John Huston: Maker of Magic
By Stuart Kaminsky – 1978
John Huston’s colorful career covers almost the entire history of sound film. Huston has been screenwriter, actor, director, and playwright. He has won Academy Awards and he has been a figure of controversy, a focus for rebellion, and a recognized artist. While his origins are shrouded in the most American of myths, his very real and early passions for horses, boxing, and writing led him to Hollywood, where he successfully transformed his gift for fantasy into film.
Huston has worked with some of the most significant people in American film history, including his father, Walter Huston, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Katherine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, and many others. His films include such classics as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, The Red Badge of Courage, and more recently, Fat City and The Man Who Would Be King.
Stuart Kaminsky has written the first book on Huston to deal with his entire opus and the first to relate Huston’s life to his work. Huston is portrayed as a fascinating combination of fraud, genius, and tail-story teller. Kaminsky has relied upon interviews with many people who have worked with him, including Don Siegel, William Wyler, Eli Wallach, and many writers and pro- ducers in the film industry. The result is a portrait of an authentic American genius of film.
In the Shadow of the Father
JOHN MARCELLUS HUSTON was bom in Nevada, Missouri, a small town near the Kansas-Missouri border, on August 5, 1906.
At the time of his birth, both Huston’s father and mother were probably wondering what they were doing in Nevada. Walter Huston had left an unpromising career on the stage to take a post as Nevada’s engineer in charge of power and light. His wife, the former Rhea Gore, had been a successful New York City newspaperwoman when they married.
There is not much documented material available about John Huston’s beginnings. Huston himself has told many stories about his life and that of his parents — stories that may or may not be true. Huston’s love of fantasy and storytelling must be counted as much an element in his account of his biography as in his work.
Late in 1958, Huston signed a contract to direct a Western for the production company of Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, whose first big hit had been the Academy Award-winning Marty. The film would star Burt Lancaster and be based on the novel The Unforgiven by Alan LeMay. Huston and Ben Maddow, with whom he had written The Asphalt Jungle, began the adaptation. To save money, the film, set in the western United States in the late 1860s, would be shot near Durango, in Mexico, a country that Huston knew well and felt happy working in.
In an interview with the Hollywood Citizen-News in 1959, Huston announced, “In The Unforgiven . . . the gross salary of any of the stars — Audrey Hepburn, Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster— is more than the entire cost of The Maltese Falcon, which was made for less than $300,000.“ Curtis would drop out of this cast and be replaced by Audie Murphy, but the cost of the film would not drop. It would eventually hit more than $5,000,000, making the project the most expensive Huston had done to that point in his career.
There were a number of reasons for the expense. One involved a long delay that occurred when Audrey Hepburn was injured falling from a horse — a recurrent danger in Huston films because of the director’s insistence upon using horses — and had to be hospitalized with a bad back. Another major expense was the house that had to be constructed. There are only two apparently simple houses in the film, one in which the Zachary family (Lancaster, Hepburn, Murphy, Lillian Gish, and Doug McClure) live and the other in which the Rawlins family (Charles Bickford, Albert Salmi, June Walker, Kipp Hamilton, and Arnold Merritt) live. The Zachary house, however, proved to be one of the most expensive sets Huston ever had made. Built against a fake mountain that itself had to be constructed, the house was made in specially fitted sections so it could be taken apart easily for shots at various positions. It was a marvel of engineering, supervised by art director Stephen Grimes.
“The house,” said Huston, “was almost as ingenious as the whales built for Moby Dick. It served as a studio as well as our main set because we did our film cutting right there, in the back of the house under the artificial hill.”
After each day of shooting, the color film would be flown to England for processing and then flown back to be viewed by Huston. In the finished film, which runs over two and a half hours in its uncut form, the Zachary family, led by the eldest brother, Ben (Lancaster), is in partnership with the Rawlins family in cattle ranching. The Zachary father had been killed in a Kiowa attack and the Zacharys — particularly Cash (Murphy) — bear a deep hatred for the Indians.
A mysterious figure, Kelsey (Joseph Wiseman), dressed in a Union uniform arrives one day and tells the Indians and then the Rawlins family that Rachel Zachary (Hepburn) is really a full-blooded Kiowa. The Zacharys admit that she is a foundling but deny she is Indian.
When the oldest Rawlins boy, Charlie (Albert Salmi), is killed by the Kiowa after he courts Rachel, Kelsey is brought in to be hanged for helping the Indians. He again insists that Rachel is an Indian and that he had been with the dead Zachary father when the child was found.
The Zacharys deny this and refuse to allow Rachel to be examined. Zeb Rawlins (Bickford) renounces his partnership and sends the Zachary family off alone to fight the Kiowas, who have vowed to take Rachel. The Zacharys find an Indian message indicating Kelsey’s story is true. Mattilda (Gish) admits the truth, and Cash denounces Rachel and leaves.
The Zacharys then fight the Indians through the night. Mattilda is killed and Andy (McClure) wounded. Cash returns to help at the last minute, and Rachel kills her own brother, the Indian who has led the war party to get her. Ben announces his plan to marry Rachel and the film ends. The similarity to Huston’s other films can be seen in the search for a truth hidden in the past, a truth that reveals someone has been posing as something he or she is not. This recurrent Huston theme was to be developed even more explicitly in Freud and The List of Adrian Messenger.
Again, a small group must stand alone against great odds and risk their lives for a goal or principle, for the first time in a Huston film a principle that involves a group of people held together by racial prejudice. The film is filled with Biblical dialogue and Old Testament references. “The Lord sayeth, be fruitful and multiply,” says the patriarchal Zeb. This verselike Biblical prose was to be used even more in Huston’s only other Western, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.
There is a strange undercurrent of mysticism in the film. Cash, for example, has special powers and is able to sense the presence of Indians. During the siege of the family house, when he is ten miles away, he tells the Rawlins’ daughter (Walker) exactly what is hap- pening. Kelsey appears as a prophet out of the mist to forecast doom just as Elijah (Royal Dano) in Moby Dick did before the voyage, but still the characters move forward, committed to their path.
While the film does adhere to conventions of the Western in many ways, it also introduces some rather bizarre touches. The ghostly presentation of Kelsey throughout the film is one example, but the use of the piano may be even more striking.
Ben brings a piano back home from Wichita so that Mattilda can play Mozart. When the Indians play their war flutes — not drums — in the night during the seige, Ben moves the piano outdoors and his mother counters with light classics. The image is surreal and followed by an equally strange sequence in which six Indians are killed in a frenzied attack on the piano.
Unfortunately, while reviews were mostly good, The Unforgiven was not popular with audiences. At this point, Huston had made three films away from his home in Ireland and had thoughts about heading back there to work on his Freud project, but he was to be delayed for almost two more years by a film that took him back to the United States.