight between his two heritage was won by his white side, which in turn makes is easier for us to engage with him.
Going back to the depiction of the key Native American, both come from over-used nations – Apache and Comanche- the very names are more exotic on the ear, and sound more frightening than others. Scar the Comanche chief has lines and shares screen-time with Edwards, neither like each other and you can really feel it as they have a fruitless trading session. Whereas Salvaje is not even seen until the finale which is more about tension. He’s treated as an animal who has to be stopped in his tracks. There’s no eye to eye scene until it’s too late to do anything about, Salvaje is very one-dimensional and his only one goal to rescue his son from the white people, more able to accept his mixed heritage but not his circumstances. For the majority of the film he is only seen in the form of the aftermath of the victims he leaves as he comes in search of his son. He is the Apache Ethan Edwards going all the way to find his son, except it’s not over the course of seven years, more like a week if that.
The cost of the deaths could’ve been avoided as its pointed out to Sarah who is eager to get moving back home, knowing she needs to keep moving to survive with her son. She’s taken into the care of Varner who takes it on himself to escort her so far before getting to her destination of Silverton, her home town. She and her son (Noland Clay) who’re treated as second class citizens, with restricted travel and casual racism.
I must touch on the ranches that feature in both films, The Edwards ranch where we begin in The Searchers and with the Jorgensens as Debbie (Natalie Wood) is safely returned by to white safety and civilization, restoring her you could say. That restoration happens far earlier for Sarah, discovered at the beginning The Stalking Moon and is later invited to stay, possibly live at Varner’s ranch where we see inside far longer than the establishing scenes of Ford’s film. We only see the beginning of the Comanche raid, we don’t see anyone, nature discovers them first. The ranch is barricaded, cutting to Scar who has already found a young Debbie in the family graveyard, which is where her white life ends and “Indian” life begins. Back to New Mexico where Varner’s ranch and battle ground for the finale of the later film takes place. The danger is brought back to the homestead which eventually end with Salvajes death restoring order. Sarah’s able to adjust to White mans life along with her son, much like Debbie Edwards before her.
As I have found they share a lot of the same themes and imagery, just reordering them within the same basic landscape of the American West. It’s the last real conventional Western retelling of the same plot before we enter the modern world where Native American’s are replaced with criminals and other low-life that replace the previous obstacle. We have lost the racist in Edwards for a more well adjusted figure in Varner who can easily live among others. I guess the only true comparison would and will always be Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) whose an urban outsider, to dangerous for mainstream society. I think I know which film I’ll be watching again soon.