There’s something uncomfortable about this John Huston Western. That’s often a dramatic plus, a sign of complicated reactions to characters & situations. Not so here; more like narrative indigestion. Taken from an Alan LeMay novel, author of John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS/’56, the story has similar racist and anti-racist sentiments, but unlike Ford, Huston loses confidence in his story every time he’s forced to choose sides. At heart, it’s a simple ‘changling’ tale, with Audrey Hepburn as an adopted daughter who may be pure-blooded Indian. A lovely 31 at the time, she might pull off the part physically if she were half her age. (And might sound it if she could drop the tony Mid-Atlantic accent.) As the older ‘brother’ who runs the ranch, Burt Lancaster doesn’t get much closer to his role, though the two do make a starry couple and it was, after all, his own production company making the film. Supporting roles come off much better, with Audie Murphy very fine as the wayward brother, working again with Huston a decade after the director gave him his start in THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE/’51. And, of course, Lillian Gish, as their mother is a pioneering woman to the bone, briefly bringing the film up to its full allegorical potential playing a bit of civilizing Mozart on a new piano out on the open prairie. Though what she thought of Huston restaging the climax of THE BIRTH OF A NATION/’15 as the climax to this film can only be guessed at. Only the KKK goes missing from this blatant lift.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: What an odd acoustic is given to Dimitri Tiomkin’s score. Recorded in Italy with the Santa Cecilia Orchestra, the cavernous sound stage keeps pulling you out of the pic. So too the aging print on this Kino Lorber DVD, dulling the superb lensing from Hepburn’s fave cinematographer Franz Planer (ROMAN HOLIDAY/’53; THE NUN’S STORY/’59; three more).