May 27, 2012

Horseathon: Audrey, Guipago and "The Unforgiven" (1960)

Sometime ago I wrote a post about the special bond Audrey Hepburn shared with a little deer. Now, for Page's Horseathon, I decided to investigate a bit more about The Unforgiven (1960) and the serious accident Audrey --29 years old at the time-- had while riding a horse for the movie.

This process taught me basically two awesome things:

a) The Unforgiven is a good movie: I always remind it as one of the weakest films from Audrey, but it's a fine (and her only) western. I know even John Huston, the director, named it as his least favorite film, but I completely changed my mind after this second screening. And my parents loved it.

b) Audrey was gracious and brave even in the worst moments in her life: we all know what a kind human being was she, and I love the fact that I've never found anything mean coming from her. On the contrary, all the details in this story are inspiring.

I'm gonna tell the events based on the stories that appeared in different newspapers at the time. 


Reluctantly directed by John Huston, based on a novel by Alan LeMay, starring Burt Lancaster (who also co-produced), Audrey Hepburn and Lillian Gish, The Unforgiven tells the story of a frontier family, the Zacharys. They have to deal with a suddenly unfolded secret: the adopted girl (Audrey) was a survivor of a Kiowa tribe massacre. It shows how racist people can be and how vulnerable are affections when such matters arise.

Animated gif of Audrey Hepburn and Burt Lancaster in The Unforgiven

The movie was filmed in Durango, Mexico. The place, as described by St. Petersburg Times in 1959:
"The site is ideal, except that occasional winds sometimes carry the sounds from the home radios, miles across the bowl-like valley. These sounds interfere with the film shooting. Producer James Hill therefore purchased a series of time spots on the local station XEDU, guaranteeing two hours of daily silence during which Huston directs Lancaster and Miss Hepburn in the tender love scenes"
And indeed the movie has great sequences in desertic lands, especially one on which Burt Lancaster and one of his brothers are looking for a mysterious man during a sand storm. Even when the portrayal of Native Americans is not very accurate, the confrontation scenes are exciting and memorable. For example, I really like the moment in which, during a tense recess of the fight, the natives start playing their magic music and Burt makes Lillian play their piano. This is more than guns and arrows, this is a cultural clash.

For a stampede scene, Huston requested 2000 head of cattle, coming from different parts of Mexico. The Southeast Missourian informed that the stampede - that occurs over the top of the family's cabin- left no injury to one head of cattle, despite the fact that some of them caved in through the roof of the house.

But the crew didn't have the same luck. Three people were killed in a plane crash and another person almost drown.

Sadly, serious complications were going to keep happening.


In the film, Audrey owns a beautiful horse, Guipago. Mel Ferrer, Audrey's husband at the time, described the animal this way:
"It's a good horse. It's a beautiful little Arabian stud that got out of Cuba just ahead of Batista"

Animated Gif of horse Guipago from The Unforgiven

According to the Schenectady Gazette, the stallion's real name was Diablo, which means devil in Spanish. The horse has three important scenes: at the beginning Audrey Hepburn rides it through the lands, jumping a fence, and meeting a mysterious man that comes from far away to tell the secret. Then, she rides it to meet Burt Lancaster, her ""brother"". Later, the animal is stolen by the mysterious man and ridden to escape from the Zacharys.

While filming the movie, Audrey insisted in riding it herself and that was a brave decision: she had developed a fear at the age of 11 after a horse threw her. Ernest Anderson, spokesman for the film's producer told the Sarasota Journal:
"She had conquered her fear of horses, and she insisted on doing it despite the fact that we had a double to do all the riding scenes for her"
Mel Ferrer later explained that:
"Audrey had an accident on a horse when she was 11. She broke her collarbone. When we were living in Rome making War and Peace I got her to ride again and she got completely over her fear"
But she was going to relive that experience. And this time it would be worse: she was several months pregnant.


Animated Gif of Audrey Hepburn riding horse in The Unforgiven

On Wednesday, January 28, 1959, Audrey was galloping the Arabian stallion along a river bank. Because a camera trouble developed, someone yelled "Cut!". The horse stopped abruptly and Audrey pitched over its head onto hard ground. Ernest Anderson, the spokesman, said she seemed to bounce two or three times and landed on her back. She was unconscious for five minutes and doctors wouldn't permit her to be moved for two hours.

The media all over the world started to inform about the accident. There are different versions of the injuries Audrey had, because there were many exams. The first information was that she suffered two fractured vertebrae; then, they informed that she had fractured four bones in her back, and described the injuries as "severe" and "painful". Doctors said she was unable to rest, sleep or eat.

Her personal doctor, Howard Mendelson, was called to check her and was accompanied by Mel Ferrer. A few days later, Audrey flew back to to their Beverly Hills home on an ambulance plane. The Miami News added that Audrey had a special nurse: Sister Luke, the religious woman she portrayed (and met) in The Nun's Story decided to take of her in Los Angeles.

The filming of the movie was postponed a month, until March 6.


There are so many details that show what a great person she was, that I'm dedicating a whole section to this point. Here we go:
  • The Evening Independent reported that the first thing she said when she recovered consciousness after the fall was "What did I do wrong?". 
  • Her doctor said she seemed to be worried about others members of the cast and technicians (because of the  cancellation of the shooting). 
  • She kept saying she was "perfectly all right". But Mel Ferrer noted "She's in pain every minute. She won't say it and won't admit it".
  • She never blamed the horse or the crew: 
"It wasn't the horse's fault. I was riding bareback and had nothing to hang onto except his mane - not even a bridle" she explained. She also said she had "fallen in love with the horse". 

  • She always maintained her high spirits: besides always assuring she was fine and that it only hurt when she laughed ("So don't say anything funny!"), she was kind with the people around and the press. She waved and smiled from her stretcher; vowed that she was going to ride the horse again (but she couldn't because of insurance regulations) and even sent a note to the Casa Blanca Hotel, the Mexican place where she gathered with the other actors: 


And just as scheduled, the filming started again in March. Audrey had started taking her first steps two weeks after the accident and was almost recovered.

Sadly, on May 28, shortly after shooting was completed, Mel Ferrer told the press in Switzerland --where they had moved-- that Audrey had suffered a miscarriage and was confined to bed. There had been reports on the subject two weeks before that date and Mel confirmed them:
"I regret it is true. Audrey has been in the hospital and came home last Friday"
The doctors ordered the actress to stay quiet for another two months. The accident she had in Durango was always cited as the cause of the miscarriage. Audrey was devastated and blamed herself.


But before 1959 ended, Mel and Audrey were happy to announce they were expecting a child. The couple decided to take all the possible measures so everything went fine. Audrey gave up her film work until after the child's birth on the advice of a physician.

Sean Hepburn Ferrer was born on July 17, 1960.

Audrey Hepburn, Mel Ferrer and baby Sean

"I'm sure it's wonderful to have a baby the first year you are married. But when you want a baby so much and wait years...then lose a child....the joy is impossible to describe when one does arrive" Audrey would say years later.

With that happy note, I end this story about Audrey, Guipago and The Unforgiven. Be sure to check the other posts written for this Horseathon over My Love of Old Hollywood.


  1. Poor, gentle Audrey! Besides loving humans, she was a great friend to the animal world. While this is not Audrey's natural habitat, she gives a very nice performance in this movies (with a director and co-star who did not really "fit" her talents). A lovely post.

  2. Clara,
    You've provided such well researched info on the backstory of The Unforgiven. I had no idea that any of this happened since I don't know a lot about Audrey off screen. So tragic! I can't believe she did her own riding while pregnant, especially bareback. That film was cursed!

    Butch Cassidy was also filmed in Mexico but the worst that happened was Newman having an affair and the crew coming down with Montezuma's Revenge.

    I'm surprised that Huston didn't scrap this film after so many tragic events happened. One thing I do know is just pass on any horse named Diablo going forward!

    Your research and added news articles added to an already interesting read.

    Thanks for signing on for the Horseathon. This review was a nice contribution.

  3. I am a fan of the melodramatic and engrossing "The Unforgiven" although it is painful to think of the tragedy surrounding its filming. Audrey was not only kind, she was a very strong woman. She lived a life that proves strength can come from a place in the heart.

  4. A very interesting contribution to the horseathon. I can remember reading about this tragic event in Audrey's life and, like you, was impressed with her courage and positive attitude.

  5. Clara, as if there weren't already plenty of reasons to love Audrey Hepburn, now I truly feel for her after reading your stirring post about her bravery in the face of her horseback accident, the tragedy of her resulting miscarriage, and her eventual triumph and joy over becoming a mother again against all odds. I can't help but agree with the folks here who've said THE UNFORGIVEN was cursed! Thanks for doing such a fine job of sharing this moving story!

  6. Clara, I have never heard of this film of the connection to Audrey and Mel's loss of a child. I imagine the film was full of painful memories for her, but she seems to have retained her affection for the horse (taking full responsibility for the fall). I wonder if you have shared the story of Audrey and the deer, a photo I have seen and wondered if it were a pet.

  7. @whistlingypsy

    Hey there, yep, I wrote about the deer :)

    Here's the link:

    Thanks for stopping by!

  8. Wow - what a sad story behind this movie. What a trooper she was to remain committed to the film despite that tragedy!

  9. Hi Clara, I really enjoy this movie! Love all the actors, Lilian Gish too, of course. It is very romantic, but...Do you really think Audrey Hepburn could be an indian??
    I knew this sad story, about the miscarriage she had while she was filming this film, I saw it in Biography. But she was a stronge woman always

  10. An engrossing post on the behind-the-scenes turmoil in making this movie. I especially liked all the newspaper documentation you included. I recall reading about Audrey having a miscarriage but didn't know the circumstances surrounding the sad event, until now. I also had no idea that Huston wasn't enamored of this project. It's a good western that features one of Audie Murphy's best performances as Burt's tormented brother.

  11. Very interesting post on Audrey's accident during the filming of THE UNFORGIVEN. I was totally unfamiliar with it.

  12. Clara, I've always thought Huston was off his rocker -- The Unforgiven is a fantastic picture! It is, however, tragic as to what happened behind the scenes -- your essay on the background of these events is really first-rate.

  13. I literally nearly burst into tears when i saw the picture of Audrey unconscious and the fact that the first thing she said when she awoke was 'What did i do wrong?'.....i hate to see such a gentle human being in such pain! :(

  14. Audrey Hepburn was certainly very brave, and she was right about not blaming the horse! Someone who does not have excellent balance and riding ability can't possibly stay on a horse bareback in a situation like that. When I saw that the horse stopped at the word "cut", it just sounded like a well trained horse to me! He was probably trained to come to a stop at that word. Poor Audrey wasn't quite prepared for such a sudden stop though! Horses are very responsive and sensitive to cues and words. For instance, I own a horse (one that I have trained myself) and we can be going at a full out gallop, but the second she feels me shift my weight even a centimeter and say "whoa", there go the brakes! I've never flown over a horse's head, but then, I also have extensive riding experience. I'm assuming Audrey did not. Such a shame =(

    1. I agree with all you say. But there was a sursingle (sp) that was obvious with some kind of handle and it was easy to see it was under her dress. She had a good grip on it. Still she did a great job riding

  15. Audrey with little makeup looks stunning. I liked the chemistry between her and Burt Lancaster...they are both such outstanding actors! The movie is beautifully shot. Unfortunately the Indians are (still) treated as 2-dimensional idiots. The frontier house is built with a sloped roof even the cattle can walk on. But the Indians insist on riding in front of the house where they are shot by the dozens, until Lancaster sets fire to the roof himself. To chase away the stampeded cattle? When all is lost, Burt's brother comes back, and the two, outside the house, chase away all the remaining Indians. If the Indians fought that stupidly they'd have been wiped out before Columbus discovered America. Also hard to believe the two younger brothers did not know Audrey was an Indian adopted as a baby. This movie requires a near complete suspense of reality.



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