Largely ignored at the time and since due to similarities to The Searchers (and not to be confused with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven) this is worth a second look because it actually bears few similarities to The Searchers.
The overriding thrust (or threat) of the tale is, yes, forcible repatriation but this is a long way from John Wayne’s obsessive twenty-year hunt to kill an innocent girl. While it does ask questions about race and race hatred, it is as much an involving portrait of frontier life – breaking-in horses, cows on the roofs of houses, meals with friends – and a natural cycle of life, young girls bewailing their marital prospects, young men adrift in the wilderness agog at the prospect of visiting a town to see a saloon girl.
Audrey Hepburn plays a foundling, rumored of Native American blood, but brought up under the matriarchal gaze of Lillian Gish and fraternal protection of Burt Lancaster. But she doesn’t “play” a foundling, and certainly not someone unsure of her place in the world. She plays a skittish teenager on the brink of adulthood, on a spectrum between gauche and vivacious, who can’t make up her mind between a young suitor or an Native American horse expert and her suppressed feelings towards Lancaster. She is as apt to leap on an unsaddled horse as jump fully clothed into a river.
Lancaster has a more considered role than usual, a calming influence, sometimes an intermediary, sometimes taking control. Though some characters’ reactions to Native Americans are stereotypical, Huston does not go down that line. Following the truism that action reveals character, there is a wonderful scene breaking in the horses: while white men struggle, being thrown off or otherwise injured, the Indian simply talks gently to the horse and climbs on board and rides it, revealing that Lancaster, who hired him, saw natural dexterity beyond the stereotype.
What caught my eye most was Huston’s fluidity with the camera. In many scenes, something interesting is developing in the background, in others characters move into frame or their reaction is momentarily captured as the camera busies itself on a more central activity. There are virtually no cutaways to subsidiary characters as you would find in Ford or Hawks. When an unarmed Lancaster confronts a small group of Native Americans at his ranch the camera tracks him as he goes out and then tracks him as he comes back, tension mounting as we wait for the Native Americans over his shoulder to possibly take action.
The thoughtful and even-handed manner in which Huston handles the material is a bridge to his more mature later works. My only gripe was Lillian Gish’s very white face, as if she had never strayed from her silent film origins or never spent a minute in the sun. Otherwise, this is absorbing and rewarding stuff, and quite unlike anything else from the period.