Ever since his father was killed by Indians, Ben Zachary (Burt Lancaster - Run Silent Run Deep) has been the man of the house, looking after his mother (Lillian Gish - Duel in the Sun), hot headed Indian hating brother Cash (Audie Murphy - Seven Ways from Sundownn) as well as his naive little brother Andy (Doug McClure). But then there is his little sister Rachel (Audrey Hepburn - The Nun's Story), who joined the family as a baby when his father rescued her from Indians, claiming she was the daughter of a massacred family from Boston. Having been close to the neighbouring Rawlins family for many years things kick off when a stranger rides in to the area claiming that Rachel is an Indian. It not only leads to death and disagreement but also the Zacharys having to stand their ground when attacked in an Indian raid.
I have heard various things said about "The Unforgiven" including that it was supposedly John Huston's response to John Ford's "The Searchers" whilst also a western about racial intolerance. And in truth it can be both those things but for me it is a star studded western with aspirations of being a western epic but never quite reaching the mark because of the scope of the storyline doesn't allow it.
Now the storyline to "The Unforgiven" is simple as Ben Zachary and his mother have kept a secret from everyone which is Ben's little sister Rachel is in fact an Indian stolen at birth by Ben's father, for reasons which you discover later on in the movie. When that secret comes out, thanks to a sabre wearing stranger who has hounded the family ever since Ben's father stole the baby, it leads to division as not only do the Rawlins family abandon them but the Indian hating Cash also leaves, in doing so leaving them vulnerable to attack from a group of Indians who want the now grown Rachel back. Yes this storyline has depth with motives, murder as well as romance but it does not lend itself to be a big scale movie due to it not being a tale which covers several years.
Now that is a shame because "The Unforgiven" certainly has an impressive cast with Burt Lancaster delivering his usual solid handsome hero performance whilst Audrey Hepburn is sweetly fun as his younger sister. And in fairness they bring out the simmering romantic feelings which the characters clearly have for each other despite raised as siblings. But for me it is the bile filled performance from Audie Murphy which stands out, some times for being over the top but also because playing such a hateful character was unusual for Murphy and he certainly gets across that hatred. And of course you can't ignore Lillian Gish who certainly gets her moment to shine when she gets a gun in her hands.
What this all boils down to is that "The Unforgiven" is an enjoyable western which is simple to follow whilst having depth and culminating in an impressive action packed ending. But it is again a western whose length pushes the limits of the stories ability and for me it does feel drawn out in places.