Thursday, July 15, 2010

Film 101: The Searchers

First, yes, it's been a while. Sorry about that. I can't promise I'll be as prolific as I once was, but I realized there are things I can be posting in this blog a little more regularly. Today, film class.

As facebook readers and other online friends already know, I've been spending the last couple of days putting together a course overview for the Intro to Film class I teach. This is the first time I'm teaching it on my own, so I wanted to have some clear direction/ideas/purpose going into it. It's meant immersing myself back in film a little bit, a process which I always find rewarding, though at times time consuming (and at other times really boring). I've come up with a pretty good list, I think, and I'm sure I'll post some things about those films in future posts, but I wanted to write a little about a film that I'm NOT including but have a lot of thoughts about: John Ford's 1956 film The Searchers.

If you haven't seen the film yet, it's available on Netflix Instant Watch, and I definitely think it's worth the time. This review will contain spoilers, so if that matters to you, go watch it first and then come back. The film's principle character is Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne, an angry, hateful, cold former Confederate soldier who shows up at his brother's house a few years after the war. When Ethan's brother's family is murdered by Comanches and the two daughters are taken hostage, Ethan and sidekick Martin go on a quest to bring her back. The journey lasts somewhere between ten and fifteen years (I've read 14 years, but I couldn't find a specific answer, and I didn't watch quite closely enough to add up all the different time periods mentioned).

The film opens inside the house, looking out the doorway at the dust kicked up by Edwards' approach, and the shot will be famously mirrored at the film's ending (again, looking out the doorway at Edwards, this time as he walks away), as well as several other times throughout the movie. This simple device is telling us a little something already: we are inside the house with the civilized, the safe, the proper, while Edwards isn't. In fact, at the end of the film, all the characters enter the house around Edwards, but he is stuck on the outside looking in. He's a man left to, in a paraphrase of Martin Scorsese's words, wander in a spiritual and literal wasteland. He doesn't fit in with the more mature world the West is badly trying to become.

Don't feel too badly for Ethan, though. Did I mention that the guy is a total asshole? He won't let Martin call him Uncle Ethan, like the rest of the family does, because Martin is 1/8th Cherokee, despite having been saved by Ethan as a baby and raised by Ethan's brother. He calls him things like Blankethead and insults his intelligence. In fact, he insults pretty much everyone around him, with the exception of his brother's wife, who may or may not have feelings for him (there is no dialog mentioning a relationship, but there is some peculiar behavior on both parts that indicates romantic feelings for each other). His hatred of the Indians is so deep that he suggests that if he finds Debbie (his niece) still alive, he might have to kill her anyway because she would have been tainted by living with the Indians for so long. He is unaccountably savage--shooting the eyes out of a dead Comanche because in their belief system that means he'll be a wanderer for eternity (sounds familiar . . . see that last shot again) and trying to kill an entire herd of buffalo so that at least they won't go towards feeding the Indians.

Yes, the Comanches are pretty savage and violent--they burn the house down (George Lucas referenced this shot when Luke returns to Uncle Owen's farm and sees it burned down in Star Wars) and slaughter a lot of people, but Ethan is really no better. In fact, he has more in common with the Native Americans he hates than with the civilized family that's saving a place for Martin.

So why does it all matter? Well for one, in addition to the carefully constructed filmmaking (that bookending of the film's opening shots is matched in other ways as well. Early on, for example, we have Ethan's brother's family waiting for the Comanches to attack while a dog barks to indicate trouble coming. At the end of the film we have the Comanche camp unknowingly preparing for an attack from Ethan and the white guys, and again we have a dog barking to indicate trouble) and in addition to the sheer beauty of the film (it's really worth it to see it in HD. Monument Valley never looked so epic.), there's that introduction of the complex anti-hero that would be so important throughout the 60s and 70s especially. No, John Ford's not the first director to have a morally questionable hero, not by a long shot, but to take a figure as iconic as John Wayne and twist that image on its head is really effective. In our society, John Wayne means the ultimate cowboy, that great American mythic figure, but in The Searchers the myth is brought down to reality a little bit. That's part of the reason a lot of great filmmakers (Scorsese and Lucas are just two) consider this such an important film, but you can see its influence continue in their works. The dark antihero of Taxi Driver who wants to protect the innocent girl, etc. These things have roots in this 50s western that wasn't even nominated for an academy award.

Now, it's not a perfect film, I'll admit. While I found some of the subplots funny, they tonally don't match the film as a whole, and a few of the characters are stuck in caricature mode from beginning to end, but still, this was so much more than I expect it to be. As a college student I watched a few minutes of it with Amelia (who had to watch it for class) and found myself incredibly bored. This time I couldn't look away. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

Tha Docta said...

Funny that you do this now - I just watched this a month or two ago and loved it.