Upon Further Review, Mr. Murphy, YOU ARE FORGIVEN by the Dr. of Ancient Filmology

March 21, 2010
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      If you’re like me, you get annoyed when the titles of two movies are almost exactly—and sometimes even exactly exactly—the same.

Dr. of Ancient Filmology

Dr. of Ancient Filmology



      Happens all the time.   For example, in 1998 the action-hero actor Steven Seagal made a movie called “The Patriot” (a strange, bio-toxic thriller that didn’t match the title at all), and then two years later the more aptly named “The Patriot”, starring Mel Gibson, gave us a fresh and fairly realistic taste of the Revolutionary War.

      Isn’t that irritating???

      And I say again, these two same-name movies were aired only two years apart.

      I don’t get it.   Why couldn’t the producers of the 2nd one, the Gibson film, have called theirs “The Sunshine Patriot” instead?   It’s a better title anyway, it more accurately reflects Gibson’s character’s reticence to go to war, and would have linked up beautifully from an artistic standpoint with philosopher Thomas Paine’s famous quote about such reluctant warriors; “….these are the times that try Men’s soul… the summer soldier and the Sunshine Patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their blah blah blah….   Yep, they shudda called it The Sunshine Patriot.   Then the two movies could have lived separate lives with different names.   I don’t get it.

      Anyway, I don’t want to get too far off the track.   Because neither version of “The Patriot” is this week’s ancient film selection.  

      Rather, the title of this week’s underappreciated film is “The Unforgiven”, shot in 1960, and directed by John Huston (mega-films Huston directed include “The Maltese Falcon”, “Key Largo”, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”,The African Queen”, “Moby Dick”, and “The Misfits”).   Huston might be the best Hollywood director ever and is, coincidentally, my personal favorite.   The Unforgiven” is not to be confused with 1992’s “Unforgiven”, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood.   Even though the similar names is confusing….which is to say annoying.image0014

      The Unforgiven” stars Burt Lancaster as Ben, the eldest son and head of the Zachary family, a family of five living somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the Texas panhandle shortly after the Civil War.   Lancaster is my favorite movie star.   For my money, he’s everything a movie star should be.   In “The Unforgiven” Burt does what he always does on screen; he dominates both the action and your attention, leaps around, gives orders, beats people up, lifts huge objects on his back (in this case a grand piano), laughs all the way from his belly, smokes, drinks, flirts, prays, shoots people, and grins those huge perfect teeth.   It is far from his best work, but as usual he does his usual good job.

      Burt is supported by one of the most unusual casts imaginable.   His mother is portrayed by silent screen legend Lillian Gish.   Gish was 67 at the time and looked 87.   Gish’s most famous role was in another post Civil War epic, as the heroine in D.W. Griffith’s controversial silent masterpiece “The Birth Of A Nation”.   That was way back in 1915.   War hero Audie Murphy plays Burt’s younger brother.   A small but key role is handled deftly by Joseph Wiseman, who would go on to play the very first James Bond villain ever in the title role of “Dr. No”.   And Burt’s young adopted sister is played by the incomparable Audrey Hepburn.

      Hepburn’s character is the key to the movie.   She’s adopted all right, but it becomes apparent early in the movie that she is an Indian girl who Burt’s late father had kidnapped from the Kiowas after a raid to avenge a massacre, taken at infancy and given to his wife (Gish) to replace her own infant child who had just died.   Gish had kept that secret locked in her heart all of her life.   But finally it all unraveled.

       What makes “The Unforgiven” a worthwhile movie to seek out is Huston’s vision.   It is a film designed more than anything else to throw a very harsh light on racial prejudice.   Remember, it was 1960 when this film was released.   Right smack in the middle of the Civil Rights crisis in this country.   Huston is obviously drawing a parallel between how everyone back then treated the Indians and how most everyone up until 1960 treated black people and, basically, how insane the whole notion of mass racial profiling is.   Before Hepburn’s character is discovered to be of Kiowa blood she is beloved by all (just like the real Audrey Hepburn always was!), she is smart, funny, vivacious, sweet, caring, friendly, loving, and, well, everyone is nuts about her.   But the minute she is discovered to be non-white, everybody turns on her.   Her friends turn on her, the townspeople turn on her, Burt’s close friend and partner in the cattle business Zeb Rawlins (played by the fine character actor Charles Bickford) turns on her, Bickford’s whole family turns on her, and even most of Hepburn’s own adopted family turns on her.   It’s a by-god epidemic of knee-jerk prejudice.   Even the generally heroic Lancaster—who it turns out loves the girl in a very un-brotherly way—is pretty damned conflicted about it all, because he just plain hates Indians.

      Huston pulls very few punches, only the ones the studio made him pull.   He makes sure you see all the hate, the froth, all the over-the-top venom.   Very few of the characters in this movie are what you’d call sympathetic.   Gish is one of the few.   I suspect that’s the reason she took this role; after all, the signature role of her career, as mentioned, was in “The Birth Of A Nation” one of the most controversial films ever made, a film that glorified the Ku Klux Klan, praised white supremacy, demeaned blacks, and essentially argued in favor of evil.   Maybe she felt she needed to leave a more positive legacy than that.

      Hepburn must also be applauded for taking on her role.   The usually porcelain-white actress is anything but as Rachel Zachary.   She is either very tanned or expertly made-up.   It’s hard to get it out of your head that it’s porcelain-white Audrey trying to walk this difficult acting tightrope.   And she goes against type in this role in other ways as well, she being usually the innocent ingénue or bouncy lead in a romantic comedy or feel-good adventure.   She is a sympathetic character, but wronged by all, and it is depressing role.   She paid the price.   She fell off a horse shooting one scene and broke her back, which delayed the shooting for several months.   Moreover, the fall and injury caused her to have a miscarriage.   As a result, she never had good things to say about “The Unforgiven” for the rest of her life.   But being the jewel of a professional that she is she recovered, returned to work, and she does her job just fine.

      But the most interesting career choice made by anyone associated with “The Unforgiven” was surely that made by Audie Murphy.  

      Murphy’s character is virulently racist, he is perennially and unflinchingly angry over his father’s death at the hands of the Kiowas, he treats every Indian exactly the same—as scum—and throughout the first 70% of the film he is generally about as unappetizing a character as you would find in any movie.   And then he gets worse.   When he discovers that it’s true, that his sister is in fact an Indian and not white, he goes nuts, gets in an argument with Burt over what to do with her, and winds up calling her—and I quote—a “red-hide nigger”.   And then rides off to get drunk.

      I hadn’t seen “The Unforgiven” in about 20 years until last week, and I was dozing off a little on the couch as I was reviewing it for you, so I almost missed Murphy delivering that line.   I was a little woozy.   Then my brain started to work again, and I said to myself, “Huh?   What just happened?   Did he really say that???”   Thank god I have TiVo, and was able to rewind it and play it over and over again to make sure.   And it came out the same every time.   Audie Murphy calling Audrey Hepburn a “red-hide nigger”.   Heck, I don’t even know if that’s what they called Indians back then.   Did they really take the anti-black epithet “nigger” and modify it to fit the Indian?   Huston might have just made it up to draw us into his parallel with the plight of modern-day blacks.   I really don’t know.

      But it hurts.   Hurts to hear it, see it.   Hurts to replay it again and again.   It must have been a disconcerting line to absorb back then.   But hearing it nowadays, with all the progress we’ve made (and I think we have certainly made much progress), it absolutely stings.   Like a punch to the gut, or ice-cold water thrown in the face.        

      What makes all of this far more fascinating, though, is that Murphy was indeed an American hero.   And I don’t mean a hero on screen, I mean a real hero.   In World War Two.   And I don’t mean just any ol’ garden variety hero either, but perhaps the greatest WWII hero of them all.   He is the most-decorated United States soldier of that war.   Among the 33 medals and citations he won were the Medal of Honor, our military’s highest award for valor.   He was wounded three times in combat.  He was credited with personally killing 240 German soldiers and destroying six enemy tanks.   By himself.   Murphy was such a popular, highly visible, ultra-high-level American hero that he once played himself in a movie about himself.   And his grave at Arlington National Cemetery is visited by more people annually than any other gravesite except that of JFK.   Indeed, a man beyond mere hero.   A legend.

      And he was not quite 5 feet, 7 inches tall.   And barely 145 pounds dripping wet.  

      The point I’m making is that Murphy’s reputation as a war icon, American hero, paradigm of human valor, and standard-bearer of morally upright behavior must have been something of great importance to him.   And yet a film director got him to say that line, out loud, on screen.

      Taking all this into consideration, I believe it speaks volumes about Murphy the man for him to accept this assignment and say that line.   He must have believed in Huston’s vision right down to his toes.   Yes, at the end of the film he does wind up riding back into the fray to help save the day (the Kiowas by then trying like mad to reclaim one of their own), he does learn to forgive a little bit and begin treating people as individuals and not part of any perceived-to-be-objectionable group.   I’m talking about Murphy’s character.   But Murphy himself?   A war hero, sure.   But to me he’ll always be the guy who, for the sake of Art and Social Change, called Audrey Hepburn a red-hide nigger.   Too bad there’s no medal for that kind of courage….       


Brad Eastland, our Dr. of Ancient Filmology, is a movie buff and film historian, as long as the film was made before 1985 or so.  (So if you want to hear about new-release films, pick up a Times).   Special effects and gratuitous anything have no place in his celluloid world.   Primarily a fiction writer, Brad has written four novels and over 20 short-stories.  Here are some samples of his best work:



2 Responses to “Upon Further Review, Mr. Murphy, YOU ARE FORGIVEN by the Dr. of Ancient Filmology”

  1. Please sign and support our Petition to bestow upon Audie Murphy, America’s Most Decorated Soldier of WWII and beloved actor the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, our Nation’s highest civilian honor, in recognition of his lifelong devotion to our Nation and his many cultural achievements in life.
    Join the widow (signature #56) of Audie Murphy’s former Commanding Officer, MG Keith Ware, himself a Medal of Honor recipient who was KIA in Vietnam as well as his only living sibling (signature #694) with your signature of petition to President Obama.
    Simply click or copy and paste the link below:


    Thank you!
    Dave Phillips
    Audie Murphy Presidential Medal of Freedom Petition Drive


  1. UPON FURTHER REVIEW: HERO WORSHIP RUNS DEEP by Brad Eastland, Dr. of Ancient Filmology

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