16 May 2009

Can I Help You Find Something?

"A film is -- or should be -- more like music than fiction. It should be a progression of mood and feelings." -Stanley Kubrick.

By the dictates of narratives, a story, whether on paper or film, needs to have a certain basic structure. There must be characters at least some of whom should be fully drawn and three dimensional. There is generally a beginning in which a situation and one or more characters are introduced. There is usually a middle in which the story's central conflict is played out. And there is a climax in which a resolution is reached. But that is not the be all and and all of a story. As Kubrick suggests, how the story is told can reveal as much even more than plot points.

Kubrick's quote refers to some of the better films ever made, including a few of his own directorial efforts. Like lyrics to a beautiful song, a film's story line can serve as an accompaniment to a great film.

A really good director can take an ordinary story and make it into a compelling movie. Give him a ripping good yarn and you may have yourself a masterpiece. Like let's say, John Ford's The Searchers (1956).

I watched it yesterday and the degree to which it gets better with each viewing suggests that some day it will crack my top ten.

The Searchers is a multi layered story that explores such themes as racism, revenge and obsession. I once heard someone dismiss it as a 'western' which is like saying that The Godfather (1972) is a "gangster flick."

The visual style of The Searchers is a rather clear case of Ford at his best. Filmed in Vista Vision. To not watch it in wide screen would be like listening to The London Philharmonic on a transistor radio. The Searchers was filmed at Ford's home away from home, Monument Valley and it is utterly gorgeous. If they shot it on back lot it would have been a B picture. In The Searches scenery is story -- especially as it contrasts to Ford's trademark claustrophobic interiors.

John Wayne and the under appreciated Jeffrey Hunter are the two searchers. Other than playing some guy named Jesus in The King of Kings (1961), Hunter never had either a role in any way comparable. And other than The Longest Day (1962) was never in another particularly noteworthy film. It's a shame because he gives a solid performance. The surprise is Wayne who tended to saunter and bluff and gruff his way through most roles. His Ethan Edwards is uber macho but ultimately a vulnerable and redeemable bigot. Wayne gives Edwards equal parts ugliness and redemption.

Like most classics, The Searchers is chock full of wonderful supporting players. Ward Bond, who showed up in a couple dozen of America's best films, gives his best performance as Reverend Captain Samuel Johnston Clayton. Usually strong and silent, here he's strong and noisy as hell. Hank Worden is wonderfully eccentric as Mose Harper, the man who thanked people for telling him to shut up and just wanted a rocking chair out of life. John Qualen, another regular in some terrific films, is on hand along with Vera Miles, Olive Carey and of course, the object of the search, Natalie Wood. Wood improved any film she was in just by showing that lovely puss of hers.

The Searchers is wonderfully bookended by the opening and the closing of a door. In both instances the camera looks out the door from within the house onto John Wayne. Behind Wayne is that scenery. My God the whole movie is like that. Shot after shot that tells the story better than any words could.

The first time I watched the Searchers I wasn't all that impressed probably because I listened to it more than watched it. It was probably a full screen version that compresses and veritably blurs the picture. Now I've got one of those digitally remastered DVD versions that is sumptuous. Some day I hope to see it on the big screen (any theater owner want to screen it for me?).

The Indians in The Searchers are Comanches and are not depicted much better by Ford than any other Hollywood director ever did. They're murderous bastards (the truth of the matter is that there were Native Americans in previous centuries who would just a soon massacre you as look at you, then again, sometimes maybe whitey had it coming). But this time the whites are hardly any better, particularly the iconic Wayne. What a notion! Wayne's bigotry (or at least that of his character, Ethan Edwards) is right out there in plain sight and its not pretty nor meant to me. He'd kill a white woman in cold blood who'd been "ruined" by "laying with" a native. Even if she's his niece. This was in 1956 when movies in particular and American culture in general were many years away from acknowledging their racism.

While this story line is right out there in the open, there are subtleties and nuances to the film as well. Take for instance the relationship between Ethan and his sister-in-law. Those are pretty telling glances they exchange. And what's with all that money he's got, and just where the hell was he for the three years between the end of the Civil War and the start of our story?

Plenty of talking points and its all worth watching because of the manner, as Kubrick put it, the moods and feelings progress. I don't know if The Searchers influenced him but it did many other great directors from Scorsese to Spielberg.

I think I'll go watch it again.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What an intriguing review! I've been missing out on so many classic westerns. I have always been meaning to sit down and watch them. This one has been added to my Netflix queue so that I can watch it as soon as possible.