Friday, 2 November 2018

Filmstruck Friday: The Searchers (1956)

Well, not many of these left (sadly) but I'll keep going as long as Filmstruck is around.

Here's the cinematic journey I made when it came to Western movies, and I am going to boldly assume that a similar experience was had by many people of my age. I first saw Westerns as dull films, schedule-fillers put on at the weekend, after the fun of the programming aimed at kids and before any big sport shows. I'd sometimes be taken along to visit my grandparents, knowing that my grandfather was going to be more interested in how his horses got on for most of the afternoon, and there was often a Western movie on in the background as I tried to keep boredom at bay. The adults were all catching up, it was never a guarantee that any other kids would be there at the same time as I was, and all I seemed to see were the same barren, rocky landscapes, the same bland heroes shooting at some savage villains, and some good stunts on horseback. It's this experience that kept me away from Westerns for many years, even as I started to properly delve into all that cinema had to offer. The Western was the genre I enjoyed the least. Then I discovered Spaghetti Westerns, and the filmography of Clint Eastwood, and even the wonderful mix of romanticism and realism offered up by Kevin Costner (say what you like about his work, the man can craft a Western like a tanner crafts the finest leather goods). And, finally, I decided to check out those films that I had previously thought too dull, too stuck in the simple and old-fashioned roots of the genre. Yes, some of them still feel that way. But the ones that are still praised by fans so many decades later tend to, like enduring classics of any genre, hold up really well. The Searchers is one of them.

John Wayne stars as Ethan Edwards, a man who ends up spending a number of years on the trail of his niece, who was kidnapped by Comanches during a violent raid. He is accompanied on this journey by Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), the adopted brother of Ethan's niece who is also one eighth Cherokee, to the displeasure of Ethan. As they move through the country, viewers get served the expected helpings of action, but it all comes with an interesting look at race relations and the very thin line between violent heroism and outright savagery.

Based on a novel by Alan LeMay, The Searchers benefits from a cracking script by Frank S. Nugent that is given due respect by director John Ford. This could have been an easy movie to make a success without adding any complexity to the central plot strand, and I didn't expect all that I had to chew on as the movie ended, but Nugent and Ford balance things perfectly, right up to an ending so perfect that it quite rightly sits up there, I believe, alongside the greatest endings in cinema. You can spend years dissecting and discussing the portrayal, and misrepresentation, of Native Americans onscreen throughout the history of cinema, and this film doesn't avoid many of the common complaints you can level at 95% of Westerns, but Nugent and Ford spend a lot of time here showing Edwards up as being just as, if not more so, monstrous and bloodthirsty as the enemy he is pursuing. And it's not just Edwards. There are quite a few others who come along to show that savagery and immorality are not traits to be given to one section of society. In fact, there's an argument to be made that, for the most part, the Native Americans align themselves to a moral code more rigidly than a number of the standard white cowboys.

The more I see of John Wayne, after so many years avoiding him under the misapprehension that I would hate all of the movies he starred in, the more I like him. I am well aware of his personal views, which makes it all the more interesting to see him give such a well-rounded, and well-shaded, performance. He's the staunch hero here, apart from the times when he isn't. He's the guy who, in modern cinematic terms, knows that he has to get his hands dirty to get the job done. But he also would rather, at one point, consider shooting a young woman than see her live as a Comanche. Hunter does well to hold his own alongside "The Duke", he's a centre to the moral compass (or perhaps calling it a moral centrefuge would be better, considering the whirling nature of the main characters). German-born actor Henry Brandon does well as Scar, the Comanche Chief (I did say that it didn't avoid many of the common complaints), Vera Miles is lovely as a young woman waiting for the return of Martin, although a young man named Charlie McCorry (Henry Curtis) wants to win her over, Ward Bond is the authority figure who helps when he can, in a role that would nowadays be the angry Police Captain dealing with the rogue cop who gets results, and Natlie Wood makes a strong impression, despite being in the film for maybe a total of 5 minutes, tops.

I wasn't sure if I could overlook the negatives to rate this as a perect movie. The passage of time doesn't always feel that well done, it's tough at times to figure out why Wayne's character is so determined to set out on whatever course he chooses in reaction to certain events, and you have those problematic elements inherent in many films from this time. But those negatives are far too minor to dissuade me. The passage of time could have been better, sure, but that's about it, really. I liked not always understanding Wayne's character, sometimes admiring his steadfast way and sometimes loathing him. And as for the use of Brandon, and the portrayal of the Native Americans here, you always have to view cinema in context. In the context of the time, this still does a hell of a lot that you wouldn't expect.

It's no small irony that anyone asking me a decade ago if I would ever give a 10/10 rating to a John Wayne film would have heard the phrase so oft-repeated in this very film - "that'll be the day."
Yet here we are.


You can search out The Searchers here.
Americans can get it here.
Or just click on those links and buy everything you want.

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