Back to the Future Part III


Christopher Lloyd shows Michael J. Fox how he did the Judge Doom pop-eyes effect.

Christopher Lloyd shows Michael J. Fox how he did the Judge Doom pop-eyes effect.

(1990) Science Fiction (Universal) Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Thomas F. Wilson, Mary Steenburgen, Elisabeth Shue, Lea Thompson, Richard Dysart, Matt Clark, James Tolkan, Pat Buttram, Harry Carey Jr., Dub Taylor, Marc McClure, Wendie Jo Sperber, Jeffrey Weissman, Flea, J.J. Cohen, ZZ Top, Donovan Scott. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

If you’re going to end a trilogy, there should be a definite ending, one which brings the franchise to a close in case no further films are made, but leaves the possibility for further films if they are warranted. That, in Hollywood terms, is the definition of success of a final entry in a film franchise.

Following the events of Back to the Future Part II (NOTE: If you haven’t seen the first two films there are spoilers in the synopsis of the third. Skip ahead or don’t read if you’d rather not know what happened) Marty McFly (Fox) is stranded back in 1955 and the Doc Brown (Lloyd) of his time has been stranded back in 1885. Marty has to enlist the aid of the 1955 Doc Brown to get Marty home – except they discover that Doc will be murdered in 1885 not long after he arrives.

Marty instead returns back to 1885 a few days before the date on Doc’s tombstone but in the process the gas tank of the Delorean is punctured and all of the gas leaks out, leaving the car essentially an inert hunk of metal. However Doc and Marty figure out a way to get the car moving to 88 MPH and return to the future using a souped-up steam train.

But as always there are complications. Doc and Marty have angered an outlaw named Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen (Wilson) and Doc has fallen in love with pretty schoolteacher Clara Clayton (Steenburgen). Doc is torn between his love for Clara and the need to get Marty home; will Marty be able to make it back to the future?

My main complaint about the second film was that it didn’t possess the heart of the original. This one more than makes up for it, particularly in the relationship between Doc and Clara. Marty in some ways takes a back seat to Doc in this movie, which is a bit of a refreshing change.

The movie was the least successful at the box office of the three having as much to do with its Western setting as anything else. Westerns were very much out of favor at the time this was made (and continue to be fairly low on the cinematic totem pole, no pun intended, even today) and might have kept away a segment of the audience who preferred the more sci-fi elements of the first two films.

The train scene that is the film’s climax is one of the most impressive of the trilogy and will keep even the most jaded movie buff on the edge of their seats. The camaraderie between Doc and Marty is as always the heart of the film and never is it more in evidence here. In many ways we watch Marty grow from a teenager into a man during the course of the film and for no small reason because Fox went through so much during the back-to-back filming of the last two films in the trilogy; his father passed away while this film was being shot (and filming was suspended for two weeks so he could grieve) and his first child was born as well. Those are the kind of life events that can make even the most immature of men grow up quickly (and no, I’m not trying to imply that Fox was immature back then – hater!) and Fox certainly did that.

This is a fitting end of the trilogy, with a believable romance, great action sequences and is just plain fun to watch. I would put up the Back to the Future trilogy with any film series in Hollywood in terms of sheer entertainment value. Even though I’ve seen all three of the films a dozen times apiece, they still never fail to bring a warm feeling into my heart every time I see them. What more can you ask from a movie?

WHY RENT THIS: Big on thrills. Steenburgen makes an excellent addition to the cast. Reclaims the heart of the first film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Deviates a bit from formula.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of violence and some mild bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The only actors who appear in all three films are Fox, Lloyd, Thompson, Wilson, Tolkan and Cohen (McClure appeared in a single scene in Part II but the scene was cut).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are outtakes and a Q&A session with film students at the University of Southern California and producer Bob Gale and director Robert Zemeckis. There’s also a music video of ZZ Top’s “Doubleback.”. A Back to the Future FAQ text feature illustrates the obstacles of time travel and is an entertaining read if you’re so inclined. There are also animated factoid pop-ups which can be set to appear periodically throughout the film. The movie is available on Blu-Ray currently only as part of a boxed set including the entire trilogy which IMHO is worth owning as a complete set.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $244.5M on a $40M production budget; while it still is considered a blockbuster it was strangely the least financially successful of the three films.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cowboys and Aliens

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Turbo

The Searchers (1956)


The greatest Western ever made.

The greatest Western ever made.

(1956) Western (Warner Brothers) John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Ward Bond, Vera Miles, Natalie Wood, John Qualen, Olive Carey, Harry Brandon, Ken Curtis, Harry Carey Jr., Antonio Moreno, Hank Worden, Beulah Archuletta, Walter Coy, Dorothy Jordan, Pippa Scott, Pat Wayne, Lana Wood, Ruth Clifford, Danny Borzage. Directed by John Ford

The American Experience

The Western is an American archetype, carrying values that are uniquely American – the rugged individualist who solves his own problems, the romance of desolation and a code of honesty and integrity. Whether or not these remain American values in practice are certainly subject to debate but few film genres sum up the American psyche as the Western does.

If the Western is quintessentially American, then so to must director John Ford and actor John Wayne and thus their greatest collaboration, the 1956 epic The Searchers must be as well. It begins when Ethan Edwards (Wayne) returns home to Texas after serving in the Confederacy during the Civil War; it’s three years since the war ended for the rest of the country but not for Ethan who has been up to no good since then, but he is welcomed home with open arms by his brother Aaron (Coy), Aaron’s wife Martha (Jordan) and their daughters Lucy (Scott) and Debbie (Wood).

When the sheriff and town parson Sam Clayton (Bond) drops by to see about putting together a posse to round up some cattle rustlers, Ethan goes with along with Martin (Hunter), a young man who was rescued by Ethan as a baby and given to his brother to raise. However, Ethan doesn’t like Martin much – Martin’s 1/8 Comanche and that’s 1/4 too much for Ethan.

When they discover the cattle slaughtered, they realize it was just a ruse and ride hard back to the homestead. There they find the Edwards place burned to the ground, Aaron and Martha dead and their daughters taken. Ethan vows to find the girls and Martin insists on going with him, even though Ethan doesn’t want him around. Brad Jorgensen (Carey) also goes with as he is the boyfriend of Lucy.

That search will go on for five long years and not everybody will come back who sets out on it. Martin will discover that Ethan means to put a bullet in the head of white girl who has been despoiled by a Comanche buck and aims to stop him, even though it may cost him the love of Laurie Jorgensen (Miles) who has been waiting for Martin patiently. When they finally discover that Debbie is in the hands of the vicious Chief Scar (Brandon), it will lead to an epic confrontation.

There is a great deal to love about this movie. Shot mainly in Ford’s beloved Monument Valley in Utah (doubling for Texas), the vistas here are breathtaking. Ford was fond of shots that featured vast wide angles with human subjects tiny within the frame and some of his best are found here. Wayne himself believed this to be his finest performance (and named one of his own sons Ethan after the character he played) which considering how amazing he did a Rooster Cogburn in True Grit is quite a compliment and to be honest, it’s hard to disagree with the Duke on this.

One thing that must be brought up when discussing this movie is the charges that have been leveled against it as racist against the Native American. Certainly Ethan’s viewpoint is racist; he hates all Indians and he’s not too fond of other non-whites either. He is very much an anti-hero, a model for characters that would come into popularity about 15 years later. He is also a product of his times – not just the historical post-Civil War context but also when the film was made. It was the heyday of the Western and even though film Westerns were on the decline largely due to their popularity on TV (why go pay to see a great Western when you could watch a good one for free at home) the Native Americans were generic villains, very much like Nazis in war movies. They weren’t really seen as people, just whooping savages to be shot off their horses by brave America soldiers and cowboys. Rarely were they given any sort of voice in movies and more rarely still, any dignity. While I can’t say I agree with Ethan’s hatreds and racism, I can at least dismiss them as the issues of a character, not the actor playing him nor the director filming him. Wayne was a lot of things, not all of them pleasant but he was not a racist. Ford also was a particularly tolerant man considering the era in which he lived and worked.

The plot is complex and Ethan isn’t terribly likable – this is a character Wayne didn’t usually play. There is something that is grand and epic about The Searchers. You realize you are watching something that is a lot more than the sum of its parts. It shows both the beauty of America – the natural beauty and also the beauty of that American spirit that never gives up. – and the ugliness in the way the Natives were treated.

One of the things that makes America great is its willingness to let show its flaws and warts and discuss them. We may not always do the right thing as a country but we certainly at least try to correct our mistakes. Like anything human however it takes time and will to make these changes happen. These days the movies have a different attitude towards Native culture than films from the 1950s did and in some small way The Searchers helped open up that dialogue, particularly in how the film ends. There are few films as American as this one – and few that sum up all the contradictions of our society as well as this. It’s a must-see for anyone who wants to gain insight into the American experience.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the best movies ever made. Tremendous influence on modern movies.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Definitely a film of its era. Shows some racism and misogynistic tendencies.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some scenes of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Buddy Holly saw the movie several times during the summer of 1956; he loved it so much that he took a phrase Ethan used repeatedly and turned it into one of his most beloved hit songs: “That’ll Be the Day.”

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette worth noting; a series of interviews with legendary filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and John Milius discussing how The Searchers influenced them as directors, as well as some vintage promotional clips and an introduction by Patrick Wayne, son of John who had a small role as a bumbling cavalry officer.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.8M (first run receipts only) on a $3.75M production budget; the film made back its budget and became profitable after second and third runs, home video and television sales..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Missing

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Sleepy Hollow