Comments on watching and making films.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

DVD - The Searchers

John Ford's The Searchers has come under some controversy over the last couple of years. It has been lauded by many famous filmmakers (including Scorsese and Tarantino) for being highly influential, and often times listed as one of their favorite films. Upon its DVD release, however, a lot of critics and writers began to cry out about the films (supposedly) racist tone.

John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, an ex-Confederate soldier returning to Texas and his families ranch. Upon his return, a neighbor's herd of cattle go missing, and Ethan, along with several other neighbors and authorities (including a young boy named Martin, who Ethan's brother took in after his family was murdered by Indian's), go off into the wilderness to try and find the missing cattle. When they find one of the bulls dead, with no apparent attempt to salvage any part of the body (an odd thing for Native American tribes who make a habit of using every part of an animal), they realize the missing cattle are a diversion. The local tribe has used the cattle as a way to pull the strongest away from their homesteads in order to pillage and murder those that are left. When the search party gets back home, they find the Edwards family murdered, and the ranch burned to the ground. Upon realizing that two of the daughters are nowhere to be found, Ethan and Martin, along with another local boy who was in a relationship with the older daughter, go looking for the two girls.

The Searchers is not what I expected at all. It was not a grim meditation on violence or racism, as it had been called in other reviews. In fact, I don't think the film is racist at all. It doesn't show the Native American's to be particularly blood thirsty or violent (except for the one break off tribe that is causing all of the trouble), and the only character who is overtly racist is Ethan, and your going to tell me that it came as a surprise that someone who fought on the side of the Confederate's in the Civil War is not exactly the kindest person towards those who are not exactly like him? How is this a surprise? Racism was pretty prevalent at that time, especially against Native American's. Would you make a Holocaust movie where the German's were all really nice to everyone, and those shower's were just shower's and the oven's were used to bake french bread and pizza's? No, because its not accurate. People hate. People have always hated. The Searchers isn't condoning hate, its simply exploring it as a driving force behind Ethan and Martin's multi-year quest to find those girls. 

The Searchers is one of the most interesting Westerns I've ever seen. It is, at various times, humorous, vengeful, romantic and stirring. It is almost everything a film has the potential to be. Ford does an amazing job at telling a story that is obviously more about obsession than about hate. Decent performances are all around in this film (for a 1950's Western), though John Wayne is, ultimately, John Wayne - his walk, his talk. He's like DeNiro or Pacino, in that, it's very difficult to separate the man from the role. Ford does an incredible job, as always, capturing the look and feel of the "old west", or, at least, what many people thought the "old west" looked and felt like.

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