The Unforgiven: How Hollywood Whitewashed Racism

Christopher McHale
4 min readJan 20, 2022

John Huston succumbs to Prairie Fever when this 1960 Burt Lancaster feature goes off the rails.

Audrey Hepburn in The Unforgiven

John Sayles, John Huston’s assistant director on the film, The Unforgiven, remembers that John Huston would “talk about race relations in the South and address questions of bigotry. Those were things he thought people should talk about.”

It’s 1960, so it’s easy to understand why Huston was looking for an opportunity to examine racial relations in the United States. No one was interested. They wanted John to deliver a John Wayne like western where Burt Lancaster played an earlier version of his Man who Shot Liberty Valance character — a gunfighter with a complicated past come to save Hepburn from some angry Indians riding through the desert trying to kill them all. They tacked the ending on and John Huston was not pleased, even though it did well at the box office. And because this movie didn’t turn out as he wanted, he soon called it the worst of his career.

Houston’s film also stars Audrey Hepburn, as always eating up the scenery with her incandescent beauty. Production had to suspend when Hepburn fell from a horse in an accident, broke her back and miscarried her baby.

Lancaster had many movie star demands that didn’t interest Huston, one of which was to shoot a scene where Lancaster could display his great strength, which was a part of his movie star persona. This led to Lancaster lifting a grand piano on his back off of a wagon, a strange interlude in the story. Easy to see why all this got under the director’s skin.

I came across the film on Prime, and the power of Huston’s story telling painted the screen. Whether he liked the result, Huston knew how to shoot a movie and tell a story. Perhaps the John Wayne thirst was too much to resist? John Huston got his start as a writer and wrote the stories and dialogue for John Ford and John Wayne’s movies and even though he never met Wayne.

In the middle of the story, Lillian Gish utters a whispered condemnation of one character. “He’s got prairie fever,” she says.

The term caught my ear. What was prairie fever? Why did Lillian Gish act as if it was the worst thing she could say about a…



Christopher McHale

Writer | Composer | Producer | Human | Christopher writes about creativity, culture, technology, music, writing.