John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) has an almost unparalleled reputation, hailed as the greatest Western of all time and receiving Sight and Sound accolades. Personally, I simultaneously like the film, but also struggle to see why it enjoys such enduring acclaim.
The first shot of the film is an iconic and fantastic one. Initially showing a woman’s silhouette in a doorway, then moving out to show one of the arid vistas that John Ford’s Western’s were so associated with. The plot sees Ethan, played by John Wayne, returning to his extended family after a long time away at war. Soon after, the dreaded Comanche launch a ‘murder raid’ on the family farm, after luring Ethan and some of the other men away from the homestead. Ethan and the others realise that two of the young women have been spared and captured by the Comanche. So they ride out after them. I think the narrative is why the film does not work 100% for me. For starters, I do not entirely feel that Ethan and his comrades are that enthused by the chase. They seem to just be going through the motions. Aside from Ethan’s racism, it is hard to see why they persist in hunting for the Comanche year after year (Ethan does not seem to express that much affection for the girls who have been taken). I guess I just do not see the emotional connection to the girl that they are so intent on reclaiming. The other issue I have is that the film struggles to convey the passage of time through the film. The hunt takes place over the best part of a decade, but it does not feel anywhere near that long.
I do quite like this film. It is one of John Wayne’s better performances and a number of the peripheral characters undertake really quite interesting journeys throughout. But unfortunately it is somewhat inevitable that a review of an all time classic that I just do not quite get to the same degree as the consensus will slant a little negative. So apologies for that. I just do not enjoy it as much as a number of other Westerns – Shane (1953), Stagecoach (1939) and One Eyed Jacks (1961) all spring to mind. I think that whilst the real core of those films is made quite plain by the filmmakers, with The Searchers, you really have to dig for it. I think that the most interesting aspect of the film is the character of Ethan. His return from war, then his almost immediate leaving to go out on another ‘war’ of sorts, suggests that he is damaged goods. A man that cannot live without the thrill and focus that a war to fight brings. He needs violence and the ability to inflict violence to get by. This is not just evidenced by his endless pursuit of the Comanche, but also in his interactions with his peers.
The film is quite dark, pulling no punches in setting up the story. Indeed this dark vein never really leaves the film (nor is it really lightened by comedic relief at all, despite some pretty poor comedic relief characters trying their best) – see the moment that Ethan shoots out the eyes of a slain Comanche so that, according to Comanche belief, he will wander purgatory for all of eternity. I have heard differing views concerning the depiction of Native Americans in the film. Personally, I did not think it was at all forward thinking. For much of it, they are two dimensional, wicked villains, with no examination of the motivations of their actions. The Comanche are portrayed as simple minded and backward and overall I just found it all a little degrading. I think the film does improve in the second half. Rather than overplaying the grizzled old man persona to excess, here Wayne seems to loosen up a little and some of that delightfully typical John Wayne humour starts to shine through. And there are some highpoints to the narrative throughout this second half as well, both in terms of emotion and action.
The bottom line is that you should definitely try and see The Searchers, because many a wiser film student than I considers it an all time classic. And I really enjoy it, albeit to a level that does not match its considerable reputation. But if you are willing to dig into the nuance and depth of John Wayne’s character, there is a bit to be found here.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
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The Western is probably the most enduring and most popular genre in film history. Westerns have literally been made since the very birth of cinema and are still being made and reinterpreted today. So here are three different very different answers to the question, what is your favourite Western.
Tim from Not Now, I’m Drinking a Beer and Watching a Movie writes:
The John Wayne starring Stagecoach (1939), directed by the great John Ford, is my favourite of all classic Westerns. It many ways it is an archetypical example of the genre. All of the iconography is present – the semi-desert landscape of Monument Valley, Native Americans, coaches, horses, big hats, guns, sheriffs, gambling, damsels in distress – not to mention the presence of the most iconic Western star in history. But this is B movie iconography elevated to an A level standard.
There are a number of aspects that make this film stand out. Firstly the script. A lot of time clearly went into the screenplay and it shows. This allows the simple story of nine very different people on a fraught coach ride to end up being a whole lot more. Characters which are initially simplistic ciphers, gain depth as the film progresses and believable, complicated relationships are built between them. Ford also throws in some social commentary to boot as part of the main thematic concerns of the film. At the beginning of the film two characters, a prostitute and a drunkard doctor, are run out of town by the puritanical powers that be. Wayne’s character The Ringo Kid though cuts through all of this judgemental bluster accepting them all, especially Clair Trevor’s Dallas on their own terms as fellow travellers. There are also some potshots at big business and it appears that greedy criminal bankers were as big an issue in the late 30s as they are today.
The final standout feature of the film is the fine performance of John Wayne in his breakout role as a big Western star. His raw physical stature is backed up by some serious acting chops. His introductory shot as he waves down the coach, rifle in hand is a fantastic one and from there on in he is really at the core of the whole film. Toward the end of the film is an incredible large scale action set piece as the coach is chased down at full pace by the dreaded Apaches. It is an incredibly shot, actually quite lengthy sequence. It also features one of the most famous stunts ever committed to film. Stuntman Yakima Canutt, playing one of the of course nameless Apaches, falls down in between six horses and between the wheels of the coach rocketing along at full pace. It is quite stunning and more than a little death-defying too.
This is a cracker of a film, unfortunately somewhat hard to come by these days, but if you are a Western fan make the effort to track it down (although it is on Criterion Collection so if you are a major Western fan you can fork out for that). Here’s the fantastic theatrical trailer to whet your appetite in any case.
Tim Hoar is the creator and writer of this here blog you are reading. If you like it, then be sure to like it on Facebook here.
James from Film Blerg writes:
So maybe this is an odd choice, but I’m certainly not the first person to claim that Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls (1995) is in fact a Western. Saige Walton first planted the seed in my head in a Censorship class at Melbourne University, the arguments of which can be found here. Walton surmises the Western genre and narrative conventions very succinctly: “Nomi travels from east to west, to the frontier city of sin; she mediates conflict, has her showdown with the bad guys and leaves town with order restored… wearing a cowboy hat.”
Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) arrives in the city of sin with a knife in one hand and steely determination in the other. Quickly landing a job in a mediocre stripclub, Nomi cunningly makes her way to the Stardust Casino, eventually understudying for Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon) after pushing her down the stairs, success rushes to Nomi’s door. The film takes a dramatic turn when Nomi’s close friend Molly is brutally beaten and raped after meeting a rock star idol. Not one for taking crap from anybody, Nomi puts on her bad ass boots and kicks the shit of the rock star abuser.
As Walton mentions, Showgirls sees Nomi in a place of ultimately maintaining order in a hostile and cutthroat frontier land of Las Vegas strippers. Exhibiting many masculine qualities while expertly displaying her physical (and tirelessly sexual skills), Nomi is subject to barroom brawls and catty fist fights of sheer willpower. Meeting her match in Cristal (her antagonist good vs bad opposite), Nomi sizes up the competition and then breaks it down, proving her alpha dog status.
Intently made to provoke audiences with an NC-17, Showgirls was the first major studio film to receive such a rating and still be released on a fairly mainstream level. Despite this, it tanked at the box office. Thanks to the allowances of VHS, Showgirls went onto have a fruitful cult afterlife and is considered by many to be trashtastic.
Showgirls can be best enjoyed with an audience, whether it is in a small group, or a class cult screening on the big screen. Drinking games accompany the film with shots raised when Nomi slaps somebody or when a pelvic thrust manically thrashes around in a pool.
If you’ve seen the film, then you can speak to its trashiness. Whether or not you enjoy the subtle levels of satirical exploitation within each dramatic body thrust or the campy fierceness that Gershon spews out with every line of dialogue is beside the point. It is simply put, an undeniable Western.
James Madden is the Editor of Film Blerg. He is currently undertaking a Master of Arts and Cultural Management at the University of Melbourne and is a Screen Editor of Farrago Magazine. James has contributed to countless student and online publications including Portable, T-Squat and Upstart.
Jon from The Film Brief writes:
There are so many reasons I love Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966). It’s a masterpiece from the first frame of the opening credits, which combines Ennio Morricone’s score (the best film score ever written, to my mind) with a brilliant, blood-spattered vignette that has since gone on to inspire any number of film-makers, perhaps most notably Quentin Tarantino.
It’s a masterpiece from the opening scene, which sets the scene magnificently in the barren, desolate landscapes of the old West (actually filmed at the Cinecittà studio in Rome). Early on in the piece, the story is framed as a battle of wits and brawn – not so much a good vs. evil battle (the man with no name is far too morally enigmatic to represent good) as a document of Darwinian survival of the fittest.
The film is the third and final chapter of the “Man with No Name” trilogy, directed by Italian auteur Sergio Leone. Upon its release, it redefined the Spaghetti Western in a way that its predecessors, A Fistful of Dollars and A Few Dollars More did not. I like the first two films of the trilogy, but The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, despite its still-shabby edges, is that much more crisp, that much more precise in its story-telling.
It is difficult sometimes to look past a film’s status as a genre-definer, and a must-watch for any even semi serious cinema buff. I watched The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for the first time nearly 40 years after it was made. Stratospheric expectations aside, this is an enduring masterpiece for the most basic reasons – a strong script with complex and well-drawn characters, and a master behind the camera who knows just the right way to capture his subject material. You simply must see this movie.
Jon Fisher is the creator and editor of The Film Brief and host of The Film Brief podcast which you can find on iTunes.