DVD Review Of The Searchers
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/27/07
Films, like artists or authors, tend to have their critical reputations wax and wane through a few cycles until a consensus is finally reached. Of course, consensus has little to do with real world excellence or failure, but as good an example of this trend as can be shown certainly is John Ford’s famed 1956 John Wayne Western, The Searchers. Upon its initial release, the film made a solid profit, and was considered a good film. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, film school graduates started championing both it and Ford as more than good, but great. By the 1980s, with the rise of PC, the film’s political content and its portrayal of Manifest Destiny came under attack as ‘racist,’ and the film was not held in as high regard for some years. With the advent of DVD technology, in the late 1990s, the film was re-released, and its current status as a ‘masterpiece’ has been little challenged since. Indeed, in watching the special features on the two disk Ultimate Collector’s Edition DVD of the film, one might believe that the film is Shakespearean. Assorted talking heads and film buffs gush over the film; even people like director Martin Scorsese. Another great director, Akira Kurosawa, is cited as declaring he learned film technique from watching John Ford Westerns.
Of course, I do not doubt all of these people’s love for the film, but love (or like/hate) is a wholly different paradigm from artistic excellence. And while there is no doubt that, technically, John Ford was a superb craftsman- in the framing of shots, in the use of silences that he carried over from his silent film days, in the judicious use of close-ups, and the brilliant use of color in this VistaVision film, it is nowhere near a great work of art. Technique and technical excellence do not equate with greatness. Were that true a poet with a merely flawless ear, like Walter de la Mare, would be ranked along with the Whitmans and Baudelaires. No, there needs to be characterization and great acting. This is where screenwriting and casting come in. The film’s actual screenplay is simplistic, larded with stereotypes, and the acting- save for a few scenes where Jeffrey Hunter (as mixed breed Martin Pawley) shines, is self-conscious, poseur, and given that the film is as triumphalist as can be, it makes such preening seem hedonistic.
Naturally, the worst sinner, on this accord, is John Wayne, as the film’s putative hero/anti-hero, Ethan Edwards. There is no doubt Wayne had a great onscreen presence- both physically and in his idiosyncratic emoting and speaking styles; but while watching the film, and seeing him strut and spit out trite lines while dickwaving through every second he’s on camera, I fully understand why someone like my dad- a left of center trade unionist, found both the man and the characters he played (which were really minor variations on his own faux persona, admixed with testosterone) to be symbols of everything that’s wrong with America, past and present.
Of course, back in the 1950s, these very qualities were considered everything right with Eisenhoverian America (in both the affirmative and political senses). Then came the Ford as auteur revisionism, and those critics saw Ford critiquing racism and the male role in America, and articles written about the Wayne character tended to see him in the role of the film’s villain. Yet, watching the film today, free of its era and critical revisionism, what became clear to me was the difference between a work of art embodying a vision or philosophy and critiquing it. Take 1.0 on The Searchers saw the film as an embodiment of good 1950s Americana, while Take 2.0 saw it as a criticism of bad 1950s Americana. Neither is correct in full. In reality, The Searchers is an embodiment of bad 1950s Americana. And I doubt Ford was fully aware of what he was really crafting.
Some alibiers for art think that artists, in any field, are always aware (to the minutest detail) of what they are doing. This ‘criticism of intent’ (rather than accomplishment) leads to critics often ignoring the manifest in a work of art because they lack all objectivity, and have succumbed to a school of thought or –ism. As example, in Take 1.0 on the film, racism is barely seen, when Ethan Edwards finds out that his family has been massacred by Comanches, and vows vengeance. Take 1.0 sees a knight in shining armor, out to avenge murder and rape. While the sexual aspects of the massacre are given some accord, the racial aspects are not. Take 2.0 sees Ethan as a symbol of White Power, who merely uses his family’s murders as a reason to continue his own genocidal bent against the Red Man. After all, it is established early in the film that he served for the Confederate States Of America, and is likely a closet hood wearer. Therefore, Ford was slipping in a lesson with his portrayal of the character. Yet, just as Ethan as a knight fails because he’s clearly a borderline psychopath, so does the Ethan as total villain role fail. But not because he lacks villainy, in spades. After all, champions of Take 2.0 point out that, in the end, Ethan does not kill his niece Debbie, once he saves her. Earlier in the film he seemingly did want to kill her, and only Martin’s defense, and an Indian attack, prevented him from carrying out the deed. Take 2.0 advocates argue that this proves that Ethan has grown, by film’s end, to accept peoples of other cultures. Yet, all this really shows is that his love for his lone surviving kin outweighs his anger and racial hatred. Mere moments before, in the final raid on the Comanche camp, Ethan gleefully scalps Scar (Henry Brandon)- the chief who kidnapped, raped and killed Lucy (Pippa Scott)- his dead niece, and married Debbie (Natalie Wood as an adult, and her sister Lana wood as a child). Manifestly, Ethan is still a racist, a killer, and even that final iris through the closing door of the Jorgenson homestead cannot erase that verity. So, while there are some points to be made for both Takes 1.0 and 2.0 on Ethan and the film, the reality is that the man has not learnt any significant lessons, merely succumbed to emotion, and only briefly, for he cannot even indulge in the reunion that will go on inside the Jorgenson home once the film ends.
In short, Ford may have been trying to both embody the best of his
era’s America while critiquing its worst aspect, yet he would up merely
embodying its worst aspects, in a superficial film that offers little of
intellectual dining, and certainly nothing in a league with the best films of a
Kurosawa, Fellini, nor Bergman- the sort of role that film critics have tried to
niche him into as an American version of. Despite winning four Academy Awards as
Best Director (for The Informer
(1935), The Grapes Of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley
(1941), and The Quiet Man (1952)), Ford never developed a soft
touch in dealing with politics in his art, and certainly he never possessed the
humor and great screenplays, much less political touch, that his great rival for
best American director in that era- Frank Capra, did. Think of the mangled and
melodramatic ending of the film of The Grapes Of Wrath, and compare it to
the beautiful, subtle, and poetically political ending of John Steinbeck’s
novel. Again, those who claim any skill in that area are critiquing what they
believe Ford’s intent was, not his result, or mixing up his undeniable
technical excellence with his often cardboard cutout narrative constructions.
The film was mostly shot
in Monument Valley- on the Arizona-Utah border, even if the film takes place in
Texas of 1868-1873. Other scenes were shot in Mexican Hat, Utah, and the
filmically ubiquitous Bronson Canyon, near Los Angeles. The studio set shots,
however, are not nearly as well composed as the on location shots- as well as
being manifestly fake, and this striking difference is a detriment, as the film
cannot seem to make up its mind whether it wants to be realistic or allegorical
(such as in German Expressionism), and subsequently does not wholly succeed at
either. Frequent Ford cinematographer
Winston Hoch, however, captures both mindblowing colors and exquisitely framed
outdoors shots of the Old West that leave no doubt that when one speaks of
‘John Ford Country’ there is no doubt as to what is meant. Yet, many critics
damn the film with false plaudits when they praise the ‘visual poetry’ of
Ford’s onscreen creation. While there is no denying the manifest beauty of
many of the scenes’ backdrops, mere beauty, itself, is not poetry, for poetry
(in the non-verse sense) connects and communicates certain ideas and emotions
that transcend the mere image- beautiful or not, while beauty is just beauty.
John Ford films are undeniably beautiful, but to call them poetic- visually or
otherwise, is to simply not understand the term nor how it should be properly
And there is even less
poetry in the screenplay. It was adapted by Frank S. Nugent (Ford’s
son-in-law), from Alan Le May’s 1954 novel of the same name, and simply falls
flat. The actual tale was inspired by the legendary 1836 kidnapping of
young Cynthia Ann Parker (mother of the great Comanche Chief Quanah Parker) by
Comanche warriors who raided her family’s home. After a quarter century, her
family recovered her. That
‘incident’ has inspired stories, books, and even poems, but none as vivid as
the tale The Searchers tells, despite its many flaws. And while many call
the film an American Epic, the film clearly is not, for the term epic
describes not only a tale told involving great time and space, but also great
characters who somehow discover deep and powerful things within themselves.
There’s not a single character in this film that ends up significantly
different at its end from what they were at its start. Even Jeffrey Hunter’s
Martin merely grows up and becomes a bit more assertive.
Furthermore, not only is
there is no great change evident in any of the characters, but there is no
change even in the film’s outlook on life. Think of films like Stanley
Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru.
Part of what makes them great films is that the internal diegesis also changes. 2001
starts out as a primal film into which intellect seeps, then invades. That
invasion soon becomes a pervasion, and the film ends on perhaps the most
ineffably intellectual high note in film history. In Ikiru, the first two
thirds of the film follows the gloom and despair of a dying man, and the whole
film seems to be very dark. Then, there is an abrupt shift, and the main
character dies, and is recounted in a hagiography we know is at odds with the
man we witnessed. Yet, it works, once the revelations we know and those the
internal characters know gibe. Other great films often have similar internal
transitions of perspective, if not as radical as the two aforementioned. The
Searchers is static, not only by comparison to those two far greater films,
but even compared to films that are at its own level artistically.
As for the tale, it is so simple, that I’ve already covered most of it. In 1868, Ethan Edwards returns to his clans Texas home. No one knows where he has been the last three years. Some critics imply he was a bandit, but no evidence is given of this, even if he does seem to have done well for himself financially. Martin has been taken in by Ethan’s brother, but Ethan does not consider him kin. After the massacre- which occurs when Ethan and a posse are lured away from the home by cattle rustling claims, they spend five years looking to retrieve Debbie. Ford does not show the murder of the family- a classic Western trope that was bettered in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West. Instead, we see Scar look down upon her, as she hides by a gravestone. He then blows his war horn, and the screen fades to black. Yet, as powerful and iconic a moment as that is, Brandon’s blue eyes reveal he is being portrayed by a white actor, and undermines much of the Take 2.0 on the film, for such casting shows that the film and its director were, again, merely embodying the worst aspects of America at the time. That Scar is as evil and vicious as Ethan also does nothing to undermine the image of Indians as a dark force of nature, and unmitigated evil.
The two hour film also hits low points in the silly side stories involving Martin and his on again off again fiancée Laurie Jorgenson (Vera Miles), and Martin’s unwitting marriage to a fat Comanche woman, Look (Beulah Archuletta). Neither story arc contributes any significance to the film, and could shorten its length while heightening its tension were they dropped. Laurie’s father, Lars Jorgensen (John Qualen) is especially a silly character, with his hyper-Norwegian accent, and Mose Harper (Hank Worden)- a borderline retard, adds nothing to the film. Ford could have simply included a black cannibal, Pinhead, and midget to round out his cast of 19th Century wackos. And the dialogue is just awful. There is no realism to the way people speak to each other, nor in how they truly react to such situations. Prime in this vein is the reaction of Lucy when her mother first tells her of the impending Comanche attack on their house. She screams and gestures with her hands and face as if she were acting in an old silent film, being chased by a dastard with a handlebar mustache. While Ford imported some of the best visual techniques from the silents into his later work, too often he had his actors overact, and this film is as guilty as they come on that charge.
And, despite some critical claims, the film is never subtle- not in its technique (from the many irises of light surrounded by the dark of doorframes or caves- geez, what could that symbolize?) to its casual and accepted racism. There is a scene where Martin has Look join him in sleep, only to have him kick her down the dune as Ethan laughs hardily. Martin’s remorse when she is later murdered does not mask his bigotry. Also, the racism of Laurie is evident when, as Martin is ready to join Ethan on a final quest for Debbie, she tells him that he should let Ethan kill her, for Debbie’s mother would agree with that. Never is the racism parallaxed, so that critics who see Ford as critiquing its ugliness can point to any proof.
Then there is Wayne, never an actor of grace nor subtlety. Latterday critics cite this as his greatest performance, but since Wayne was not a great actor, by any measure, it’s a fundamentally hollow claim. This performance, compared to other great actors, is not much. Were this sort of role done by a Henry Fonda it would rank as one of his lesser performances. And one merely needs to look at Fonda’s role as the villain in Once Upon A Time In The West to get a real comparison of two very similar characters. In fact, in the two most memorable and revealing close-ups of the two characters in each film, it’s essential to note how the two directors handled it because of their stars. When Fonda’s character first appears all we get is a steady shot of Fonda’s steely blue eyes, replete with murderous hate. They just penetrate, as Fonda has an ability to act through his eyes alone, and needs no razzle-dazzle to display that fact. When Wayne’s character looks back at a couple of white girls who were kidnapped by Comanches, Ford does not trust Wayne’s ability to be expressive enough to convey his character’s rage and racism. Instead, we get the camera zooming in on Wayne’s eyes- as if to say, ‘Hey, look here. This is an important moment!’ Then, as if that were not enough of a giveaway, he has Wayne’s eyes shadowed under the brim of his hat to say, ‘As we gaze into this character’s soul, note the darkness, dear viewer!’
Never is there a moment in The Searchers where Wayne can break out of his persona and make Ethan a unique creation. His character is just a one dimensional sadist, even if we get hints that he has possibly bedded down with a few squaws himself- racists are hardly known for following their own codes to the letter. For instance, he shoots out the eyes of a dead Comanche, so that he will ‘wander forever’ and never reach his version of Heaven, and then he sadistically shoots many buffaloes just so that the Comanches will not be able to live off their meat through the winter. Then again, why would Ford want him to? ‘John Wayne’ was box office, and John Wayne- not Ethan Edwards, is really the main character of The Searchers. Yet, Ford never pushed Wayne to make Ethan go over the top, so that the story actually could be claimed as a meta-film, critiquing Wayne or what he represents, filmically or politically.
Also, while the look of the film is superb, the use of a cheesy ditty to open and close the film’s score shows that while Ford had a great eye for visual composition he had a tin ear for appropriate musical choices. There are also too many scenes where the music is too leading, or just plain silly- such as when Ethan and Martin traipse through the snow to a U.S. Army post. Some critics see the opening ditty as being indicative of a presumed love between Ethan and his sister-in-law, Martha (Dorothy Jordan). They also cite that they linger eyes at one another, and that Ethan’s brother Aaron (Walter Coy) is not man enough to protect his family; as if Ethan’s being there at the time would have made a difference against a whole tribe’s descent upon the house. Some critics have even claimed Ethan’s quest for vengeance is not motivated by saving nor killing Debbie, but because Scar has raped and killed Ethan’s brother’s wife, the woman he loved. Yet, if one really looks at the evidence cited, there is not much to it, save for three or four highly ambiguous moments that have to be read one way only. However, even if one accepts the claim, what is never stated concomitantly is that such a trope (two brothers who love(d) the same woman) is as trite as any other trope in the film’s screenplay. Thus, if one wants to credit Ford with some depth in the story, one has to admit that depth is leavened by its triteness.
Another low aspect of the film is the Dumbest Possible Action trope that recurs several times in the film. This is when a character, or characters, has to do something so stupid- that no real person, even the dumbest, would ever do, just to move the action along. Perhaps the worst instance of this is when Ethan’s posse makes it across a river, on horses, with no problem, but Scar’s two bands’ horses immediately flop in the river- without a shot being fired. Do white men’s horses simply know how to swim better? Then, Scar recoups and leads his combined forces across the river, only to be plucked off one by one with ease. Simply put, history shows that no Indian leaders were ever that militarily dumb. An earlier scene, where Ethan has to tell Martin and Lucy’s lover that she was raped before being killed, allows Wayne to overact again, but also allows for another Dumbest Possible Action moment, when that lover goes insane (not at the killing but the rape by an Injun), and rides off into the darkness, only to be gunned down seconds later. Again, grief or not, no man is that dumb.
Not only is this a classic Dumbest Possible Action trope in an action film, but one of many implausibilities in the plot. If the Comanches are so close to the white men’s camp, they could easily swoop in and finish them, and the film, right there. Another major gaffe comes before that, when Ethan and Mose ride back to the Edwards homestead after figuring out they were lured away. Martin is on foot, the home miles away, and he has no horse and screams after them as they leave him behind. Seconds later, we see Ethan and Mose ride up on horseback to see the burnt home. Mere seconds behind them is Martin- either the swiftest human being in human history- and able to sustain the pace of a horse over a marathon-like distance, or having been given a ride by one of the other men, then booted off before getting home. But why would that happen?
The two disk DVD, part of an eight film John Wayne/John Ford Film Collection by Warner Brothers, is a great package. The film, on disk one, is in its original 1.75:1 aspect ratio, and restored to its VistaVision glory. It sometimes looks (save for its stars haircuts and clothes) like it could have been filmed this year. It comes with a two minute Introduction by Patrick Wayne, son of the star, who had a small role late in the film, the theatrical trailer, and has an audio commentary by America’s most famous former filmmaker, Peter Bogdanovich. Unfortunately, Bogdanovich has never been a good commenter on films. He repeats the claim about Ethan’s love for his sister-in-law, but never provides anything but the same old ambiguous looks and camera angles. He pauses too much, seems bored throughout the film, and imparts little information that the bonus features on the second disk do not detail better. That disk has the documentary The Searchers: An Appreciation, a featurette called A Turning Of The Earth: John Ford, John Wayne And The Searchers, plus a kitschy four part black and white television promo, hosted by Gig Young, called Behind the Cameras: Meet Jeffrey Hunter, Monument Valley, Meet Natalie Wood, and Setting Up Production. There is also a theatrical trailer for the Brad Pitt film The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford.
All in all, my dad was right about John Wayne and his films, if for the
wrong reason of a personal distaste. The Searchers is certainly not a
great film nor a masterpiece. But it is an entertaining film, and a well made
Western. But, the Western is one of those genres, like the Romance (now Chick
Flick), that even if done well, has so much baggage and reliance on the expected
that to reach greatness it has to embody and critique itself and its society and
era. The Searchers fails in those larger goals, and even in many minor
ways. To compare it to a true masterpiece, like Once Upon A Time In The West,
or a more modern, if flawed, Western like The Wild Bunch, reveals its
shortcomings distinctly. It does, however, take its place as a worthy entry in
the pre-modern Western canon, alongside other classics like High Noon, Shane,
Red River, and Ford’s other Western classics like Stagecoach and
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,
as a good action film whose script, set pieces, and wooden acting prevent it
from achieving more than it does, despite claims to the contrary by John
Ford’s hagiographers. A better director, like a Sergio Leone, did do better.
At first, The Searchers was an undervalued film; now it’s a grossly overrated one. The truth lies somewhere between the extremes- something men like John Wayne nor Ethan Edwards ever seemed to learn, no matter how many things critics want to read into a shrug, an akimbo stance, nor an oddly breathily paused cliché uttered. If John Ford ever did, it was not evident in this film, neither in wax nor Wayne.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]
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