Magnum photographers have, over more than seven decades, captured pivotal moments in popular culture as much as historic events and societal sea changes. Working behind the scenes on sets of many classic films, they have captured not only iconic stars at various stages of their careers, but also documented the changing nature of cinema and film production. Sets, equipment, and special effects that once seemed futuristic are, with the passing of time rendered disarmingly romantic.
Here, in the first of a series exploring Magnum photographers’ work behind the scenes of cinema we look at Inge Morath’s work on 1959 Western, The Unforgiven, starring a pre-Breakfast at Tiffany’s Audrey Hepburn and Burt Lancaster.
You can see other stories in the Magnum On Set series, here.
Inge Morath flew to Mexico in 1959 to observe the filming of The Unforgiven. Directed by John Huston, the western stars Audrey Hepburn as the adopted daughter of a frontier family. The drama heats up when her Native American roots are discovered and her step-brother (Burt Lancaster) falls in love with her. Unique for the time, the film touches upon racism Native Americans in the Texas Panhandle endured during the aftermath of the Civil War.
Shot in Durango, a state in northwest Mexico known for its desert and the Sierra Madre mountains, The Unforgiven was famous for problems behind the scenes during production. Huston was constantly battling the production company, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster who had differing creative intentions: while Huston wanted to make a bold statement about racism in America, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster wanted something less controversial and more commercial. In the end, neither was happy with the result, leading Huston to label it his least satisfying film. A big problem arose during the rehearsal of one particular scene. Hepburn fell off a horse and broke her back, causing the production to be suspended for several months. The accident was later blamed for a miscarriage Hepburn suffered.
As well as the stony terrain of the Durango production – the cacti, the epic vistas – Morath captures Hepburn lying on a bench with her dog in between takes. Other times Hepburn is pictured alone, posing against a wall wearing her Mexican hat. Morath captures Huston in silhouette, against a rocky backdrop with horses in the distance, and with Hepburn, deep in discussion, each smoking a cigarette.
Though the film, which was shot on a $5 million budget, had its share of hiccups during production, there were clearly enjoyable moments too, as evidenced by the laughs of Huston and Hepburn caught in Morath’s lens. Following the film’s release, Hepburn took a year off to have a child. She returned, all guns blazing, in 1961 with Breakfast at Tiffany’s.