13 September 2006

97. the searchers



this is what we think of when we think of a western. which is weird, considering the fact that, to my knowledge, it was the first "revisionist" western, a genre picture that reflected and commented on some of the aspects of the genre that other films treated more matter-of-factly: blantant racism, misogyny, and particularly violence and the meaning of vengence. but by ruminating on these things, ford and wayne made one of, if not the most, seminal westerns, and still manages to give us what (think) we want: gorgeous photography from monument valley, a colorful cast of characters, white actors painted to look like indians, comic relief, a lone hero on a life-or-death mission.

the genius of the movie is that the lone hero is john wayne, and, as opposed to his earlier movies, he is a fucking monster.
there are several things to explain ethan's rage at the indians. two are obvious and explicit in the film: they killed his brother and his brother's family; he's an old confederate soldier, still bitter about the war. but then there are two more subtle reasons that explain his insane rage and give the film considerable more depth: his mother was killed by indians, which you can see briefly on a tombstone right before the ranch gets raided; he was in love with his brother's wife, and may have fathered some of her children. watch the tender way he kisses her on the forehead the last time he sees her, and the way he is utterly devastated when he sees the ranch on fire. he rides closer and sees her body and punches his companion for trying to see it too -- the pain is deeper for him, and he wants to keep it to himself.

its breathtaking to watch wayne's work in this movie, and the way that john ford used the conventions of the genre, as well as wayne's already iconic status, to push-and-pull the audience and challenge their expectations. you go into john wayne movie expecting a hero, but what happens when, while he's on his quest, he shoots an already dead indian in the face? if it weren't for wayne's movie-star gravatas, we would be completely turned-off. but ford uses wayne's charisma to keep us glued to the screen, and its one of the first times (that i can recall) that a director used the star's power for a greater purpose.

that said, the movie is not written well on a micro level. there are subplots that we don't really care about, such as the love story between charlie and his chick; there's too much exposition in the dialogue, such as ethan's confederate backstory; and there's too much awkward slapstick comic relief, such as anything with mose and the pastor getting cut in the butt at the end. but the movie is great on a macro level, because it uses the western as a universal myth, with broad themes and a huge canvas.

so, looking back at this film and "the wild bunch", it would seem that the western functions not in its details, but, like a great cinemascope establishing shot, its about the big picture, the stuff of myth that stays in our memories. and if all we really come away with from "the searchers" is that final shot of ethan returning the girl, but remaining outside, then that is enough.

1 Comments:

Blogger austin said...

yeah this is definitely one of those, "I forgive this corniness because the rest of it kicks ass" movies.

it'd be sweet if you could re-animate john wayne and get cormac mccarthy to do the re-write on this one

speaking of, i heard Ridley Scott was going to do Blood Meridian at some point...too bad that doesn't seem to be materializing

5:28 PM  

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