Monday, 18 January 2010

The turnin' of the earth - The Searchers

... and here's a review of The Searchers, written in February 2007. My favourite movie, then, now and - I imagine - forever. The article is a bit meandering (and my writing style relies a little too much on Ellroy-apeing short sentences), but it articulates a lot of what I like about the movie, and I haven't got an afternoon to pen another 4,000 words about it at the moment.

The turnin' of the earth - The Searchers

"My name is John Ford. I make Westerns,” he liked to say. Such evasive, anti-intellectual modesty masks Ford's versatility (none of his four Oscars were for Westerns) and his supreme talent, but contains an important truth. His true arena was the Western. He made the genre and it made him. His first feature was a modest oater, 1917's Straight Shooting. He effectively created the modern Western with The Iron Horse (1924), adapting the Griffith techniques he admired so much to fashion an exciting, imaginative silent that feels remarkably modern. He reinvented the genre fifteen years later with Stagecoach, dusting down stock characters and turning them on their heads. The themes and motifs to which he so frequently returned are all there: redemption, sacrifice and the outsider hero; extreme long shots, Monument Valley and John Wayne. Yakima Canutt's unbelievable stuntwork augments a story that fuses action and character as well as anything before or since. Ford reinforced the rich, mesmerising mythology of the Western with a string of classics: the Cavalry trilogy, My Darling Clementine and Wagon Master. He updated his classic '27 silent 3 Bad Men in luscious Technicolor as 3 Godfathers. And ever he returned to the West, endlessly probing, subverting and revising his unique vision. 1962's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is extraordinary: part-homage to the genre mythology of which Ford was the primary architect, and part-deconstruction. Thanks to him, America's messy, bloody birth had become a glorious "creation myth”: a country and a nation won through a marriage of right and might. If his films weren't how the West was, then they're how it should have been. He made Wayne an icon and twisted the inherent self-righteousness of Henry Fonda's screen persona into something reckless and ugly 20 years before Fonda's pantomime theatrics in Once Upon a Time in the West. Not that Ford publicly had much truck with the praise lauded upon him. He memorably dismissed descriptions of himself as a poet as "horseshit”.

Because its themes and iconography are most deeply ingrained in popular culture, the Western is the genre that can be subverted most easily and effectively. In the 1950s it got dark and it got weird. If we crudely hack the Western's progress into ten-year slabs, then the '50s stands as the genre's most important decade, beginning with Henry King's elegiac masterpiece The Gunfighter and ending with Hawks' super-fun, anti-High Noon buddy flick, Rio Bravo. Between, Anthony Mann made a heap of ever-darker variations on a theme, five with Jimmy Stewart and one absolute cracker – Man of the West – with Gary Cooper. Randolph Scott found a new lease of life under Budd Boetticher, the star immortalised as a craggily heroic gunman of varying shades of grey in seven mini-masterpieces, among them Ride Lonesome, Seven Men From Now, The Tall T and Comanche Station. And Delmer Daves made 3:10 to Yuma, mixing in noir and adding social realist overtones to stunning effect. Elsewhere Lee Marvin carved out a niche as a film-stealing supporting player invariably up to absolutely no good, Alan Ladd became the screen incarnation of Shane – the honourable ex-gunslinger idolised by a cute kid (Brandon DeWilde, who later became a playmate of clean-living California-types Peter Fonda and Gram Parsons, trivia fans) and John Paine took on the HUAC in the terrific, allegorical, Silver Lode. Nicholas Ray's The Lusty Men got down and miserable with rodeo bum Robert Mitchum, one-armed soldier Spencer Tracy set fire to Robert Ryan in the contemporary Western-noir Bad Day at Black Rock and Sterling Hayden brought a harpoon to a gunfight in Terror in a Texas Town, a typically unconventional offering from "Wagon Wheel” Joseph H. Lewis. Heroes were increasingly weary, unhappy and morally ambiguous. Cue Mitchum and Robert Ryan strapping on the spurs, but also Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, Randolph Scott and WWII hero Audie Murphy slumming it – and doing some of their best work – as flawed sheriffs, bounty hunters and hired killers. Mean, tough and unpredictable, the '50s Western can be a tough place to visit. And the genre master topped them all.

Ford made just four Westerns in the 1950s. Wagon Master (1950) is a slice of perfection. Refreshing, leisurely-paced and filled with magnificent photography, it's a picturesque, unforgettable journey quite unlike anything else you'll ever see. Sadly, Ben Johnson didn't work with Ford for 14 years after telling him to stick his next movie up his ass. That was Rio Grande (1950), the concluding chapter of his Cavalry trilogy: an ever-underrated portrait of army life with great acting, great songs and Johnson's legendary stunt-riding. The Horse Soldiers (1959) is a pictorially thrilling but dramatically deadening Civil War pic, with Wayne and Bill Holden squabbling like schoolchildren as the bodies pile up. And then there is The Searchers. A shot of silhouettes crossing the horizon, a classic Ford motif, was the one the poster artists drew from. "He had to find her... He had to find her... He had to find her...” ran the strapline. Yes, but they didn't say what he was going to do once he found her...

Ford's most complete, adventurous and atmospheric film, The Searchers is a breathtaking odyssey of revenge and redemption. The greatest, purest Western of all time, it's also the dirtiest, foulest and most upsetting. It is a film of violent clashes and vivid contrasts, the harshness of frontier life playing out beneath spellbinding sunsets, amidst masterfully composed panoramas. Peter Biskind said of Paper Moon that he had never seen a film that looked less like what it was about. The Searchers, filled with exquisite scenery and glorious music, is an extraordinarily dark and brutal film. Its hero is a violent, obsessive racist intent on murdering his niece.

Texas, 1868. Confederate soldier Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to his brother Aaron's home. Using a cattle-theft as a decoy, Comanches draw out Ethan and the local rangers, then raid the homestead, killing Aaron, his wife and son, and kidnapping their two daughters. One, Lucy, is raped, murdered and left out on the trail. The other, Debbie, remains alive. After an abortive attempt to track the Indians ends in mutiny, three searchers set out on their tail: Ethan, his blue-eyed 1/8th Comanche adopted nephew-in-law Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) and Lucy's fella, Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey, Jr.). Brad is cut down in a red mist. Ethan and Martin keep searching. The Jorgensens (John Qualen, Olive Carey and Vera Miles), a poor, immigrant family figure infrequently, offering a warm-hearted antidote to the bleak central quest, with Miles as a tempestuous, attractive love interest for Hunter. The only barriers to their future happiness: a guffawing guitar-strummer and Martin's squaw wife, acquired by accident. The trail runs cold. Ethan pays a local trader for information. He gives them the name Scar (Henry Brandon): a ruthless, rootless Indian chief who hangs scalps across his tent. As they set out again, Ethan's intentions become clear. Once he finds the grown-up Debbie (Natalie Wood), defiled by Comanches, he plans to kill her.

The opening still sends shivers down the spine. A black screen. A door opens and we're back in Monument Valley. More homely, overpowering and deadly than ever, it inspires a euphoria pitched somewhere between nostalgia and awe. The wind whips rust-coloured sand across the vast, sprawling canvas as a lone figure rides towards the camera. A woman looks across the plains, her hand to her brow. Her husband: "Ethan?” Debbie to the dog: "Hush, Prince.” Then Lucy, with great excitement: "It's your Uncle Ethan!” Still fighting a war that ended three years ago, with a mercenary's medal, two bags on newly-minted gold and a crush on his brother's wife, is Ethan Edwards, the returning anti-hero. "What kind of a man are you, anyway?” Martin asks him. A tough, straight-talking, wayward-thinking ex-soldier, Ethan's the eternal outsider. A mass of contradictions and complexities, it takes a mammoth performance from Wayne to punch them across. Shot frequently from below, Ethan towers over the landscape, beneath a clean, clear sky, his flaws deep and real. Morally corrupt, his gifts are channelled into acts of hatred. His unerring accuracy with a rifle, a common trait for a conventional hero, is used to blast a dead Indian between the eyes, "so he'll walk forever between the winds”, and to fire at Comanches carrying off their hurt and dead. In She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Wayne's Nathan Brittles used his knowledge of Indians to resolve conflict. Here his understanding of the Comanches' way of life enables him to track his captured niece across the country so he can "put a bullet in her brain”. Ethan thinks nothing of using Martin as bait to trap three lowlife traders whom he shoots in the back. He slaughters a whole herd of buffalo to starve the Comanches, should they happen this way. But he also shows compassion, shielding Brad (Harry Carey, Jr.) from the reality of his love's fate, defending addled Mose Harper (Hank Worden) from ridicule and reacting with telling empathy to Look's demise. Such acts anticipate the film's climactic valediction, where he sweeps his niece into his arms. "Let's go home, Debbie,” he says, slow and steady. One key to Ethan's racism is explicit. As young Debbie cowers next to a gravestone, clutching her doll, the words are visible: "Here lies Mary Jane Edwards. Killed by Comanches. May 12, 1852. A good wife and mother in her 41st year.” Ethan's mother. His love, Martha, also murdered, he is hamstrung by guilt and the impotence of regret. He is a man possessed. And he doesn't believe in surrenders. There are moral centres all over the place: Mose, Mrs Jorgensen and Martin Pawley, who defends Debbie to the last. But it's Ethan who dominates and who gives the film its hard, fascinating edge. "If the girls are dead, don't let the boys waste their life in vengeance,” pleads Mrs. Jorgensen. The man just rides away.

"I never knew the big son of a bitch could act,” said Ford after seeing Wayne in Howard Hawks' Red River (1948). Placing a little more faith in his on-screen alter-ego, he rolled out the big roles. Spellbinding in the following year's Yellow Ribbon, Wayne followed it with strong, nuanced performances in Rio Grande and The Quiet Man. But Wayne is something far beyond a revelation in The Searchers. Tortured and tormented, he's like a looking glass: broken dreams, shattered hopes and the lives of loved ones long lost playing out behind his hate-filled eyes. Harry Carey, Jr. recalled shooting the scene in which the Jorgensens' prize bull is slaughtered. "When I looked up at [Wayne] in rehearsal, it was into the meanest, coldest eyes I had ever seen. I don't know how he moulded that character... He didn't kid around on The Searchers like he had done on other shows. Ethan was always in his eyes.” Initially hiding Lucy's fate from Brad, Ethan is eventually forced to tell him the truth. "What you saw wasn't Lucy,” he says. "I found Lucy back at the canyon... I wrapped her in my... coat, buried her with my own hands.” "Did they...? Was she...?” asks Carey, afraid. "Whaddaya want me to do?” yells Wayne. "Draw you a picture?” Consumed by sorrow and rage, it's one of the best scenes Wayne ever played. That was take two. A bearded, drunk Ward Bond had spoiled the first one by pulling out the camera to plug in his electric razor.

The Searchers was adapted from Alan LeMay's novel, based on events in 1830s Texas. Frank Nugent's script is impossibly sharp. His terse, economical style fits Wayne perfectly. Poetic stretches, lamentations and shreds of love and patriotism only add to the brutal splendour of the film. It's 50 years of Westerns boiled down to a few choice phrases. "It seems like [the Indian]'ll never learn there's such a thing as a critter who'll just keep comin' on,” says Wayne in one stunning exchange, "so we'll find him in the end. I promise you, we'll find him just as sure as the turnin' of the earth.” The Fordian presentation of immigrant homesteaders, the sure-footed treatment of loss and regret and the sweetness of the Martin-Laurie relationship ("But I always loved you. I thought you knew that without me havin' to say it,” Martin tells her) all comes from Nugent's screenplay. So too does the film's troubling, duplicitous relationship with racism. For all the wisdom of the film's conclusions, the Comanche are presented as psychotic supermen: barely human. "If they're human men at all they gotta stop!” says Carey, Jr. "No,” replies Wayne. "A human rides a horse until it dies, then he goes on afoot. A Comanche comes along and gets the horse up, rides him 20 more miles. Then he eats him.” So far, so funny, but Ethan's bigotry will never grant him rest, nor peace. It will never grant him rest. One incredibly upsetting scene has Wayne and Hunter encountering white women kidnapped by Indians. Wide-eyed and insane, they scream, shake and talk to themselves. "They ain't white. Not anymore. They're Comanche,” says Wayne. Ford zooms in for a dark, terrifying close-up of his frazzled face and a look of unspeakable revulsion and anger. Ethan's violent, blinkered racism is the reason for his alienation and misery. "I've seen his eyes at the word 'Comanche',” Martin Pawley says, "He's a man that can go crazy well.” But Miles' likeable Laurie echoes Ethan's sentiments in a petulant, shocking outburst near the close. Nugent and Ford's presentation of Pawley's wife, Look, is murky. We're expected to laugh at her being kicked out of bed on her wedding night, but feel sympathy at her demise. And we do. Great films don't always have all the answers. Elsewhere, the Wayne-Bond dialogue bristles. "I say we do it my way – and that's an order,” barks Bond. "Yes, sir,” replied Wayne. "But if you're wrong ... don't ever give me another.” Later Bond's Reverend/Marshal asks Ethan to take a trip upstate. "Is this an interview to a necktie party?” asks Wayne, grimly. Ethan meets confrontation with a heavy, sarcastic "That'll be the day”, Wayne's delivery drawn from observing how Yakima Canutt met danger with mock-mirth. The screenplay is littered with allusions, mysteries and tantalising clues as to Ethan's erratic behaviour. As a strong, lusty, heavy-browed common man, yearning for a woman who can never be his: the parallels between Ethan's missing years and those of Heathcliff probably aren't coincidental. The Searchers also offers the same suggestions of infidelity and illegitimacy as Wuthering Heights. Are Lucy and Debbie Ethan's children? Is Martin his illegitimate son?

Humour and heart usually flow through Ford's films. Here they sprout up sporadically: sometimes jarringly, more often perfectly. "Mose Harper? Is that old goat still creakin' around?” asks Ethan, affectionately, showing off to Martha. "Why don't somebody bury him?” he adds unnecessarily, his coarse black humour receiving no response. His refusal to small-talk and his unsuitability for cordial family gatherings leads to one of the most uncomfortable dinner-times on celluloid: jostling for position with Festen and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. "A fella could mistake you for a half-breed,” he tells Martin Pawley in front of his adopted family. Nugent's inspired "letter” segment, narrated by Martin, has moments of great comedy too, not least Pawley's reference to "the late Mr. Futterman”. The most bizarre juxtaposition of comedy and drama occurs just before the Indian murder raid. First, Hank Worden performs a circular Indian war-dance and Wayne kicks him up the arse. Then Ford goes for a startling close-up of Wayne, the most extraordinary, unfathomable expression framed on his face. The desperately funny "Colonel Greenhill” scene (with Wayne's son Pat as a young cavalry officer) ends with Worden being dragged in, half-dead. It's Ford at his most reckless and brilliant. Few directors would have dared it, fewer still pulled it off. Later, ever ashamed of being viewed as sentimental or effeminate, Ford cuts from one of the most moving scenes of his career (Ethan's ultimate salvation) to a shot of Ward Bond having a bullet removed from his bum. The director seems awake to the occasional lurches in tone. The look that Jeffrey Hunter awards to Worden's other, impromptu Indian impression crystallises the attitude of many critics towards Ford's broad comic relief. The dance scenes and fight scenes present in so much of Ford's work are used sparingly. Both we – and Ethan – arrive too late at the dance to take much of a part. Martin has a fun punch-up with Charlie "Haw haw haw” McCorry (Ken Curtis). There are plenty of nods to Ford's other films. Qualen's cries of "By golly!” recall his "By d'yevil!” calling card from The Long Voyage Home. Jeffrey Hunter's early scenes on the trail are reminiscent of Ben Johnson's in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. And when the searching party is scaled down to three, the film briefly plays like some incredibly bleak spin on 3 Godfathers, with Wayne and Carey reprising their earlier roles: ten years of bad memories on their backs.

There is an urgency to The Searchers that is lacking from almost of Ford's other work. There hymns play out. There's time for extended comic sequences, bits of "business” and frank, honest sentiment. In The Searchers there is no time. Wayne's protagonist is ceaselessly restless. He surges on, endlessly trying to purge his soul, trying to make good the past. "Our turnin' back don't mean nothin',” he says, ploughing through thick snow. "Put an amen to it!” he shouts, interrupting Ford's signature hymn, Yes, We'll Gather at the River, during a funeral. "There's no time for praying. Amen!” Ford subverts expectation and genre with relish. Ethan rides to the rescue too late. His cavalry charge cannot reverse time. He's greeted by a burning homestead (famously referenced in Star Wars). As his family are butchered, Martin doesn't even have a horse to ride back on. In Stagecoach Ford left Wayne out in the wilderness with no horse. Here he walks off into the desert without a friend. Yet the director still gives Worden's Mose a happy ending.

A second-generation immigrant himself, Ford notably frames the film's second family – the Jorgensens – against the iconic backdrop of Monument Valley. He shows immigrant homesteaders as the heirs and heroes of the land. "Someday this country's gonna be a fine good place to be,” says Mrs Jorgensen. And these are the people who made it. The fatalism of The Searchers, and the apparently random nature of the Indian murder raid, makes the family's scenes all the more poignant. They could all have been wiped out within the first 20 minutes. It's a point reinforced by an echo of the first scene on Wayne's second, brief homecoming, with Olive Carey standing in the doorway.

The bloodiest action happens off-screen (the film gets a U-certificate in Britain, despite its resolutely adult themes). The ferocity of one stand-off is implied by the host of dead Indians littering the trail. The rest is brilliantly handled, Ford cementing his status as a fine director of action through a series of masterfully edited set pieces. Ford confronts issues of vengeance, morality, honour, racism, loyalty and love, paving the way for Peckinpah's Western revolution. And without The Searchers there would be no Taxi Driver. But there could also be no Hud, no Last Picture Show, no Affliction and no Memento. The loss of innocence, the fracturing of the human mind and the thirst for revenge are captured with frightening, captivating clarity.

Ford's work with Winton C. Hoch was among his very best (probably only his collaborations with Gregg Toland produced anything comparable). Some of the lighting is almost expressionistic: the orange sunset that anticipates the Indian raid, violent and atmospheric. Coupled with the terrified, mock-normality of Martha and Lucy's conversation, it creates a mounting dread. Ford's magnificent visual imagination works wonders. He closes-up on Lucy's terrified scream... then pulls back. The Indians aren't there. They arrive instead with a creeping shadow falling on a girl's dress. Martha goes limp with terror at the window. It's a nasty, brilliant trick worthy of Hitchcock, riffed on in the Coens' Blood Simple. After Brad's futile death, Ford cuts to a shot of the plains, shrouded in dust. The relentless nature of the quest is implicit, coupled with a feeling that though men die, the world goes on, and little disturbs nature.

As is true of so many Ford films, the music is flawless: always necessary, never overbearing. Regular collaborator Stan Jones (of The Sons of the Pioneers) sings the plaintive theme, the "Ride away...” refrain anticipating the film's classic sucker punch. Max Steiner's ominous, oppressive, expressive and haunting score complements Winton C. Hoch's mesmerising cinematography, incorporating Civil War-era ballad Lorena (a man lamenting his dead wife) and the Confederate anthem The Bonnie Blue Flag to rousing, moving effect.

The performances are superb. Ward Bond's Reverend/Marshal is gruff, funny and commanding. John Qualen, one of the outstanding character actors of the century, fills the screen with warmth, whether dealing with the death of his son or celebrating the arrival of the post – "two letters in one year!” Natalie Wood, oft-criticised for woodenness, is superb in her few, short scenes. Her sister Lana plays the younger Debbie with a bright-eyed likeability. Jeffrey Hunter is extremely good throughout – aside from ballsing up one important line ("I hope you die!”, he shouts, with all the conviction of a man who's just been told someone's removed the Arts supplement from his newspaper). Vera Miles, who apparently suffered the ignominy of being pursued by a naked Ward Bond on set, is as brilliant as ever: irresistibly feisty in her key supporting role. German-born Henry Brandon plays Scar with a chilling aloofness. It took weeks of sunbathing for Brandon to get the right skin tone for the character. Ford reportedly took this preparation as vanity and, with characteristic open-mindedness, called Brandon a fag. Olive Carey, the widow of Ford's first leading man, Harry Carey, provides much of the heart with a subtle, restrained performance. And Hank Worden steals every scene in sight, whether mumbling gently in a rocking chair or greeting Wayne like a German Shepherd. Pippa Scott, Dorothy Jordan, William Steele, Walter Coy and Ken Curtis round out a wonderful supporting cast. And through it all Wayne stands like a tower of strength. As he ends his greatest performance, he walks past Olive Carey, then gives a fleeting, wonderful nod to her deceased husband, Harry Carey Snr, grasping his left arm in the actor's signature style.

The Searchers is Ford's greatest legacy. A director without equal, he provokes a profound emotional response in those who buy into his unique style, imagination, humanity and sense of humour. The Searchers, with its stripped-down dialogue, complex characterisation and downbeat ending is both the most, and least, typical of Ford's films. The boozing, brawling and bawling are less prevalent than usual (he returned to them a year later with The Wings of Eagles, which has little else), but the classic Western presentation and the familiar Fordian themes of family, redemption and the forging of a nation are stronger, clearer and purer than ever before. It's the most ambitious story Ford ever attempted, executed with exceptional style, vigour and conviction. Bold and breathtaking, it engages the emotions and the senses. Sound is used to spectacular effect. Brad's echoing shouts suggest the voices – and the screams – of the party's loved ones, still echoing around the vast caverns and canyons of Monument Valley. It's a film of tremendous ferocity. There is rape, murder, bloody revenge and worse. Dark, complex and upsetting, The Searchers is as abrasive, unforgiving and compelling as its hero. It's sometimes tender, often moving and sumptuously shot. Ford turns on both taps with an outrageous volte face at the death. And though the director gives the blockbuster crowd what they want with a stunning action climax, it is the film's heartbreaking coda that is his masterstroke – the sad mythology of the outsider hero drifting across in breathtaking fashion. Uplifting in the majesty of its presentation, but devastating in its conclusions, it's a shattering experience. The strong, simple, narrative search, dressed in the complexity of America's birth, drenched in the mythology of its creation myth. It's still the greatest film ever made.

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