A blog about movies and filmmaking.

Westerns, the American Mythology

In classics, western on January 13, 2010 at 7:21 pm

A friend of mine, Elisabeth Rappe, has a column on The Flickcast called “Western Wednesdays“, and she has managed to come up with a number of movies that I hadn’t actually seen before. Mostly in that she’s focussed on the classics that star a certain icon that I’ve just never been into. And that is John Wayne. When it comes to westerns there are two names that will suck me right in; Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone. Yeah, I’m a Spaghetti Western fan, and an acolyte of the movies that build off that tradition – like most of Eastwood’s westerns, that draw more from that genre than from the Monument Valley pictures of early cinema. I consider one of each of their movies to my favorites of all time (UNFORGIVEN and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, as I might have mentioned before). But, I’ll admit that I haven’t ever really given Wayne a fair shake. And with both the Wayne picture I’m about to talk about and the other one below it, it’s easy to see where both Leone and Eastwood easily could have drawn their inspiration from. Both movies are dark, and not clearly cut into shades of black and white.

In Elisabeth’s latest article, she wrote about a movie that’s considered a classic, not only by Western aficionados but by the general movie-loving populous as well. It’s been in my Netflix queue for a while, and has recently become available to watch instantly via their video streaming service. So, seeing that, I had to push everything else aside for a while and sit down to watch this iconic movie, that has been often-cited as one of the best ever made, and has been replicated, homaged and copied for over fifty years.

THE SEARCHERS starts off how a number of frontier movies do, with a woman opening a door to the mountainous, vacant landscape beyond; and to a man who is returning home. In this case, it’s Ethan Edwards (Wayne, in a role he so loved he named a son after; and claimed it was his favorite and best role), who has come home three years past the Civil War; which he fought on the Confederate side. The home he returns to is that of his brother’s, his brother’s wife and their kids. He hands out trophies and trinkets that tell us what he’s done and where he’s been; instead of us being regaled with stories of his adventures. Ethan isn’t a man that likes to talk about his past, or anything that isn’t mean spirited and makes him laugh.

Not long after arriving a group of Texas Rangers pop in to deputize Ethan’s brother, Aaron (Walter Coy) and an adoptive boy Martin Pawley, played by Jeffrey Hunter. In place of his brother going, Ethan offers to go help the Rangers chase down the Indians that have rustled some cattle from a near-by rancher. When they finally catch up to where the indians are, they see that they’ve been duped and find that cattle dead; and the real ploy was the natives were on a killing party – to which, we see them attack Ethan’s brother’s house.

What follows after that is a chase movie, an epic adventure introducing us to a number of strange, or shady characters; and an insight into the mind of a man who has only really known battle and has a deep hatred for the Comanches that he and Marty chase for five years. There’s an interesting segment of the movie, near the middle, that is actually played out as a character reads a letter detailing what Ethan and Martin are doing. The movie has a number of tone changes like this. There are comedic moments like whenever the character of Charlie McCorry (Ken Curtis) gets on-screen, or when Marty mistakenly marries an indian squaw in exchange for a hat. There are deadly serious moments, like when Ethan understands that Chief Scar (Henry Brandon) intends to finish what he started out the movie trying to do. And there’s layers of subtext to be picked up, either from watching the movie, or from reading other in-depth analyses (or the Trivia page on IMDB), such as whether Ethan has had an affair with his brother’s wife; whether the girl taken from the house is actually his daughter; and how Ethan has come to so hate the Comanches.

But, what’s most interesting about the movie is how through all this, you come away not invigorated, or even left with any kind of feeling, really. In a lot of ways THE SEARCHERS reminded me of the ending to THE HURT LOCKER; which doesn’t say anything other than this particular man has only one thing in his life, and that’s the way of violence and unhappiness. At the end of the movie, there is what could be called a happy ending – but it’s for everyone else who marches off-screen and leaves Ethan standing alone, only to turn around and walk away. It’s a hard movie to watch. As Elisabeth says “(it) is a fascinating film, though I’m not sure it’s a particularly enjoyable one”. It falls in the vein of movies like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, a movie that is harsh in the reality that it presents, even in the lighter moments. It’s funny to see Marty kick his “squaw” wife, or the way that he and Charlie fight over Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles), and even when Charlie laughs when Laurie reads the letter saying that Marty has gotten married. But, each of those moments in separate movies would be cruel, tension-filled and heart-breaking.

I can’t say that THE SEARCHERS changed my mind about John Wayne much. But I do understand the praise that it’s gotten and it’s definitely up there with the westerns that I have loved for a long time. Just in my book, it doesn’t quite over-take them.

The other movie from the “Western Wednesdays” column, that I’ve managed to watch, and actually enjoyed quite a bit, was THE OX-BOW INCIDENT. Now this is the kind of Western that I love. One of ambiguity and darkness. One that’s not as mixed in it’s tone as THE SEARCHERS is. Directed by William Wellman, who also directed the classics YELLOW SKY and his own share of Wayne movies – mostly more contemporary stories like THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY and BLOOD ALLEY – THE OX-BOW INCIDENT is the story of mob mentality, of acting beyond reason; and most of all a study in a passive-protagonist.

Henry Fonda is the man riding into town at the beginning of this movie. He enters the saloon with his partner, Art Croft (played by Harry Morgan, also known as the Colonel Potter from the TV show MASH), only to soon have another group of men come in claiming cattle rustling and murder. A posse is gathered, the shopkeeper begs the men to wait for the sheriff; but a local Army officer takes control and heads out – looking to show his son how to be a man. Fonda’s character, named Carter, reluctantly joins up and they set out.

Eventually they come upon three men, who have some cattle from the farm that’d been robbed; and the men don’t have a proper bill of sale, nor a story that seems to hold up. The posse yearns to string up the three men (played by Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn, and Francis Ford – brother to the Director, John Ford, who if I didn’t mention it; directed THE SEARCHERS), but they manage to keep from doing so for a number of reasons. To wait for the sheriff to show up and make it proper, so the three men can eat and/or write to their families. The movie actually manages to keep you intrigued and not knowing where it’s going to go.

Part of that is waiting to see what the star of the movie is going to do. But, other than sticking up for himself, his friend, or to shut some big mouth up; there’s not much he does at all. In fact there’s portions of the movie where we see the characters of the town drunk and a loud woman who is along for the ride and thrill of watching some men hang (quite the peculiar role, if I do say so. Not one you saw too often in that day).

It’s a great movie, and it’s really short. By the end, you’ll question everything you think you know about how dark and deep classic movies can be; and also just what the draw is to seeing violence, and at what expense we look to punish wrong-doers. Hell, typing that, it’s pretty easy to see how it correlates to a lot of today’s predicaments.

THE OX-BOW INCIDENT is also available for watching via Netflix’s Watch Instantly. Definitely check it out.

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