REVIEW: The Searchers (1956) – John Ford, John Wayne

The Searchers DVD cover, property Warner Bros.

The Searchers is important. It’s considered the best of legendary director John Ford’s Westerns, and often touted as the best and nuanced performance of John Wayne’s long and iconic career. The American Film Institute named it the best Western of all time, and placed it at number 12 on its list of the 100 greatest American films of all time.

It’s also a deeply polarising film, often accused of gross racism against Native Americans and apologism for genocide. Defenders claim it actually deconstructs the racism and the assumptions of the Western as it existed at the time… as it does, but not particularly convincingly. Mostly, defenders are simply in love with the sheer beauty of the film, which has profoundly influenced filmmakers like Spielberg, Scorcese and Tarantino.

Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a hard-souled Confederate cavalryman returning to his family three years after the war. Ethan is unreconstructed and bitter about the Confederate defeat, and the three lost years are left as an ominous open question, implying that he may have joined with those bushwhackers who refused to accept the end of the war, or as later events suggest, been involved in even grubbier campaigns against the native tribes.

The early scenes deliver a rush of exposition. Ethan is staying with his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) and his family. He dotes on his neices Debbie and Lucy, but treats his brother’s adopted son Martin Pawley (who Ethan rescued as an orphan) with dismissive contempt because of his Cherokee blood.

When the local reverend turns up to raise a posse and pursue Comanche raiders, Ethan and Martin go, leaving brother Aaron and the women at the homestead. However, a day’s ride away, they realise the cattle-killing raids have been a diversion to allow the Comanche to raid homesteads, and that they are too far away to do anything about it. The next day they arrive to find the homestead burnt, Aaron and his wife killed, and the two daughters kidnapped.

Ethan and Martin spend the next five years tracking the Comanche, first for both Debbie and Lucy, then just for Debbie after Ethan finds Lucy murdered. As the journey continues, however, and it becomes clearer that Debbie is living as a Comanche, the nature of their search becomes more confused, and Martin begins to suspect that Ethan’s genocidal loathing for the Comanche and horror of miscegenation mean he intends to kill Debbie rather than rescue her.

The Searchers has some basis in historical fact, in that it was inspired by the 1836 kidnapping of Cynthia Ann Parker during the Fort Parker massacre. Parker was recovered after 25 years, but had come to think of herself as Comanche, and spent the rest of her miserable life being kept prisoner by family members while she tried to escape and return to her tribe. However, for all its relative nuance for the period, The Searchers’ lingering over the rapes and massacres of the Comanche does little to portray them as a people or culture more complex than their antagonism with the settlers.

The Searchers is certainly a beautiful film, and a landmark in Westerns and American film history. Shot in Monument Valley, the spectacular area of Arizona and Utah that Ford so favoured, many of the shots could easily pass as oil paintings, with the characters vanishing into the gorgeous scenery. Ethan is an unusually nuanced character for Wayne – the character’s past informs his present, and he has a genuine arc. He is even used as a potentially unreliable narrator, as several key plot elements – the atrocities carried out on both Lucy and her mother – take place only in his eyes, in offscreen space, making us wonder just exactly what he saw, and whether his characterisation of the events can really be trusted.

However, it is at best a flawed masterpiece.  Much of the scoring is excessively dramatic and some of the musical cues are on-the-nose, and there are other artefacts of the time, such as characters being visible standing stock-still on their marks for a moment in transitions before the action starts. The pacing is messy, rushing through the opening scenes too quickly, giving an inadequate feeling of the time that passes in the five year search, then wasting long minutes on a very unnecessary vaudevillian comedic detour when the searchers interrupt a wedding. There’s also the egregious sin of Ken Curtis’ Charlie McCorry, an awful, one-note character that sucks away suspension of disbelief in every scene in which he shows his face. It would be entirely too generous to say the film is entirely innocent of the racism and racial caricatures endemic to the times.

Nitpicking is unfair – Ford directed his first film in 1917, so to be making major advances in his craft forty years later is an incredible feat – and to some extent, The Searchers needs to be judged by what came before as much as what came after. Its iconic final scene, shooting out to the Monument Valley landscape through a homestead door, echoes throughout the decades of cinema history since its release. To say it is the greatest Western of all time, however, is drawing a very long bow indeed.


REVIEW: A Fistful of Dollars (1964) – Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood

Image property United Artists

A Fistful of Dollars is the original Spaghetti Western, and the film that began the break from the John Ford/John Wayne era to the overlapping Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood era when it was released to American audiences in 1967.

The term ‘Spaghetti Western’ referred originally to a film movement that emerged in the 1960s, where Italian directors and producers created some of the great Westerns of all time. The films were shot on shoestring budgets,  in either central or southern Italy, Sardinia or southern Spain, in areas that looked similar to the American South West.

Since then, the term has come to refer more to an ouevre, seen in recent films like The Good, the Bad and the Weird, Sukiyaki Western Django, and Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi trilogy. The Spaghetti Western has less emphasis on horseback time and rarely involve clashes with Indian tribes as was common in earlier Westerns, and much more emphasis on stylised and unlikely gunfights.

I first saw A Fistful of Dollars on television late at night in about 1998 when I was 15, and I thought it was perfect. The brooding atmosphere and pacing, the aloof protagonist in his brown hat and poncho, and the nerve-shattering tension of its final scenes were everything I wanted in a movie, and so far from the cheezy Westerns in the style of John Ford that my father liked. It created and drove my interest in Westerns which continues to this day.

Fistful‘s (Per Un Pugno Di Dollari in its original Italian release) plot is elegant in its simplicity. A nameless gunfighter (called Joe, Americano or gringo in the film, or The Man With No Name otherwise) rides into a town on the Mexican border, which is being terrorised by the feuding of two rival gangs – the Baxters and the Rojos. Setting up camp at the hotel between the two gang lairs, which face off against each other down the wide and dusty main street, the gunfighter acts as a mercenary for both sides, after proving his usefulness by gunning down four of the Baxters’ fighters.

His downfall, however, comes when he intervenes to rescue the captive mistress of Ramón, the most deadly and cunning of the three Rojos brothers. He goes to the small house where she is being kept apart from her husband and child, shoots the five guards, and gives the small family the two gangs’ money to escape with.

As a result, he is captured, beaten and tortured, and the Rojos kill every one of the Baxters in a surprise attack. The Man With No Name escapes with the help of a few of the townsfolk to recover and return for a final showdown with the Rojos.

The final showdown is a work of art in itself. The sequence revolves around Ramón Rojos’ well established favourite weapon, a lever-action rifle which gives him an insurmountable range advantage over Joe’s single-action Colt .45. The Man With No Name faces off against the Rojos brothers and two henchmen down the wide main street, to an immortal theme of at once soaring and mournful brass, above menacing strings.

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Joe advances on Ramón and taunts him, telling him to “aim for the heart”. Ramón fires all seven of his shots into Joe’s chest one at a time, yet Joe continues to advance. Finally, Joe flips his poncho out of the way, to reveal the iron plate which has been protecting him. Discarding it, Joe shoots the rifle out of Ramón’s hands, and guns down the four men behind him as well, leaving Ramón at his mercy.

This is the film where Clint Eastwood created the persona which arguably carried him through his entire career – the laconic, wind-etched, hollow-cheeked pistolero, The Man With No Name.  Attired identically in all three of the original Dollars trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, 1965’s A Few Dollars More and 1966’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), he is the archetypal Western protagonist. His past is unstated, as are his motives (as he makes fortunes throughout all three movies yet spends nothing). Before A Fistful of Dollars, Eastwood was already an established cowboy on the TV series Rawhide, but he played a standard, smiling white-hat, whereas forever after he was associated with the stoic, brown-hatted Joe, which made his career.

Indeed, much of Fistful is instantly iconic, from the opening credits, to the incredible score by Ennio Morricone, and of course the tense final showdown. The super-closeups on characters’ faces used throughout the film have become so identified with Sergio Leone’s style, the shot type is often referred to as The Leone. Among many tributes to Fistful in film, Steven Spielberg’s Back to the Future III largely recreates the final showdown, while Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill borrowed heavily from its soundtrack.

A Fistful of Dollars is not a perfect movie. It is dubbed in the Italian style, which is slightly jarring to modern audiences, and in the absence of squibs and blood packs, characters simply hurl themselves over unconvincingly when shot. It’s not even genuinely original, being an unauthorised remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 samurai film Yojimbo. However, the feeling of impoverishment and the rough edges are part and parcel of the film’s greatness, and it wouldn’t be the same any other way. It is impossible to argue against Fistful‘s brilliance, or to argue that it created nothing original. It changed the entire genre, and its blood runs through every successful Western made today.

The term ‘Spaghetti Western’ referred originally to a film movement that emerged in the 1960s, where Italian directors and producers created some of the great Westerns of all time. The films were shot on shoestring budgets,  in either central or southern Italy, Sardinia or southern Spain, in areas that looked similar to the American South West.Since then, the term has come to refer more to an ouevre, seen in recent films like The Good, the Bad and the Weird, Sukiyaki Western Django, and Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi trilogy. The Spaghetti Western has less emphasis on horseback time and rarely involve clashes with Indian tribes as was common in earlier Westerns, and much more emphasis on stylised and unlikely gunfights. The films of Sergio Leone led the way with their slow, menacing pace and instantly identifiable scoring. 

The Celluloid Saloon

Welcome to The Celluloid Saloon, the hard-drinkin’est, hard-fightin’est place on the digital frontier!

The Celluloid Saloon, as you may have guessed, is a blog about Westerns. Updating twice a week, it will offer news, reviews, previews, and the occasional interview. It will focus on Western films from 1960 to today, but won’t shy from the occasional foray backwards in time or out of the cinema, or even to pursue the soul of the Western out of its own genre if need be.

The Western has been a Hollywood staple throughout film history, dating back as far as 1903’s The Great Train Robbery, with its Golden Age taking place between the 1930s and 1950s.

The frontier mythology of individualism, nobility and violent justice has become an inextricable part of the American character, and the cultural lexicon of the entire world. The Western gave the US one of its most revered Presidents in the form of Ronald Reagan, its distinct indigenous political ideology of libertarianism, its sense of itself as the world’s policeman (or sheriff).

There’s no doubt that the basic appeal of the Western is through male fantasy fulfilment. In a society where we are more and more regulated and quiescent, where a man’s home is his castle so long as he doesn’t want to do anything crazy like build a shed near the fence line, and justice is a court appointment eight months away, the Western offers a world of utter moral simplicity, where a horse, a revolver and a good pair of boots are the only necessities of life.

The archetypal Western hero is the ultimate individualist, riding from plain to plain without personal bonds, answering to no master; where he is drawn into the affairs of others it is through his own nobility, in defending the innocent, or through his stoic sex appeal, which of course draws any women who cross his path directly to him. Yet, by the end of the movie he is always able to ride onwards, disappearing into the sunset.

In each man’s moral universe, antagonists may be passive-aggressive co-workers, overbearing bosses, or the interminable burden of debt and wage slavery; the Western offers a world where the bad guys are all the way bad and violence is always the solution. While real-life violence hurts a complex individual and has far-reaching consequences, the fantasy violence of the Western is against a leering Black Hat, a cypher whose death is an absolute good.

The Western is far more complicated than that, of course. Starting in the mid ‘50s, the background of the Old West has been used to criticise the eye-for-an-eye philosophy so fundamental to the Western, and to explore the genocidal conquest of America from its indigenous tribes. Western motifs have been used to explored the furtive and tortured nature of homosexual love in a conservative society, and the accretion of conventions and concessions that forms a society where none previously existed.

Far fewer Westerns are produced today, but if anything they have become more critically respected. 2010’s True Grit, 2007’s There Will Be Blood and 2005’s Brokeback Mountain all received Best Picture nominations at the Academy Awards, and 2007’s No Country for Old Men, 1992’s Unforgiven and 1990’s Dances With Wolves actually received the statue. Clint Eastwood, the most iconic cowboy after the Duke himself, is one of the world’s most revered filmmakers.

There’s so much more for Westerns to tell us, and so much more to be said about them. So, let’s get started on the discussion.