Thursday, July 10, 2014

The John Ford Blogathon :: A Rescue Or A Reckoning? That is the Question in John Ford's The Searchers (1956)

"The camera frames and moves with a lone horseman. He is Ethan Edwards; a man as hard as the country he is crossing. Ethan is in his forties with a three-day stubble of beard. Dust is caked in the lines of his face and powders his clothing. His saddle is Mexican and across it he carries a folded serape in place of the Texas poncho. Strapped onto his saddle roll is a sabre and scabbard with a gray silk sash wrapped around it. Rider and horse have come a long way..."

Thus, we have the opening preamble of Frank Nugent's script for The Searchers, John Ford's seminal western -- make that, seminal film. This, of course, is not the end of Ethan Edward's journey but merely the beginning. And speaking honestly, I'm not sure what I can add to what's already been written about the history and making of this film, or its cultural and cinematic impact. What I can tell you is my first encounter with it was a disaster. I thought it sure looked pretty and its central premise was intriguing enough, but the middle dragged, the romantic subplot bogged it down even more, and the outright corn-pone buffonery of some of its characters kinda soured me on the whole enterprise. That, and the ending just didn't jive. I was also eight years old at the time, watching it on 19-inch black 'n' white Zenith. Now, some *gack* 40 years later, everything I used to hate about the film I now cherish. And with each viewing, I fall in love with it even more.

A story occurs, says screenwriter Nugent, when the status quo is upset. This disturbance is the story, he continues, and this story ends when another status quo is attained. And while that certainly can be ascribed to his script, it also could be describing John Ford's entire film career. I mean, take that opening scene, scratch out Ethan Edwards and embellish him with a floppy cloth hat, an eye-patch, and a slightly gnawed handkerchief instead of a sabre and that's John Ford we're talking about here. 

Though best known for his westerns, and they certainly helped establish his career back in the silent era, they only accounted for about a third of Ford's output. As the silents gave way to the talkies, the genre was all but dead or relegated to the serials or singing cowboys by the late 1930s. Couple that with his drinking and cantankerous relationship with the studio system found Ford adrift and nearly forgotten until one man came to his rescue and got him making westerns again not once, nor twice, but three times. 

For just bringing King Kong (1933) to the screen, Merian C. Cooper is both a bona fide genius and Hollywood legend. What people tend to forget, however, is that he also championed technical innovations like Technicolor, VistaVision and Cinerama. He was also instrumental in throwing a floundering Ford a lifeline at RKO, which netted him and his boss, David O. Selznick, The Lost Patrol (1934) and The Informer (1935), earning Ford his first Academy Award, among other hits. It was also around this time that Ford's son, Pat, showed his dad an Ernest Haycox story he'd read in Collier's called The Stage to Lordsburg, telling the old man it would make a great movie. Both Ford and Cooper agreed, and when they failed to get Selznick on board, they decided to produce it independently, securing financing from Walter Wanger. Here, it should be noted that one of the main sticking points for Selznick, and Wanger, too, to be honest, was neither of them felt John Wayne had the presence or heft to carry a film. 

After Stagecoach (1939) proved Selznick wrong, launched Wayne's meteoric rise, and re-established the western as a viable A-picture commodity, Ford and Cooper formed Argosy Pictures, which only managed one film, The Long Voyage Home (1940), before the enterprise went on hiatus while both men served in the military during World War II. After the war ended, it was Cooper who conspired with Ford, who walked away from a lucrative contract offer from 20th Century Fox, to head back to Monument Valley for the Cavalry Trilogy: Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950).

Geographically speaking, Monument Valley isn't all that big. Part of a Navajo Indian reservation, it straddles the border of Utah and Arizona. Harry Goulding, a sheep herder from Colorado, stumbled upon the valley in the early 1920s while rounding up a few strays, fell in love with the surroundings, and immediately moved there with his wife, Leone (affectionately known as Mike), where they finagled a land purchase and eked out a living trading with the natives. The first film shot there was George B. Seitz's The Vanishing American (1925), and when the Depression hit, coupled with a severe, decimating drought, Goulding felt the only hope for survival was to coax Hollywood back to make another picture there.

As the legend goes, Goulding nursed his ramshackle truck all the way to California and camped out in Ford's office until he got a meeting with his location manager and showed him several photos taken by a noted German photographer, who passed them along to Ford, who was immediately smitten and chose Goulding's scenic panoramas as a backdrop for Stagecoach. The director loved it there, and Ford found its rejuvenating environs perfect for his physical well being and cinematic needs despite the impracticality of its isolated location. It also put some distance between Ford and the studio men, whom he detested. Here, he was king, his loyal stock company his serfs, and the locals worshiped him because he treated the Navajos well and paid them union wages. 

Combine all that scenery with some rousing stories helped make the Cavalry Trilogy box office hits for Ford; as was The Quiet Man (1952), which he financed by making Rio Grande for Republic Studios, and his African safari adventure, Mogambo (1953). But the 1950s were kinda hit and miss for Ford. For every triumphant success there was a resounding dud. Then, things really fell apart during the filming of Mister Roberts (1955). It was a sour shoot from the beginning and eventually got so bad Ford punched his star and frequent collaborator, Henry Fonda, in the face for questioning his tactics and changes made to the story. Ford, who had been drinking a little on the set and a whole lot off, offered a tearful apology, but the pair, whose record includes Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and My Darling Clementine (1946), was damaged beyond repair and they never worked together again 

Combining this incident with a medical emergency, Ford found himself off the picture and replaced with Mervyn Leroy. Humiliated and desperately needing a rebound, Cooper once more stepped in to help his friend re-establish the status quo. (See what I did there?) Seems it was time for Ford to experience a spiritual cleansing in Monument Valley again and make another western; and just like with Stagecoach, this one would be based on another rip-snorting, serialized adventure culled from The Saturday Evening Post called The Avenging Texans -- later published as novel under the title, The Searchers

Loosely based on a true incident that occurred in 1836, where a young Texican girl named Cynthia Ann Parker was abducted by Comanches, who slaughtered most of her family, and the seemingly endless, decades-long pursuit by her uncle, James Parker, to find his niece and bring her home, Alan LeMay's novel was a tight, intense, no-nonsense read from beginning to end. It seemed a perfect fit for Ford's sensibilities as a filmmaker; and so, he and Nugent didn't change a whole lot. Well, they didn't and the did. For, while the basic thrust of the story remains the same, the perspective has shifted from young Martin Pauley and his journey to manhood to Ethan Edward's rancorous bloodlust. This was a John Wayne movie after all. And while Selznick was right to worry about Wayne's box-office draw in 1939, the Duke was now the star attraction -- not Ford, which I'm sure kinda rubbed his director and mentor a bit raw. 

And with this shift in perspective, I think there's another drastic paradigm shift, too, that a lot of people overlook or don't give enough credence to. See, to me, the film version of The Searchers is less to do with searching for Debbie and more to do with avenging Martha Edwards. In the novel, the attraction between Amos (changed to Ethan for the film) appears to be one-sided in that no one can figure out why he keeps coming back to his brother's homestead. The answer is an obsession that borders on stalking, in a biblical coveting sense. In the film, however, these feelings are definitely mutual between Ethan and Martha and it goes way beyond clandestine wistful looks at an old coat. 

It's no accident that Ford had composer Max Steiner use the Civil War ballad, Lorena, as Martha's theme; a woeful lament of separation, forbidden love, and the passing of time which refuses to heal two wounded hearts. ("We loved each other then, Lorena, Far more than we ever dared to tell; And what we might have been, Lorena, Had but our loving prospered well..." ) And so, this is less of a search and more of a reckoning, which is why I think this is the most powerful series of images from a film full of powerful images. 

"Injun'll chase a thing till he thinks he's chased it enough. Then he quits," says Ethan. "Same way when he runs. Seems like he never learns there's such a thing as a critter that'll just keep comin' on. So we'll find 'em in the end, I promise you. We'll find 'em, just as sure as the turnin' of the Earth." Notice how Ethan never refers to Debbie but 'them.' Debbie is nothing but a signpost, a means to an end, to lead Ethan to Scar and his brood. And once found, Ethan will wipe out everything, including his niece. Another interesting point from the novel, as the Comanches gather to wipe out his family, Aaron Edwards laments how he is only one man short from successfully defending his home, built like a fort to withstand just such an attack. Normally, Martin Pauley would've been there only they've been suckered out. I'm sure both Martin and Ethan are acutely aware of this fact as well, which adds a whole 'nother layer of survivor's guilt to these proceedings. 

One should also note another subtle clue Ford dangles briefly before us. When Debbie hides in the family plot, notice the tombstone she crouches beside: Mary Jane Edwards, Ethan and Aaron's mother, killed by Comanches on May 12, 1852. We also see half of another tombstone. Was this their father? Also killed by Comanches? Others have noted that perhaps Debbie is Ethan's illegitimate child. I don't think the math quite works for that and, I mean, holy crap, as if things weren't emotionally charged enough. 

Martin has all these clues but can't quite make the connection between Ethan and his aunt Martha. He cannot understand Ethan's seething pathological hatred for the Comanche. In the novel, he collects scalps and stomps them into the dirt; in the film he defiles graves, fires on the wounded, and even goes so far as to destroy their food source. Martin can't quite comprehend this, but he is terrified of it. And as the years drag on, and Debbie comes of age, Martin also knows he is the only thing standing between Ethan and his, well, 'compromised' half-sister when they do find her. 

This overt racism has drawn ire from some circles. And rightly so. Even Martin crosses the line with his accidental wife, Look, maliciously kicking her down the hill -- though I honestly think in this instance it has less to do with her race and more to do with her girth. Either way, this is a comical misfire on Ford's part. But is that pure hatred and disgust we see in Ethan's eyes as the camera dollies in while he surveys the irrevocably damaged captives, who've been tortured and brutalized, where liberation only equals ostracization and to be branded forever as damaged goods? 

Or is that fear? Tainted with the weight of remorse for what he's lost, his failure to protect it, and for what he feels he must do to make up for it. What he feels is the right thing to do. A mercy killing. One cannot condone this kind of blanket hatred, but when narrowed down to the perpetrators, one can almost understand it. 

This same wary and weary look is repeated later on, after they've finally found Debbie and old Mose reveals where Scar's encampment is located. Time is running out, and Ethan will have his vengeance but in doing so he will also have to wipe the last traces of his beloved Martha off the face of the turnin' Earth. 

Is it any wonder, then, that when the final battle is over, and Ethan is robbed of his revenge by Martin, who killed Scar while trying to secret Debbie out of his teepee, when he runs the girl down, seizes her, takes a hard look, and then hesitates.

Has it been long enough? Has Debbie aged enough? Is that Martha he sees now? In Nugents shooting script, Ethan comments that she sure favors her mother, which kind of gives credence to my whole theory. Ford, however, thought this was all too obvious and re-shot the whole climatic sequence in Bronson Canyon, utilizing one of the most familiar caves in screen history, where he echoes back to the beginning of the film and Ethan's scorched earth policy is aborted. 

In the novel, Amos/Ethan hesitates before he realizes he's grabbed the wrong girl and is killed. In the film, Ethan hesitates and everyone lives. 

Achievement unlocked, move to next level of status quo.

It's often argued that Ethan and Scar are two sides of the same coin. Again, I don't think this goes far enough and the whole movie is two sides of the same coin. If you find the center of The Searchers and essentially fold the film in half, it's kind of amazing how much one side mirrors the other:

I believe it was Orson Welles who said Howard Hawks was like reading great prose while Ford was pure poetry. And here, his verses even rhyme! 

I've always felt you could take John Ford out of silent films but you can't take the silent film out of John Ford. The director had little patience for exposition and liked to distill all the dialogue down to the barest of necessities. He was using a whole different cinematic language, where nuance, staging, and simple gestures told the story. This 'show don't tell' approach is deceptively simple but it isn't easy. For if it was, everyone would be doing it. Some tried, and still try, few succeed. 

Ford and his cinematographer, Winton Hoch, were definitely on top of their game in The Searchers; with Ford's usual minimal cinematic strokes resulting in something so organically complex in its simplicity. (The sequence of Martin's letter to Laurie to compress the story is nothing short of brilliant.) All of his personal quirks and eccentricities are present and accounted for, too, amped up to about an 11. (A strong sense of family or communal spirit, blunt comedy relief, and a rousing hootenanny.) The oft neglected art major in me loves how the horizon line is seldom even and hardly ever splits the screen in two. And how he enhances the vanishing point in his compositions. And I love the deliberate and minimal moves by the camera, which gives those dollies and zooms on Lucy and Ethan such impact. Hell, one could go on and on about each frame or set-up individually if you wanted to take the time. I mean, just look: 

And I, for one, really dug the reoccurring motif of the doorway to frame the shot, giving us a keyhole view of the west. 

And when a doorway wasn't present, Ford made do with whatever was available. 

And on top of all these visual triumphs, it really is quite amazing what we DON'T get to see in The Searchers. (Finding Lucy's body, Brad's death.) The implication is bad enough. Still, the film is not completely flawless. One cannot help but notice the Indian found in the grave is still breathing. And the physics of Ethan taking his horse inside Scar's teepee don't quite compute. And then there's the infamous shot of the cavalry crossing the frozen river and the car visibly puttering along in the background. 

It could have even been worse than that, folks. Again, Ford had little patience for a producer's dickering. And despite Cooper's best efforts to run interference, C.V. Whitney kept showing up on location and butting in, insisting Ford make the film more patriotic, or expand it into part one of a planned three part historical documentary about the conquest of the west. And most hilariously of all, Whitney wanted a musical number added for one of his *ahem* 'discoveries', eye-balling the role of the dancer in the Mexican cantina. Luckily, all of these mandated additions were summarily ignored. And though they didn't change a lot Ford and Nugent did stray from LeMay's novel on a couple of points. As already mentioned, Ethan is killed during the climax; Laurie finally gives up on Martin and winds up marrying Charlie McCorry; and Martin winds up with Debbie and they take over the old Edwards homestead together as the tale ends. 

In front of the camera, enhancing all of Ford's signature touches, Wayne has seldom been better as he smolders along. I don't think Ford had any intention of killing Ethan like in the novel, again, this was a John Wayne movie after all, but I find it interesting that some of Wayne's best performances are when he did die (Sands of Iwo Jima, The Cowboys) or probably should have (In Harm's Way, and Red River, which is nearly undone by that rock-stupid ending). Matching Wayne scene for scene is Jeffrey Hunter as the slowly maturing Martin, who, after years of abuse, finally stands up to Ethan and has earned enough respect that Ethan backs down and allows him to sneak into Scar's encampment. (Ford had wanted Fess Parker for the role but Walt Disney wouldn't loan him out.) Also special shout-outs to Ford regulars Ward Bond as the boisterous frontier prophet, and especially, to Hank Worden as the goofy-as-hell and rocking chair obsessed Mose, who nearly steals the whole movie. I'm even beginning to soften up on Ken Curtis' hick accent and Henry Brandon has slowly evolved from a liability to menacingly convincing as Scar. And then there's the women, the backbone of all of Ford's productions: Dorothy Jordan, Olive Carey, Vera Miles and the Wood sisters all shine.  

As I wrap this up, I must also point out that Ford and Monument Valley were tailor made for VistaVision; a new film process that allowed an incredible depth of focus that never quite caught on and got buried by CinemaScope. And as good as the BluRay transfer looks, one can only boggle as to what The Searchers must have looked like on the big screen when it first came out in 1956. Wow.

A lot of films sacrifice substance for style or vice versa. With The Searchers, the audience gets to have some cake and eat it, too. Somewhat stupefyingly, even though it did modestly well at the box-office, The Searchers caused nary a ripple at the Academy Awards, garnering not one single nomination. But the years since have been kind to the film and it has been recognized as one of the greatest examples of cinematic art. It's far from perfect, but these cracks enhance more than detract. But don't take my word for it -- or Speilberg's, or Scorcese's, or Welles', or Truffaut's, or Lean's, or Bergman's, or Kurosawa's -- the preponderance of evidence Ford presents on the screen pretty much speaks for itself. 

Sources: The Searchers: The Making of American Legend (Glenn Frankel). John Wayne: American (Randy Roberts, James Olson). Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford (Scott Eyman). 

This post is part of Krell Labs and Bemused and Nonplussed's John Ford Blogathon: a week long tribute to the legendary filmmaker. Thanks to our gracious hosts for providing this forum and for casting out such a wide net for participants. Now, if you'd be so kind, follow the linkage provided and check out all the other great entries, please and thank you!

The Searchers (1956) C.V. Whitney Pictures :: Warner Bros. / EP: Merian C. Cooper / AP: Patrick Ford / D: John Ford / W: Frank S. Nugent, Alan Le May / C: Winton C. Hoch / E: Jack Murray / S: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, Ken Curtis, Harry Carey Jr., Hank Worden, Henry Brandon


Caftan Woman said...

Wonderful look at "The Searchers".

Ford's "show, don't tell" draws me to his films like nothing else. I can't help but feel a part of the creation. I feel like whether he respected the audience to understand or didn't care if we got a damn thing, at least it doesn't pander.

On the emotional back story: I've never understood those who reckon Debbie is Ethan's daughter. If you want to go that way, it is more likely that Lucy was Ethan's, and Martha married Aaron because Ethan was wandering.

I never miss an opportunity to see "The Searchers" on the big screen (3 times and counting). It is breathtaking.

W.B. Kelso said...

I thank you. Ford definitely had the knack for that kind of full immersion.

As for Debbie's true parentage, another Ford trait was ambiguity. I think a lot of it stems from Ethan first mistaking Debbie for Lucy, meaning the last time he'd been around was when Lucy's was Debbie's age. Again, I don't the math quite works when you look at the age difference, but, well, that's me shrugging right now.

I've never seen THE SEARCHERS on the big screen but I did manage to catch FORT APACHE a couple months ago. Wow.

Again, thanks for commenting.

Samuel Wilson said...

Nice. We're on the same wavelength for the most part regarding film and book. I don't buy the daughter theory either but I entertain the idea that recognition of an incestuous longing for his niece may keep Ethan from entering the house at the end. The novel's great and I'd actually wouldn't mind seeing another director take a crack at it just to do Lemay's incredible blizzard scene justice.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for such a thorough exploration of The Searchers. It is lovely to look at and inspiring to read. Christy

W.B. Kelso said...

I believe it was your write-up on the novel that prodded me along to finally read LeMay's book, Samuel, which was great, and led me to THE UNFORGIVEN, which I thought was even better. (The book, not the film, though I kinda dig that weird little bugaboo of a movie.) And for that I will always be eternally grateful. Thanks!

W.B. Kelso said...

Thanks for reading, one and all. Glad you enjoyed it.

Silver Screenings said...

Wow - this was a tremendous look at Ford and "The Searchers". I feel like I've just completed a semester at film school!

I agree with you re: the powerful images, but I did not realize about the first half of the film mirroring the second half. (I liked your analogy of "folding the film in half".) I now feel I have a lot more background the next time I see this film. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful look at one of my faves, that I actually have it on dvd. I need to rewatch it. Didn't know about the car photobombing the calvary scene by the frozen river.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post and screen-caps, and I second your comment about the success of VistaVision, it makes the landscapes look so rich. What's always drawn me to this film is the ambiguity, I like not knowing the full story about Debbie and I've always preferred not to think about it too much (or maybe I'm just lazy!)

W.B. Kelso said...

Nah. You're not lazy at all. One of the reasons Ford junked his original filmed ending was he wanted to keep things more nebulous and let the audience dictate their own conclusions.

Thanks again for all the comments, folks. This Ford retrospective has been just great.

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