From Under A Rock – The Searchers
There are few film genres that have had quite the same impact on American cinema as the Western. Today, we are looking at a film that is widely considered one of the best and most influential films in the genre.
You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show determined at the discretion of Aaron Hubbard and Michael Ornelas in alternation.
Last week Michael chose Lucky Number Slevin. This week Aaron takes Michael out from under the proverbial rock to show him The Searchers.
Released: March 13, 1956
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Frank S. Nugent
John Wayne as Ethan Edwards
Jeffrey Hunter as Martin Pawley
Vera Miles as Laurie Jorgensen
Ward Bond as Rev. Capt. Samuel Johnson
Natalie Wood as Debbie Edwards
Aaron Hubbard: I haven’t watched this film in a little over six years, and I picked it because I wanted to talk about its place in American history and its themes. Even if I had to drag Michael through the mud on it. Because that’s what friends do!
Michael Ornelas: I have such a hard time with most old movies. Film tech has developed so much in our lifetime that seeing movies that use archaic cameras and lesser-developed techniques are tough for me. For example, this whole movie looks like it’s filmed on a set instead of on-location simply because the background looks flat. But when you see cows 200 yards in the background still moving around, it’s clear they used the real deal. It’s confusing to the eye and also the Technicolor colorization wasn’t all too great when it came to the actual actors. Landscapes were fine, but otherwise it wasn’t that great. Other than that, the story was fine but rather dated.
The Western As American Myth-Making
Aaron: I don’t think it’s possible to discuss this film’s place in film history without discussing the Western and the Cowboy stock character. Especially in regards to John Wayne in particular. Before superheroes, there were cowboys; this great American hero that wore a white hat, braved the untamable wild west and protected the innocent from villainous gunslingers. It was black and white, right down to the hats. That’s not to say the genre couldn’t have a mature, interesting message (Shane being a perfect example), but it generally wasn’t a muddy film genre. And John Wayne? Hell, the man may still be the biggest movie star in American history.
Michael: Despite fairly accessible evidence that the man was racist, he’s definitely iconic. Due to personal ideological differences with Wayne’s outlook, it was hard for me to connect with his character. But in a way, that felt like it added to what his character was supposed to be in the film: a relic from a bygone era, unwilling to see things through an evolving worldview.
Aaron: We aren’t really supposed to connect with John’s character in this, for reasons we’ll get to in a bit. I’m not here to knock John Wayne the person for his beliefs, some of which I disagree with, because he was a man who grew up in a different time. But John’s public persona was heroic, the characters he played were everything America wanted to think of itself as. Which, I believe, is why this movie and the character of Ethan are so fascinating to many film historians.
Michael: The cinematography of this film was actually what impressed me the most, which is kind of funny given that I spent a bit just above lamenting the look of the film. The shot composition was masterful though as was the lighting. I found the aesthetic established from the opening shot to be wonderful. I may not have liked the color-correction on the foreground, but my goodness was the landscape beautiful. Part of the credit goes to the location scout, but it’s up to John Ford to frame the film, and it was just eye candy non-stop.
Aaron: John Ford and his cinematographer Winton Hoch definitely deserve credit for this aspect of The Searchers. Frankly, Ford should know how to do it, as he made over 140 films in his five-decade career. The man personally picked Monument Valley to shoot his Westerns in, and the scenery is stunning. The film was a reference point for Lawrence of Arabia and I feel like even in modern westerns like Django Unchained and The Revenant, we can see its influence.
Racism, Vengeance and the Anti-Hero
Aaron: While the film is a sweeping epic and has moments of humor and escapism (including what may be my all-time favorite kick in cinema), the meat of it is a very dark story about one terrible man’s quest for vengeance, which is motivated by extreme racial prejudice. Ethan Edwards shares an attitude that was common in the time where the movie takes place, and not uncommon in the time the movie was released. There is some justification for his quest for vengeance; Scar and his tribe are murderers, kidnappers, and in all likelihood rapists. But as Scar points out, this is retaliatory, as his sons were murdered. Neither side is right, but it’s easy to see how they reached this point of hostility. As Roger Ebert puts it, “I think Ford was trying, imperfectly, even nervously, to depict racism that justified genocide.” Not in reality, but in the minds of white Americans obsessed with conquering the frontier.
Michael: It’s certainly a fascinating topic to examine, but at the same time, it is absolutely crucial to be as cautious as possible because, much like Raging Bull, when you follow a volatile human being as a protagonist and portray them as a “complex” (meaning “sometimes likable”) character, you can unintentionally glorify the behaviors and resonate with audiences for all the wrong reasons. Human nature is forgiving when it comes verbiage, but intent and effect can be drastically different and I think with a stage such as a movie (where you simply present the art without discussion), it’s imperative to be careful about the conversation you’re starting, because you could unknowingly enable bigotry in certain sects of your audiences by accident. I think it was handled pretty well here, but when you quote Ebert as saying “even nervously”, it’s evident that it could have been better.
Aaron: Obviously, but it’s also made in 1956. John Ford was making a film that carries a message that’s a turning point for the Western genre, but also for himself. The man made movies for a long time, and often had Native Americans as the de facto villains. He clearly came to regret that, as this film shows the ugly truth of ingrained racism in the Cowboy myth, and with his final film, Cheyenne Autumn. To me, it’s the equivalent of the well-meaning Roland Emmerich, who smuggled a message of global unity into a film specifically designed to appeal to American audiences; Independence Day. Both films are clumsy at times, but well intentioned.
Most importantly, the film has Martin, who proves to be the real hero of the story. In many ways, he embodies the values ascribed to the roles John Wayne would normally play. He fights for his woman’s hand, he protects Debbie when Ethan is ready to kill her… and he is 1/8th Cherokee. In the 1950s. That’s subversion if there ever was.
Michael: I didn’t really enjoy the film, but I recognize its merits. I felt that its visuals were stunningly captured, but the performances didn’t impress me. The story was interesting but certainly dated and targeted a different culture which is always risky. This movie just wasn’t my taste, and saying “it was made decades ago” doesn’t change my perspective too much. I may point more to ignorance than bigotry as the culprit for some of the film’s contents, but it still isn’t something I like seeing. I’m also really difficult to please when it comes to Westerns, so that factors into my rating as well.
Aaron: If I were ranking this film based on its quality and its influence, it’d be an A+ easily. To me, it’s essential viewing for anyone who wants to take film history seriously. It marries the great American myth to its harsh reality of racism and the fear of culture mixing. But, this is a film I appreciate more than I love, so I will go with a slightly lower rating.
Michael: This is actually one of our largest disparities, I think. I don’t think the film was “bad” by any means (my grade scale is that a C = films that made no impression on me while C+ or greater is “good” and C- and below is “poor”)
Aaron: It’s pretty close. Truthfully, I don’t know if it would have made the impression it made on me if I didn’t study it thoroughly for my film class. And I enjoyed it more this time around.
So, is this a masterpiece of the genre or a movie best left to time? Let us know what you think!
Michael: NEXT WEEK’S PICK IS ONE THAT I LOVE AND THINK IS BRILLIANT AND I HOPE YOU LOVE IT AND THINK IT’S AS BRILLIANT AS I THINK IT IS.
Black Dynamite Poster
Aaron: CAPSLOCK! I’m fairly interested, as it seems like we decided to tackle similar themes from widely disparate angles.
Who the hell’s interrupting my kung-fu?!
Check out our past reviews!
Mission: Impossible, They Live, Marvel’s Daredevil, The Silence of the Lambs, 12 Angry Men, The Usual Suspects, The Boondock Saints, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Iron Giant, Fargo, American Psycho, 28 Days Later, Frankenstein, Crank, The Godfather: Part II, American Beauty, Rocky, Alien, Spaceballs, Star Wars: Clone Wars, The Muppets Christmas Carol, Reservoir Dogs, Superman: The Movie, Lethal Weapon, Double Indemnity, Groundhog Day, The Departed, Breaking Bad, Shane, Glengarry Glen Ross, Blue Ruin, Office Space, The Batman Superman Movie: World’s Finest, Drive, Memoirs of a Geisha, Let the Right One In, Apocalypse Now, Aliens, The Incredible Hulk, A Clockwork Orange, Chicago, Seven, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, The Room, Chinatown, Jaws, Unforgiven, RoboCop, The Legend of Korra – Book One: Air, Ghostbusters, Spider-Man 2, Prometheus, Scarface, Gattaca, Monty Python & The Holy Grail, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, Equilibrium, City of God, The Graduate, Face/Off, Snowpiercer, The Exorcist, Hellboy, Village of the Damned, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Idiocracy, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Fly (1986), Under the Skin, Die Hard, Dredd, Star Wars Holiday Special, A Christmas Story, Snakes on a Plane, The Big Lebowski, Bulworth, Raging Bull, Thank You for Smoking, John Wick, Mulholland Drive, The Karate Kid, Lucky Number Slevin, The Searchers