Wednesday, April 15, 2009

American Western Review

A critic friend of mine recently published his list of the fifty best films of the fifties; only two westerns made his list; neither one was THE SEARCHERS.
I wrote and questioned him about this, and he allowed that yes, he'd recently seen THE SEARCHERS for the first time, but it was on AMC (ecch!) and pan and scan and he wasn't sure how he felt about it. He agreed that he needs to see it widescreen and without commercial breaks, but for some reason I doubt he'll come around to my way of thinking, that THE SEARCHERS is the greatest western of all time.
Beautifully filmed in Monument Valley, the film boasts John Wayne's career best performance; others may opt for Nathan Brittles in SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON or Thomas Dunson in RED RIVER, or even his Oscar winning role of Rooster Cogburn in TRUE GRIT. All three are great performances, but none come up to his role as Ethan Edwards. According to Harry Carey Jr., who's book COMPANY OF HEROES talks about his career in westerns, John Ford meant this one; there was a different feeling on the set (and Carey should have noticed, having made seven or eight films with Ford by this time), a feeling of seriousness and purpose. Edwards remained with Wayne during filming; he was no fun to be around, and I think this shows in the finished film. Some of the usual Wayne humor is present, but the melancholy of Ethan's return to the woman he loves who is married to his brother is palpable. Later at the cavalry fort, when he pauses at the doorway and looks back at the white captives, the look on his face is downright scary! His eyes are hooded as he looks at the young blonde woman crooning at a doll; we know what he'd like to do, what he's got planned for Debbie, and we're horrified that this American Icon, the Duke, would contemplate such a thing.
I like the humor in the film; Charlie McCorry, Old Mose Harper, Lars Jorgensen's Swedish accented declaration "Next time I raise PIGS, by Golly!". There were characters like this in the old west, and Ford and scriptwriter Frank Nugent do a great job of showing them.
Unfortunately, with the political climate what it is, THE SEARCHERS has dropped out of the IMDB's top 250. This doesn't break my heart, as it's largely a popularity contest, full of recent trendy films, and John Wayne is largely despised by today's young filmgoer, who only remembers his far-right politics. And Ford, who was quite the Hollywood liberal in his day, is considered old hat and plodding, his films full of sentiment and buffoonery. Leone is much more popular (well, I can't really argue with that; GBU and OUATIW are #3 and 4 behind SEVEN SAMURAI and THE SEARCHERS on my ten best list), but 3:10 TO YUMA and THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD are both on the top 250 while THE SEARCHERS dropped off some months ago.
I think a lot of viewers take THE SEARCHERS for granted. We saw it years ago, yeah it's good, but kind of old fashioned. John Wayne is dead, and who watches John Ford anymore?
Well, we should. THE SEARCHERS remains a stunning western, the best of all time, I think.

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