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Monday, April 16, 2012

Sure as the Turnin' of the Earth, This Western Will Stand the Test of Time



It might be obvious I haven't had much time to blog lately...much less read, write, keep up with social networking...and certainly not to play videogames. I'm not complaining because I'm very grateful to be working in this economy. But lately I haven't even been able to watch movies with the family much.

So for this post, I'm taking a blog-stroll down Memory Lane.

I never cared much for westerns--either novels or movies--until I was 23 years old. Then I became something of a fanatic for a while making up for lost time by consuming everything I could about the Old West, both fact and fiction. What caused this radical change in interest was a single film. Please know that my tongue is nowhere near my cheek as I call this film a masterpiece.

I not only propose that The Searchers might be the greatest western ever filmed, but it was also probably the pinnacle of director John Ford's artistic achievements and the most memorable role/performance on the Duke's extensive filmography.

In a previous blog post I listed The Searchers as one of the few films that surpasses its prose source material. When I found a collector's edition DVD with extras, including interview segments with my favorite living director, John Milius, I just had to get it even though I'd seen the movie dozens of times already.

Most of the film's exterior scenes were shot in Monument Valley--director Ford's favorite location for epic tales of the West. Cinematically the imagery is more powerful than anything I've seen from CGI. There are more quotable lines of dialog than you can shake a rifle at, which could be laughable if the delivery wasn't so good. There's not only tragedy, but comedy, romance and sentiment, too. Sometimes the weight of the narrative shifts from light to heavy so fast you might feel guilty for laughing.

Like Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford began directing in the silent days, and developed a habit of telling as much of the story as possible visually, minimizing his use of intertitles...and of dialog, after the industry switched to talkies. His semiology may never have become the intricate code seasoned throughout some Hitchcock films, but there is a lot more going on in Ford films like this one than you could ever guess from the dialog alone.

After a haunting ballad over the opening credits, the narrative opens on a pioneer family living in the Texas frontier of 1868. The Edwards family emerges from their womb-like home to witness prodigal brother Ethan Edwards appearing out of the rugged wilderness he almost seems a part of.

Ford masterfully presents all the exposition we need within the first few minutes of screen time--most of it without use of words: Ethan left to fight on the Confederate side during the Civil War, but has been absent, location unknown, for the three years since war's end. He doesn't reveal his whereabouts or activities during the interim, but it likely included some ethically questionable business. There's a tangible degree of hostility between he and his brother Aaron, most likely due to an implied love triangle between the brothers and Martha, Aaron Edwards' wife. Ethan's strong, possibly heroic, side is revealed via his interactions with his nephew and nieces. Then the audience is slapped in the face with his bigotry, introduced with the arrival of Martin Pawley (Jeffery Hunter) who "a fellah could mistake... for a half-breed."

Ford used some of his faithful regulars for the supporting roles, including Ward Bond, Vera Miles and Harry Carey, Jr., plus brought in some newcomers to the troupe like Hunter and a young Natalie Wood. Hunter is cast as the straight-arrow, good-to-a-fault hero figure we would normally sympathize with most (despite some real aw-shucks corn pone moments and the fact that he fights like a girl). But the show is stolen by Ethan Edwards as played by the Duke. Next to his ill-advised casting as Ghengis Khan in The Conqueror, this is the darkest character I've ever seen John Wayne play...a noteworthy departure from the altruistic hero he built his career personifying. And despite all the knee-jerk snipes at his acting ability or "emotional range" by limpwristed fa-hiiiilmmm critics, big John nailed this role.

There are multiple elements that make The Searchers such an epic; but perhaps the most important of these is the Ethan Edwards character. Cliche` though it may be to say so, he is larger-than-life. His racism makes it hard to sympathize with him in a couple scenes, but it's even harder not to root for him through most of the film. His presence isn't just commanding as in other Duke roles; this character is so powerful, and so determined, you just know he's more than a match for the most formidable villain that could be thrown at him from either the historic West or Hollywood's mythical version. Imagine Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven character after he had that drink at the bar and that might give you an idea.

Ethan is nobody to trifle with. He can't be duped or cowed by any mortal. When he sets his mind on a target, he's going after it with guns blazing, oblivious to collateral damage. He's a lot like Col. Kilgore (Robert DuVall) in Apocalypse Now (actually, these two movies resemble each other in other ways, too)...despite the carnage and bullets flying all around him, he can walk upright through it or stand like a statue in its face and never get a scratch (the exception comes later at a crucial moment). He's a guy you want on your side when crap hits the fan.

Ward Bond is at his blustering, egotistical best as the "Reverend Captain Samuel Johnston Clayton" of the Texas Rangers, but for all his pomp and order-barking, his natural leadership is effortlessly outshined by Ethan's, who all characters, young and old, look to for answers, approval, and raw, pure strength when the going gets tough. Ford displays this Cold War of the Alpha Male for both dramatic and comic effect at different points in the film.

If you pay careful attention you'll discover the reason for Ethan's bigotry is the death of his parents at the hands of the Commanche. But he took Sun Tzu's advice to "know your enemy" quite seriously, judging by how well he knows the Commanche tongue, customs and belief system. On the featurette included on the two-disk collector's edition, John Milius points out that Edwards "ain't white, anymore" according to Ethan's own standards. His contempt for the etiquette and traditions of civilization is palpable. Polite society would label such a man a barbarian. Truly, Ethan is just as much a savage as any Commanche. But, as is the case in many a Ford western, it is exactly just such a man needed to tame the transform the wilderness into a garden.


For all its brilliance, The Searchers is not without its flaws. Some of the humor and sentimentality is too sappy for modern viewers. There are continuity errors and some botched dialog. Not all of the acting is Oscar-caliber. There is a key Commanche character played by a non-Native American actor (the rule, rather than the exception, in older westerns). And there is enough bigotry from the characters (as well as hypocrisy worked into the script) to cause cringing if you're sensitive about such things. To be fair, though, John Ford loved  Swedish and Irish stereotypes just as much as he did any other ethnic stereotype. The most obnoxiously portrayed character in this film is Charly McRory, a moronic cowboy/Ranger with a High Colorado accent.

I could go on about this film at considerable fact, I did exactly that before Blogger suddenly decided I needed to re-sign in, then obliterated 75% of my original post. (I Just don't think that I can take it; 'cause it took so long to make it. And I'll never find that recipe a-gaaaaaaaaain...) But you should really just watch it yourself, then tell me what you think in the comments. I can't recommend it highly enough.