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John Ford Feature #9 – The Searchers (1956)

SearchersPoster-BillGoldThe Searchers (1956)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Frank S. Nugent (based on The Searchers by Alan Le May)
Starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, Harry Carey Jr.

John Ford is considered one of the great trailblazers in the early days of film, one who paved the way for early sound films to go on to become what they have today.  His influence is so indescribably far-reaching that his work still fascinates audiences, critics, and filmmakers and is continually studied by young and old alike.  The Searchers is perhaps considered to be his greatest film, and in a career full of truly remarkable films, that’s saying a great deal.  Though his 1956 classic earned no Oscar nominations that year, it is widely considered to be one of the greatest American pictures ever made, and has earned just about every retrospective accolade that historians can throw at it.  The Searchers is truly epic in its scope, taking place over a number of years and featuring terrific set pieces, breathtaking cinematography, and one of the most engaging performances ever given by a man who was once considered to be a bad actor.  Ford’s masterpiece would prove to be one of his final “traditional” westerns, and is considered to be the pinnacle of the director’s collaborations with actor John Wayne.  It wouldn’t be a great film without its fair share of controversies, and this film features them in spades.  The Searchers is most notable for its interpretation and examination of the racist attitudes towards Native Americans by early Americans.  Ford’s film depicts Native people as being ruthless and bloodthirsty, not because of any prejudice held against them by the filmmakers, but in order to justify the brutal actions of its main characters in the final act of the film.  Despite some of these dated and controversial themes and features, the film has more than endured the test of time and is even more poignant for its brutal examination of tough ideas and themes.  It has influenced and paid homage by great film directors like David Lean, Sam Peckinpah, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Martin Scorsese.  The Searchers stars the great John Wayne as Ethan Edwards, who is considered to be one of the most compelling characters in a film of its time.  Also featured are Natalie Wood as Debbie Edwards, Jeffrey Hunter as Martin Pawley, Vera Miles as Laurie Jorgenson, and regular John Ford Stock Company regulars Ward Bond as Rev. Capt. Samuel Clayton and Harry Carey Jr. as Brad Jorgenson.  

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Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) and Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in 1956’s The Searchers.

The Searchers begins with Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returning home to his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) and his family after an eight year wartime absence. It’s clear that Uncle Ethan has been missed, as his influence is immediately felt in the Edwards household as well as in the community. Edwards is soon visited by the Rev. Capt. Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond) and his band of Texas Rangers. Clayton and the Rangers report a herd of stolen cattle, and suspect Comanches in the area as the thieves.  Ethan and his adopted nephew Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) ride off with the Rangers to find the cattle, but instead find an obvious ploy to lure the men away from their homes.  They immediately turn around and head for the Edwards home, but it’s too late, as the home has been burnt to the ground, and Aaron, his wife, and their son have been brutally murdered by the Comanches.  No sign Ethan’s nieces Debbie (Lana Wood) and Lucy (Pippa Scott) can be found in the destroyed home, so the men ride off in search of the two young girls.  After an intense firefight with the Comanches, the Rangers are left with too few men to effectively fight the enemy combatants, and head home. Without the Rangers at their disposal, Ethan, his nephew Martin, and Lucy’s boyfriend Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey Jr.) are left to carry out the search.  After Ethan finds his niece Lucy brutally raped and murdered in a canyon clearing, an enraged Brad charges into the Comanche camp and is quickly killed.  After the two survivors lose the trail during the tough winter season they take refuge with the Jorgensen family, and Martin falls for their young daughter Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles).  Ethan and Martin are eventually tipped off as to Debbie’s whereabouts, and set off once again to find the last remaining Edwards child. Will Ethan and Martin be successful in their hunt for their young family member, or have they been chasing a ghost all along?  Find out for yourself in John Ford’s masterpiece The Searchers.

There are few better feelings in the life than knowing that you’ve just finished watching one of the greatest films ever made, especially when it manages to live up to the tremendous amount of hype and acclaim it has built up over nearly sixty years.  John Ford’s The Searchers is a masterpiece in every sense of the word, and has very easily become one of my all-time favorite films.  It’s presence alone has made December’s John Ford marathon more than worth the time and effort put into it.  There are so many highlights throughout the film that it’s difficult to single out my favorite elements.  The first thing I’ll address is the performance of Ethan Edwards by John Wayne, who is an incredibly complex and multifaceted character.  Edwards is very difficult to root for in The Searchers, between his need for brutal revenge, his apparent hatred of the Native American people, and his old world “take no prisoners” attitude towards all things in life.  Yet even without a protagonist to truly get behind and support, The Searchers makes you feel the immense pain felt deep inside of Ethan.  Wayne’s performance is unblinking and stiff in the best way possible, and is easily the greatest performance I’ve seen the old cowboy give to date.  The cast of supporting characters don’t stick around too long with the exception of Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) and the Jorgensen family, but every single performance is impressive in how they handle the gravity and seriousness of the situation at hand.  Hunter’s Pawley is the protagonist we yearn for in Ethan’s worst moments, and it is quite the experience to see the young man grow in front of our very eyes. John Ford’s direction of the films terrific action set pieces is remarkable, never opting to pull his camera away from the most important points of interest.  He handles the racism and moral ambiguity found throughout the film with a deft hand, keeping his camera motionless and letting the audience be the judge of Ethan Edwards’ actions.  The scene where Ethan Edwards and company discovers the burning remains of the Edwards home is one of the most heartbreaking moments ever captured on film, and clearly had a tremendous influence on a similarly moving scene in the Star Wars franchise.  Complementing the veteran director’s skillful camerawork is the photography by the Academy Award winning Winton Hoch.  Hoch once again shot the film in beautiful Technicolor, this time filming it entirely in VistaVision, one of the many film formats that would eventually lead to the modern day IMAX experience.  It’s a wonder how Hoch wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award for The Searchers, but the Academy’s ignoring of the film as a whole is even more shocking.

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Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) and Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in 1956’s The Searchers.

Ford’s The Searchers holds up in a way many classic films simply can’t, from its unflinching analysis of historical racism that nearly led to a genocide in the United States, to its epic scope and beautiful photography.  Everything about the film still feels relevant and pressing, even sixty years after its release.  The Searchers features an incredible cast propped up by one of the most impressive performances of all time in John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, remarkable cinematography by the godfather of Technicolor, and impeccable direction by the great John Ford.  This is truly one of the greatest films ever made, and no amount of praise I can give it will ever be able to do it justice.  The Searchers earns my highest recommendation, and I implore that everybody reading gives it a chance.  You might just discover your new favorite film.

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John Ford Feature #7 – Rio Grande (1950)

Rio GranRio_Grande_posterde (1950)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: James Kevin McGuinness (based on Mission With No Record by James Warner Bellah)
Starring: John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Claude Jarman Jr.

Finally, the final film in John Ford’s epic cavalry trilogy is upon us. After returning to the western genre after a brief wartime hiatus, Ford would deliver a great many more terrific western films, all of which brought something new to the table.  Rio Grande is the final film in his trilogy, but far from the last good western that Ford would direct.  The film comes after both Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and features the only bit of continuity found in the entire thematic trilogy: John Wayne returns as Captain Kirby York, the progressive and forward-thinking main character in Fort Apache. The film was based on a short story found in the Saturday Evening Post entitled Mission With No Record, and written by James Warner Bellah.  Bellah’s short stories inspired the entirety of the cavalry trilogy, and he would even go on to co-write Ford’s terrific revisionist western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  Rio Grande would be released the same year as Ford’s now celebrated Wagon Master, and would be his final western until the release of the highly acclaimed The Searchers in 1956.  The final film in the cavalry trilogy stars the aforementioned John Wayne as the grizzled Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke (spelled differently in this film), and Maureen O’Hara as Kathleen Yorke, the estranged wife of the veteran.  O’Hara was often called “the finest actress in Hollywood” by Ford, but after a number of films together the working relationship between the two fell apart, and Ford came to resent O’Hara for reasons pretty much unknown. On top of the pairing of Wayne and O’Hara, the film stars Ford company regulars like Ben Johnson as Trooper Tyree, Harry Carey, Jr. as Trooper Daniel Boone, and Victor McLaglen as Sgt. Maj. Quincannon.  Rio Grande was a tremendous success financially, but as with many of Ford’s mid-career westerns, would be largely ignored by the awards circuit of the time.

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Rio Grande sees Kirby Yorke (John Wayne) now on the Texas frontier, and promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.  Yorke and his cavalry have been posted in Texas to defend against the threat of Apaches, but has recently seen Apaches taking sanctuary in Mexico, away from the threat of the U.S. cavalry. Yorke’s diminishing forces are threatened further by the lack of troops sent by his superiors.  Kirby’s son, Trooper Jeff Yorke (Claude Jarman Jr.), whom he hasn’t seen for years, has recently been added to the troop.  The addition of his son puts further stress on Yorke, as does the arrival of his estranged wife Kathleen (Maureen O’Hara), who has come to pull her underage son out of the cavalry.  The Lt. Col. Yorke, not wanting to seem to favour his son, ends up treating the young man more harshly than the other troopers.  Jeff is taken in by two older cavalry members, Troopers Travis Tyree (Ben Johnson) and Daniel Boone (Harry Carey Jr.), who help him acclimate to the harsh conditions of the forces.  As both of young Jeff’s parents want something different for his future, they slowly begin to settle their differences and rekindle the love they once held for each other.  After a visit by the general of his department, Yorke and his motley crew are ordered to pursue the Apaches into Mexico and stop them from fleeing.  By crossing the United States border and chasing after the Apaches, Col. Yorke risks the careers and lives of himself and his young troopers.  The proud Kirby Yorke of course chooses to accept his new mission, despite the enormous odds working against his cavalry.  Will Yorke be successful by risking it all in order to save his marriage, get closer to his son, and protect his fellow countrymen?  Find out in John Ford’s installment in the cavalry trilogy, Rio Grande.

Trilogies are a funny thing, with even the best of them having a weak or flawed chapter or installment.  Unfortunately, Ford’s cavalry trilogy is no different, and Rio Grande ends up being closer in comparison to Return of the Jedi than Fort Apache’s Empire Strikes Back.  That’s not to say it’s a bad film by any means, just a disappointment after the tremendous highs of the previous two films.  Where Fort Apache felt progressive and modern and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon featured stunning cinematography and an amazing performance by John Wayne, Rio Grande features very few standout elements.  John Wayne’s performance is solid as usual by this point in his career, but absolutely nothing to write home about.  Everything I came to love about Kirby York(e) in Fort Apache seemed to disappear almost entirely in this film.  York(e) feels like a completely separate, and far more bitter and cynical man than he did just two years prior.  Luckily, we have a very good performance by Maureen O’Hara to give us what Wayne’s York(e) fails to do.  There’s clearly a reason Ford was so fond of O’Hara for so many years; her screen presence and natural charm are undeniable.  The chemistry between O’Hara and Wayne is obvious, and it’s no wonder the two were featured in so many films together after this effort.  Unlike the previous year’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande is once again shot in black and white, which I found to be an odd touch.  The cinematography features Ford’s trademark use of shadows against the bleakness of the western plains, but lacks the flourishes that Yellow Ribbon featured prominently (and picked up an Oscar for, too).  The soundtrack isn’t nearly as memorable as those found in previous films either, and I sorely missed whistling sixty year old tunes in the days following my viewing of the film.  On the very good side, the set-piece at the film’s climax is remarkable and intense, and I longed for more of the siege-style warfare featured here.  When it suddenly ended on a high note, I couldn’t help but be disappointed that it hadn’t gone further.  All of these jumbled thoughts sums up exactly how I feel about Rio Grande: It’s a frustrating and largely mediocre experience in a package that has so much potential for greatness.

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Rio Grande isn’t a bad film by any means, it’s just not particularly memorable when compared directly to its predecessors.  It features good performances by John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, as well as a tremendous action set piece to close out the film, but lacks the punch of the previous two films.  The story is unique when compared to the others in the cavalry trilogy, but it just doesn’t go far enough with the story for the audience to care much.  John Ford’s mostly great cavalry trilogy doesn’t end with a whimper, but more of a tremendous sigh.  If you’re interested, view Rio Grande at your own discretion.

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John Ford Feature #6 – She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

SheworeayellowribbonpostShe Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Frank Nugent, Laurence Stallings (based on The Big Hunt & War Party by James Warner Bellah)
Starring: John Wayne, Joanne Dru, John Agar, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Victor McLaglen

The second part of John Ford’s cavalry trilogy is a beautiful and sweeping technicolor dream, marking it one of the director’s very first full-color films.  The middle chapter in this spiritual series takes place immediately after the death of Commander George Armstrong Custer, who in real life died during the Battle of Little Bighorn, commonly known as “Custer’s Last Stand”.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon had the honor of being one of the most expensive western films ever produced up to 1949, and went on to be a smash hit for both John Ford and RKO Pictures.  The name of the film is listed from the classic and triumphant cavalry marching song of the same name, which makes an appearance or two in the movie.  The film was shot in beautiful color by cinematographer Winton Hoch, one of the originators of the technicolor format.  He won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography for his photography on She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, a prize he had won the previous year for Joan of Arc, and would win again in 1952 for John Ford’s The Quiet Man.  John Ford would take on Hoch as a cinematographer for four other pictures, many of which are acclaimed for their cinematography.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon once again stars John Wayne, this time as Captain Nathan Brittles, as well as Joanne Dru as Olivia Dandridge, John Agar as Lieutenant Flint Cohill, and Ben Johnson as Sergeant Tyree.  The film also stars Ford regulars Harry Carey Jr., and Victor McLaglen.  Apparently, the casting of John Wayne in the lead role was up in the air initially.  The character of Brittles was two decades older than Wayne was at the time, and Ford wasn’t certain of his long-time partner’s acting abilities.  After seeing Wayne in Howard Hawks’ classic Red River, Ford realized that John Wayne could act, and promptly changed his mind and finally decided on his lead star.

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As mentioned previously, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon begins immediately after the fall of Commander Custer and his cavalry troops in the Battle of Little Bighorn.  Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne) is a man on the verge of retirement, but has been given one last major mission to carry out.  The mission is to lead his troops from their post in Fort Starke to ease tensions with Cheyenne and Arapaho forces following Custer’s Land Stand.  Things are further complicated when Brittles has to escort the Major’s wife and niece, Abbey Allshard (Mildred Natwick), and Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru) along with them.  The women are accompanying the cavalry to a nearby post in order to avoid the incoming Indian War.  Two of Brittles’ soldiers, Lt. Flint Cohill (John Agar) and Lt. Ross Pennell (Harry Carey Jr.), become romantically interested in miss Dandridge along the way, further complicating matters.  After the apparent failure of both such missions, Brittles decides to retire and head back for his Fort.  After some deep thinking by the Captain as well as unnecessary bloodshed, Brittles rejoins his men and arranges for a face-to-face meeting with the important Chief Pony-That-Walks (Chief John Big Tree).  When things once again don’t go so well with the Chief, the cavalry must regroup and devise a plan to lead the Native American forces back to their reservations and ultimately avoid another senseless war.  Will Captain Brittles finally overcome the odds and make peace with the Native people, or will he be forced to see more violence and bloodshed before his retirement?  Find out in the second chapter in John Ford’s cavalry trilogy, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is quite possibly the most beautiful film in the marathon so far.  I might be biased though, because I’ve always had a soft spot for technicolor.  I love how the format looks both a little too bright and a little washed out at the same time, it never fails to create incredible imagery that I’ll remember for a long time to come.  Not only is the photography by Winton Hoch spectacular, but the lead performance by John Wayne is absolutely something to behold.  Even though he’s playing a man much older than he was in real life, you believe that Captain Brittles is a tired old cavalry captain on the verge of retirement.  It’s easily one of the best performances I’ve seen Wayne give thus far, and I can’t wait to see more of his more celebrated performances as the marathon goes on.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is famous for being the moment that John Ford realized the acting potential in John Wayne after a twenty year partnership, and I can certainly imagine the “eureka” moment he must have had.  A scene where Brittles breaks the news about no longer leading the cavalry to their mission and receiving a medal from his troops is truly touching, and allows Wayne to display a rare instance of humanity in one of his characters.  Captain Brittles may not be as loveable as Wayne’s Kirby York in Fort Apache and Rio Grande, but the performance given more than makes up for that.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon tells a realistic story where not every plan goes the way that they’re supposed to, and watching Captain Brittles battle his frustrations and doubt himself is heartbreaking in moments.  The “overcoming the odds” story is often riddled with cliches and general cheesiness, but somehow this film manages to subvert the tired trope and become something unique.  When things finally start to go the way they’re supposed to, you can’t help but feel triumph along with the rest of the cavalry.  On top of the triumphant moments felt when Brittles does have things go his way, the film’s titular theme song helps move the action along and makes the adventure feel much more grand.  IT plays over and over and roars over the film’s greatest moments, and I can guarantee it’ll be stuck in your head for a week afterward.  I haven’t stopped whistling the tune since the credits rolled the first time around.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon doesn’t have the same level of comedy, redemption, or incredible action set pieces as seen in Fort Apache, but it’s still a more than worthy follow-up to a terrific trilogy opener.  

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The first two parts of John Ford’s famous cavalry trilogy have been terrific pieces of good old fashioned western films, bringing with them a grand sense of adventure, thrills, progressive attitudes towards the Native American peoples, and two terrific performances.  I can only hope that the closing film, Rio Grande, is half as good as these two are.  With its terrific John Wayne performance, beautiful technicolour photography, roaring score and theme song, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is everything you could ever want from the western genre.  There’s a great deal of fun to be had here, no matter how you feel about westerns or the films of John Ford.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is highly recommended.

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