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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The Patriot


The Patriot

Mel Gibson leads the charge against the Brits, disappointed he can’t paint his face blue here.

(2000) Historical Drama (Columbia) Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Jason Isaacs, Joely Richardson, Chris Cooper, Tcheky Karyo, Rene Auberjonois, Lisa Brenner, Tom Wilkinson, Donal Logue, Leon Rippy, Adam Baldwin, Jay Arlen Jones, Logan Lerman, Mika Boorem. Directed by Roland Emmerich

 

We often bandy about the term “patriotic” to imply our loyalty to our country. In reality, that has come to mean standing whenever the national anthem is played and making sure to cast our votes in each and every election. Most of us don’t even do that. There was a time, however, when being a patriot was dangerous; a man’s home, family and life were the collateral for his ideals.

Benjamin Martin (Gibson) has plenty of collateral. Although he mourns his recently deceased wife, he has seven wonderful children, a prosperous farm and as a hero of the French and Indian War, the respect and admiration of his community. However, the clouds of war brew on the horizon. The colonies of Massachusetts and Virginia are in full revolt against a tyrannical English king, and are soliciting support from the other colonies, many of whom have already given it. Martin’s South Carolina still debates the issue, but despite an impassioned plea by Martin to attempt other solutions (followed by a dire, Cassandra-esque warning that the war would be fought in the streets of their hometowns to be witnessed by their children), South Carolina chooses to fight for freedom. Martin chooses not to, but his passionate son Gabriel (Ledger) enlists in the Continental Army against his father’s wishes.

Two years pass. Lord Cornwallis (Wilkinson) has taken Charleston and as Martin predicted, the fighting is getting close to home. Following a skirmish in which Gabriel participates just outside the Martin farm, Martin and his household tend to the wounded on both sides. Into this scene of compassion canters the despicable Col. Tavington (Isaacs), who orders the wounded Colonials shot, Gabriel arrested and hung as a spy (for carrying dispatches on his person), the house torched and the livestock killed. In the ensuing pandemonium, Martin’s second-oldest son Thomas is shot before the horrified gaze of his family by Tavington, who sneers “Stupid boy!” in his best Snidely Whiplash fashion, and then gallops off, leaving Thomas to die in his father’s arms.

The despicable colonel forgets one of life’s basic rules (or at least one of the basic rules of 90s movies); don’t mess with Mel Gibson (you’d think the Brits would have learned that after Braveheart). He and his two remaining sons carry off a daring rescue of Gabriel, whereupon the elder Martin enlists himself and takes charge of a South Carolina militia whose job is to occupy Cornwallis and keep him from marching north to finish off George Washington. The militiamen do this at great cost, as Tavington carries out atrocity after atrocity.

This isn’t going to play very well in England, as the English here are portrayed as either sadistic, vain, arrogant and/or somewhat stupid. That’s OK, though; this is really our story, although ironically it’s being told by Roland Emmerich, the German director of Independence Day and Godzilla.

The battle scenes are terrifying, as armies get nose to nose and muzzle to muzzle, firing at point blank range at each other, standing in a line and praying that the volley of musket fire will pass them by, all the while cannonshot take the arms, legs and heads off of hapless soldiers in the front ranks. The violence and brutality are excessive at times, but the carnage is necessary to place in context the bravery of farmers, untrained in war, standing in the face of devastating British muskets firing with deadly accuracy into their ranks. Gibson is solid, though his performance is less compelling than in Braveheart, to which this will inevitably be compared. Here, he is a rough-hewn man with a dangerous temper boiling beneath the surface. Ledger is terrific – this was the performance that established him in Hollywood after success in his native Australia.

The Patriot is a bit over-the-top in places, and a bit predictable in others, leading to a half-star penalty. Be warned; this is a gut-wrenching, emotional movie. Da Queen rated it five hankies and there was a lot of snuffling going on in the packed theater in which we saw “The Patriot.” Da Queen was red-eyed hours after the movie was over.

The Patriot reminds us of the sacrifices that were made to give this country life. Men gave of life and limb, watched sons, fathers, brothers and friends perish, left their homes and families to exist in brutal conditions with the Continental army, and often watched their life’s work go up in smoke. Too often, we forget the commitment that created the liberty we cherish. That’s just the first step in losing it.

WHY RENT THIS: Intense battle sequences. Gibson is at his best here. Ledger makes a big splash in his debut.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Turns the Redcoats into Storm Troopers. Fudges on the facts.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a good deal of war violence here, some of it quite graphic.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The house used as Aunt Charlotte’s (Richardson) plantation was the same one used as the residence of Forrest Gump. Benjamin Martin has seven children, the same number Mel Gibson had at the time of filming.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a featurette on the real people these fictional characters were based on and the lengths the movie went to for historical accuracy in terms of uniforms and so on (it’s a shame they couldn’t have been more accurate in terms in more important places).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $215.3M on a $110M production budget; the movie broke even in it’s theatrical release.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Braveheart

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT:Magic Mike