Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Am I missing something?

The original title of this piece was “Am I stupid?” which I rejected for a number of reasons, chief among which was my fear of what your answer might be. But upon further reflection, “Am I missing something?” is, I think, a much more accurate question, because the evidence seems overwhelmingly against me.

The subject in question is John Ford’s epic Western The Searchers, which starred John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter. Glenn Frankel, author of a recent book detailing the making of the movie, wrote a companion piece for Powerline in which he discusses the movie’s meaning and its context in American history.

Frankel considers The Searchers “a great American film, a critical triumph for Ford, Wayne and all of those associated with it,” and Ford himself as “Hollywood’s greatest historical mythmaker.” The commenters at Powerline, as well as film critics everywhere, seem to bear out this impression. For years I’ve heard talk of The Searchers as not just Ford’s greatest movie, but one of, if not the, greatest American movies ever made.

And here we come to my dirty little secret: I’m not a fan of The Searchers. In fact, I’ve never been able to sit all the way through it.


For those of you still reading, let me explain.

There’s no question that The Searchers is a complex movie. Wayne, already recognizable as the prototypical American hero, here becomes the antihero – his goal in searching for his niece, kidnapped by the Comanches, is not to return her to her family, but to kill her – because in living with (and presumably having “relations” with) Indians, she has contaminated herself. We are repelled by Wayne’s motive, and yet we are compelled to follow him.

Or at least that’s what I understand. But this movie just doesn’t push my buttons. Perhaps it’s the plot, although there’s nothing necessarily wrong with it – I generally like ambiguous storylines. It can’t be that it’s a Western – I like most of John Wayne’s Westerns, as well as Clint Eastwood’s, and I’ve got a batch of Westerns in my vintage TV collection. Westerns are the great morality plays of American culture.

Maybe John Wayne isn’t enough of a heroic figure in this movie. I like The Duke unambiguously playing The Duke, and perhaps this isn’t enough, even though it has to be one of Wayne’s great performances. Still, I prefer him in Rio Grande, or Big Jake, or some of his later movies. Maybe the story is just too disturbing for me to get into – if it had been made by, say, Eastwood in the early 70s, I might feel different about it.

I will admit that I don’t generally go for John Ford movies, but that’s not to say I hate them all. For every Searchers, Fort Apache, or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon -not my favorites- there’s Rio Grande, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Last Hurrah – movies I’ve enjoyed to one degree or another over the years. And nobody understood the mythos, or was able to capture the West and its landscape, better than Ford. In his hands, the setting truly was one of the characters.

My only thought is that it has something to do with the score. One of the things I seem never to be able to escape from – one of the things that most irritates me – is the oppressiveness of the music score in the typical John Ford movie. No matter where you turn, the music is there, often cloying, always attempting to foreshadow the action, seldom (at least to my ears) serving any purpose. Someone once compared movie music to umpires at a baseball game – if you notice them, they’re not doing their job. And you cannot help but notice the score in a John Ford movie, especially Max Steiner’s score for The Searchers. People don’t think that John Ford’s a sentimentalist, but that’s just what the music suggests to me.

But then, maybe I’m wrong. Probably I am. The Searchers is a great movie, and I just don’t see it, don’t appreciate it. For years I felt the same way about the Fred Zinnemann/Robert Bolt movie A Man For All Seasons. Tried for years to watch it, never could make my way past the first thirty minutes. Finally, a few years ago, I did – and was greatly rewarded by a terrific movie. Perhaps, given enough opportunities, I’ll be able to sit through The Searchers and come to the same conclusion.

In the meantime, I’m still left to wonder what I’m missing.

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