June 23, 2009
119 Minutes — March 13, 1955
Adventure / Drama / Western
John Ford [Stagecoach; The Grapes Of Wrath]
#7 They Shoot Pictures Don’t They Top 1000 Films Of All Time
“Solo Filmschool” movies are those on the big list of the 1000 best films of all time, which the crew over at TSPDT keeps track of and updates from time to time. The current version is from January 2010. My plan is to work my way down the list, watching all of them on DVD (if available), regardless of how slow-moving, or out of date they might appear at first. If a highly-regarded and serious film class is not available where you live, you could do a lot worse than using this list as a jumping off point.
A confederate war veteran tracks down the Indians who have slaughtered his brother and sister-in-law and carried off their daughter.
There are no two ways about it: this is one racist film. Wayne is so disgusted by Indians, that he barely acknowledges a quarter-cherokee member of his own family–a young man he saved after his parents were killed in an attack. He refuses to let the young man call him “uncle”, though the rest of the kids do. Wayne’s character, Ethan Edwards, also believes that death is a better result for a young woman than having sex with an Indian. Which is basically what the entire film is about.
Wayne has returned to his brother’s ranch several years after the Civil War has ended. He has with him some gold coins, never bothering to explain where they came from. We assume that Edwards’ work isn’t always above board. A man’s cattle are stolen and he joins the party to go find them. While out in the brush, they all realize that the cattle were just a diversion so that Comanche could attack the undefended homesteads. What follows is an incredibly tense, scary, though not explicit scene of attack. When Edwards and Martin (the aforementioned part-Cherokee) return, it is too late. We again don’t see anything but reactions and know what state the family is in. Missing are the two teenage girls. Edwards must find them before they are “married” into the Comanche world.
Euphemisms like “married” or “indoctrinated” or “she’s all Indian now” really mean that another race, in this case Native American, has had sex with the virginal, snow-white teenage girls in checkered prairie dresses. And while modern audiences might say “I can sorta see how that wouldn’t be cool back then”, the anger and frustration that Wayne shows while trying to find the girls is much deeper than all that. He feels it his duty to kill his own family members rather than have them live with who he considers savages. With their own language to boot.
The story, which is sort of a chase film that takes place in Monument Valley, amongst some of the most beautiful scenery ever captured, is basically: will Edwards find the girls; how long will it take; and once he does, will he kill them? That’s it. The bad guy, the Comanche chief is a man named Scar. Two things here: he is played by a blue-eyed guy who looks like he lives in Brooklyn thus completely taking us out of the picture (Bogdanovich in a fabulous commentary explains that “that’s just how it was done back then”) and two, and probably more important, Ford sets up this “Scar” character as a renegade evil Comanche as opposed to the honorable (docile?) Comanches which were filling the governmental aid stations back then. This sort of gets him off the hook in terms of the savagery of one particular group of Indians not speaking for the whole clan.
Lest you think that the film is a progressive portrayal of Native Americans, you need only look at the scene where Edwards and Martin are shown a small group of teenage girls who have been “liberated” by government troops from their Indian captors. To say that they’ve ended up loopy would be an understatement. They act like children raised by wolves, thus affirming everything that Edwards thinks will happen to his own nieces. “They ain’t white anymore” one character says.
Setting aside the underlying racism of the whole enterprise, one can marvel at the photography. Granted, Ford had perhaps the greatest natural backdrop in film history at his disposal, but that didn’t mean that he just sat back and watched the magic. The justly famous shots of darkened doorways with the silhouettes of characters remains quite striking. The vistas are broad, the shootouts easy to follow, and certain chase scenes where groups of Indians are several miles back on bluffs are fabulous in their composition. How Ford got everyone to be at the right place at the right time for a shot is beyond me.
There is an extra interlude where dancing and a wedding take place that felt out of place, but perhaps the film was too heavy for 1956 audiences and they needed some comic relief. This relief is in the form of a borderline retarded mailman suitor and a looney old drunken deathbed old guy who spouts non sequitors. But scenes with these two are few and far between. Don’t get me started on the bratty acting of Jeffrey Hunter as Martin who seems to pout his way around the west.
Wayne is pretty awesome as someone trying to protect everyone around him from how the real world operates. He shields young men from the heartbreak they’re destined to experience, he protects people from violence and the aftermath of savagery. In Wayne’s eyes you can see that he feels like he’s experienced things and seen things that he doesn’t wish on anyone else. He knows that gold gets things done, that murder is bloody and awful, and that naive young love is no match for a harsh world.
He also rides a horse well and dresses in bright colors.
This is rightly considered a classic (Number 7 on the Big List of 1000 Movies). The photography is spectacular, the action exciting, the story morally ambiguous, and the acting is mostly great.
The Searchers @ Amazon
, John Ford
, Top 1000