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

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Miracle on 34th Street (1947)


Miracle on 34th Street
What could be more Christmas-y than a hug by a little girl for Santa Claus?

 

(1947) Family (20th Century Fox) Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Gene Lockhart, Natalie Wood, Porter Hall, William Frawley, Jerome Cowan, Phillip Tonge, Jack Albertson, Harry Antrim, Thelma Ritter, Mae Marsh, William Forrest. Directed by George Seaton

 

Here in the United States, it is a sign of growing up when a child sets aside their belief in Santa Claus. Perhaps in several senses it is more of a sign that they are setting aside their imagination as well.

Kris Kringle (Gwenn) is appalled to see the man who is scheduled to play Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is drunk as a skunk. He reports his outrage to Doris Walker (O’Hara), the event director. She persuades him to accept the role himself and he does such a fine job that he is hired to be the Santa in the chain’s flagship store on 34th street in Manhattan.

Although he is told to direct shoppers to Macy’s merchandise, he tells one (Ritter) that the fire engine her son wants that Macy’s doesn’t carry can be found at Gimbels, Macy’s archrivals. She is so impressed that she tells toy department manager Julian Shellhammer (Tonge) that she will be a Macy’s customer for life.

Doris, a divorcee, leaves her daughter with her neighbor Fred Gailey (Payne), a lawyer. He takes Susan (Wood), six years old and having been brought up in a practical manner by her mother to believe that there is no  Santa Claus, to see Kris Kringle at the store. When Doris discovers this, she urges Kris to tell Susan that he’s not really Santa. Instead, he tells her that he’s the genuine article.

Doris is concerned that he is delusional and might harm someone so she decides to fire Kringle but store owner R.H. Macy (Antrim) is delighted by the positive publicity and goodwill that he has generated for Macy’s and promises both Shellhammer and Doris generous bonuses if he stays. To alleviate Doris’ concerns, he has Kringle undergo an evaluation with company psychologist Granville Sawyer (Hall) which Kringle passes but not without antagonizing Sawyer.

Kris discovers that Sawyer has convinced store employee Alfred that he is mentally ill just because Alfred is kind-hearted and generous, and raps Sawyer on the head with the handle of an umbrella. Sawyer exaggerates his injury and Kringle is confined in the Bellevue Mental Hospital. Tricked into co-operating and believing that Doris is part of the deception, Kringle deliberately fails his mental examination and is recommended for permanent confinement. Fred however urges Kris not to give up and takes on his case as his lawyer, arranging a formal competency hearing in the court of Judge Henry X. Harper (Lockhart) of the New York Supreme Court.

Ordered by Macy to get the matter dropped, Sawyer pleads with Fred to drop the case quietly and not seek publicity. Instead, Fred thanks the horrified Sawyer for the idea and bumps up the hearing into a full-blown trial placing Judge Harper in an awkward position – having to try the existence of Santa Claus.

Along with It’s a Wonderful Life this might be the most beloved Christmas film in history. Gwenn would win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, one of two that the movie won (the other was for Best Original Screenplay). That it was released in the summertime is perhaps one of the most boneheaded moves in studio history – the publicity of the film wound up hiding it’s Christmas setting for fear that audiences wouldn’t see a Christmas film in the heat of summer, a fear that proved to be sadly well-founded.

Still, it remains the standard of Christmas movies, both a sly commentary on the commercialization of the holiday (an issue that has sadly only gotten worse in the 70 years since the movie was made) and also on the faith and imagination of children that we tend to lose as adults.

Wood, in one of her first feature film appearances is self-assured and definitely doesn’t have that forced quality that many of the child actors of the time had. You never get a sense she is reading lines so much as inhabiting the role. O’Hara, who initially didn’t want to do the film until she read the script (she had moved back to Ireland) gives one of the defining performances of her career.

The movie definitely is a product of its time, although as such it has more charm than you can imagine. The opening scenes of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade were actually filmed at the 1946 Parade (and yes, Gwenn did play Santa in that parade), which gives you an idea of what it was like back then. That kind of realism was unusual for films of the era.

While It’s a Wonderful Life had a much more heartland frame of mind, Miracle on 34th Street has the East Coast sophistication of its era to distinguish it. Both movies are heartwarming and both perfectly synthesize the spirit of the season and both have the uplifting quality that was present in Frank Capra’s films which It’s a Wonderful Life actually was – Miracle on 34th Street was not but very well could have been.  Those who love Christmas movies in all likelihood do so largely because of this movie. It’s a classic that may be dated at times but never gets old.

WHY RENT THIS: A Christmas classic, a perennial that bears watching again and again. Gwenn’s performance is one of the best Santa depictions ever.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Exceedingly dated in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  Perfect viewing for the entire family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house depicted at the end of the film still exists, and is located at 24 Derby Road, Port Washington, New York. Other than the addition of window near the roofline, it looks nearly exactly the same as it did in 1947. The Macy’s Christmas display shown in the film is on display every Christmas at the Marshall and Ilsley Bank headquarters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an AMC television special about the movie, as well as newsreel footage of Gwenn accepting his Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1948. In addition, the special DVD edition includes both the colorized and original black and white versions of the film, in addition to a one-hour television version from 1955. Do note that the Blu-Ray version does not include the latter two features although the box packaging claims that it has the colorized version – only the original black and white version is present here. Expect a deluxe Blu-Ray version of the film classic somewhere down the road.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Top 5 Starfests


One of the big draws of The Expendables (see review) is the star power; many of the biggest stars in the action genre of the last 20 years make an appearance in the movie. Loading up a movie with as many stars as you can fit in is nearly as old as Hollywood is itself; having multiple stars draws across various fanbases and give the movie a wider potential audience to draw from. Some movies exist for little reason beyond just getting those self-same stars into the same movie; how many people would have seen Heat for example had it not had both Pacino and De Niro in it? At their best, Starfests can be a romp allowing big stars to shine in small little-more-than-cameo roles. These are my favorites.

HONORABLE MENTION

There are several movies that didn’t make the top five but were worthy of mentioning here. Robin and the Seven Hoods (1962) was ostensibly a Rat Pack movie with Sinatra, Deano and Sammy, it also boasted Bing Crosby, Peter Falk, Barbara Rush, Victor Buono, Tony Randall and Edward G. Robinson, along with a number of Borscht Belt comics of the day. The Towering Inferno (1974) followed the tried and true disaster film formula of throwing a bunch of stars into a disaster situation and then have the audience watch to see who survives. Not only did it pair up Steve McQueen and Paul Newman for the first time, the stellar cast included William Holden, Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, Robert Wagner, Richard Chamberlain, Faye Dunaway, Robert Vaughn and OJ. Yes, that OJ. Clue (1985) was based on the popular board game and had the gimmick of shooting three different endings which varied depending on which theater you saw the movie in. The cast of characters included Madeline Kahn, Martin Mull, Tim Curry, Eileen Brennan, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean and Lesley Ann Warren. Finally, Mars Attacks! (1996) was director Tim Burton’s homage to a series of collectable cards issued in the 1950s that depicted all sorts of gruesome killings perpetrated by rampaging Martians. Here, he set up a spectacular cast only to kill them off in some horrible way, including Jack Nicholson, Pierce Brosnan, Michael J. Fox, Danny De Vito, Annette Bening, Rod Steiger, Jim Brown, Glenn Close, Sylvia Sidney, Pam Grier, Joe Don Baker, Paul Winfield and Martin Short. Also cast in early roles were Jack Black and Natalie Portman before they were famous. 

5. THE GREAT RACE (1965)

 The Great Race

This Blake Edwards-directed ode to the daredevil motorists of the early1900s relied heavily on silent cinema conventions and star power to motor it along. The race from New York to Paris featured Jack Lemmon as the Dastardly Professor Fate, whose car contained among other inventions, a smoke machine, a cannon and a scissor lift. Tony Randall  Curtis was the Great Leslie, whose eyes and teeth twinkled and gleamed like the Northern Star, sure to set all sorts of female hearts a-flutter at the time. Along for the ride was an impressive cast including Natalie Wood, Dorothy Provine, Ross Martin, Keenan Wynn, Peter Falk, Arthur O’Connell, Larry Storch, Vivian Vance and Denver Pyle. It can be seen regularly on broadcast television and is usually not that hard to find at your local video retailer.

4. THE LONGEST DAY (1962)

 The Longest Day

The story of D-Day is an epic canvas in and of itself, and Hollywood just about outdid itself when it rolled out the red carpet for the stars who played both front line soldiers and officers behind the scenes where the invasion of Normandy was planned. John Wayne headlined the she-bang, but among those who were also involved including (deep breath now) Henry Fonda, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, Red Buttons, Robert Mitchum, Roddy McDowell, Curt Jurgens, Robert Ryan, George Segal, Edmund O’Brien, Sal Mineo, Fabian, Mel Ferrer, Robert Wagner, Stuart Whitman, Rod Steiger, Eddie Albert and Gert Frobe. It may not have been the longest day but it might have been the longest cast. It periodically shows up on broadcast television or basic cable; it can be difficult to find at video retailers, but as a classic is most certainly worth seeking out.

3. OCEANS 11 (2001)

Oceans Eleven 

George Clooney got together with his buddy Steven Soderbergh and decided to remake the Rat Pack classic of the same name, albeit much modernized but with the same jazzy sense of style. The two of them called a bunch of A-list friends to make a new Rat Pack for the 21st century and an impressive list of talent it is; Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Bernie Mac, Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner, Andy Garcia, Scott Caan and Casey Affleck. You got the feeling that robbing the casino was not so much the point as was having a three-month long party in Vegas. Fortunately, what happened in Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas – it was a smash hit and inspired two sequels and there might have been more but for the untimely passing of Bernie Mac. Currently, it plays cable TV regularly and occasionally shows up on TBS and it’s ilk. If you don’t want to wait for it to show up on TV, you can easily find it at most rental outlets or retail stores if you want to add it to your own library.

2. MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974)

Murder on the Orient Express

A classic Agatha Christie mystery became a box office smash and Oscar winner in the capable hands of director Sidney Lumet. Albert Finney starred as the natty Belgian detective Hercule Poirot faced with a vicious murder on a train that as he investigates, he determines it has something to do with an infamous kidnapping that was obviously based on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. In this gorgeous period piece, everyone’s a suspect and when you have a cast like Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Richard Widmark, Ingmar Bergman, Sean Connery, Michael York, John Gielgud, Martin Balsam, Wendy Hiller, Jacqueline Bisset, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts and Jean-Pierre Cassel, it doesn’t really matter who done it. This is one train ride I don’t mind taking over and over again and you certainly can; it makes regular appearances both on premium cable and basic cable. It is also fairly easy to find at video rental places, although generally you’re much more apt to be able to buy it online than you are in brick and mortar retailers.

1. AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956)

Around the World in 80 Days

Producer Michael Todd’s epic version of the Jules Verne novel was beyond scale or scope. One of the most honored films of all time with five Oscars (including Best Picture), the movie starred the urbane David Niven as Phineas Fogg, with the Mexican comedian Cantinflas as the loyal manservant Passepartout, the cast included most of the biggest stars of the day, with Shirley MacLaine as the lovely Princess Aouda, but also in varying roles from cameos to featured roles, Frank Sinatra, Robert Morley, Noel Coward, John Gielgud, Charles Boyer, Cesar Romero, Cedric Hardwicke, Ronald Coleman, Robert Newton, Peter Lorre, George Raft, Red Skelton, Marlene Dietrich, John Carradine, Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown, Andy Devine, Hermione Gingold, Edward R. Murrow and Trevor Howard. This remains one of the most entertaining movies ever made. It used to be a broadcast staple, but rarely shows up on cable these days; you’re probably better off renting it or buying it from your favorite retailer.