09 April 2006

The Unforgiven

This movie was a lot more interesting than I expected it to be. Made in 1960, it's a Western that tackles issues of race, ie, Indian-White relations*. It also happens to be Audrey Hepburn's only Western.

The plot centers around a family, the Zacharys, one of whom is Rachel (played by Audrey Hepburn). Everything seems fine and dandy until a strange man appears and spreads the rumor that Rachel is actually an Indian - stolen from the Kiowa tribe. Meanwhile, the relationship of the whites to the Kiowas is tricky anyhow, but having caught wind of this rumor, the Indians come to take their lost sister back, thus kicking off a whole new round of antagonisms. At the same time, the settlers start to turn against the Zachary family, and there's an increasingly tense questioning of whether the rumor is true.

The movie is kind of strange - particularly the ending - and refuses to take a clear stance on the race relations issue. There is, incidentally, also an assimilated Indian character, just to provide some further food for thought. I thought it was nuanced, complex, and fascinating. Of course, one could claim that the portrayals of Indians are essentializing and fucked up, but actually, they weren't as bad as I expected them to be - a cut above the usual, I'd say. Audrey Hepburn is indeed a rather bizarre choice for a girl who may or may not be an Indian princess - she's really a bizarre choice for a Western at all - but she manages to be charming and likeable as always, so you don't care as much that her accent is completely bizarre.

Another interesting trait of the film is the way it depicts masculinity - I don't know if it's a conscious interest or just something I've been paying more attention to in movies lately, but again one has the hot blooded men who ultimately seem to be less "manly" than the quiet, reflective guy who was originally seen as weak. Though this is somewhat undermined by the willingness of the quiet guy to slaughter ruthlessly when it was deemed necessary, so perhaps, rather than challenging gender roles, the movie is really just advocating a cool head in conflict, which could be a mild critique, and a call for a revision of the notion of masculinity, but not a revolutionary change.

There's also a strange incest theme going on that really quite detracts from the movie. It's somewhat bizarre, and rather unnecessary. The Zachary brother most willing to defend his sister's honor proves to be madly in love with her, which opens the possibility that his championing of Indian rights throughout the film is motivated by fetish more than a belief in justice. Hmmm.

The film does have some great characters though. The mysterious stranger in particular is phenomenal - dressed in a civil war uniform, rattling his sabre and squinting through his one good eye, he haunts the desert, a disturbing and malicious ghost from the past. His lines are great - he speaks in the parlance of Biblical prophecy, and the effect is quite chilling.

Another great strength of the movie was the landscape - gorgeous shots of the desert, the cacti, the sky. I love the desert, and the movie really made me miss the west coast. Seeing all that untouched open land was glorious.

Anyhow, yeah, great movie. I actually watched it almost two weeks ago - I've been too busy to update regularly, and I haven't been watching as many movies and reading as many books lately - most of my reading assignments are exerpts of Marx, and for cinematic fun, I've been working my way through Twin Peaks - so there's not a lot of grist for the mill. The point being that as time goes on, I find myself thinking about the movie from time to time, which is generally a good sign. Worth watching.

*Before you dog on me for saying Indian, allow me to explain - a professor of mine recently related the complaint of his Indian friend (though I also seem to recall reading a similar argument somewhere) that to say Native American is actually quite offensive. It attempts to enfold these people into a notion of American-ness, when the goddamn country was founded upon wiping them out and erecting America on their bones, which thus makes a move to posthumously sort of apologize and include them now that they're safely dead and gone, creating a spectral authentic "natural" America that is an impossible fantasy. Furthermore, it tries to correct a mistake, partly to make whites look better. As this man apparently said, "I'd rather keep the name Indian, as a monument to white stupidity. It's the least they could do, is admit that although they had the ability to wipe us out, they also thought they were in India when they first arrived." I've decided I like it, and am going to say Indian from now on, unless I can specify tribal identity - it's not like all them Injuns are the same, you know.

1 comment:

mj said...

Hey Kasia,
I was glad that I got the chance to watch this film with you and its interesting to hear your perspective on what I found to be a complex and often thematically contradictory movie. Overall, I agree that this movie is certainly worth watching and I think its quite thought provoking. A couple of thoughts to add to your own…

I have to say that I was pretty disappointed with the ending of this film. I thought the movie started out strong and showed incredible promise with a unique and challenging interpretation of racial tensions on the Western frontier. There were a number of intertwining plot lines which had the potential to develop into something truly exceptional. However, I really felt like this movie lost its focus somewhere after the lynching scene. It suddenly went from being a well-constructed and thought-provoking examination of the characters and their challenges to a tired and all too familiar shoot out on the ranch. I just felt like someone behind the scenes got that far and then went "Eh, well we can just kill everyone, and hey, we better have Audrey Hepburn be in love at the end too."

That said, I still think there are some interesting things to discuss about the film. I liked what you said about masculinity. I think gender was a very interesting and influential subtext to most of this film. Obviously, since the movie was made in 1960 some of what the movie expresses about gender dynamics is dated and even offensive to a more contemporary viewer. But, I found the marriage alliances with the neighbors, the relationships between the adult members of the family, the heads of households all interesting. I was particularly struck by the portrayal of Audrey Hepburn's character as a potential familial asset through marriage-- and how that changed once she was revealed as non-white. As soon as this happens, she is immediately limited to either living with Indians, being a prostitute, or incestuous relationships. Bizarrely, I think the movie suggests that this role change is positive but fails to examine the complexities of such an occurrence. (Oh, and isnt all the talk about the prostitutes in Wichita pretty interesting as well...)

As you suggested one of the most fascinating characters is the mystical old civil war man who is determined to reveal the family's secrets. He seemed to me to be presented as almost a holy avenger or hand of god type person. There was the storm, his appearing out of nowhere, his almost omnipotent knowledge, the Biblical references, and all of that getting lost in the fog business. I was also thinking about how initially I thought he was the missing father of the family but then it turns out not. I don't know. Beyond what was explicitly stated in the movie, I just don't think I quite get his deal.

And what do you think about the title?

Oh also- did you read anything about the director? Apparently this is one of his least favorite films and he pretty much quit being invested in the project part way through... which may explain some things.