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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 #8 – The Quiet Man (1952)

Poster_-_Quiet_Man,_The_01The Quiet Man (1952)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Frank S. Nugent (based on The Quiet Man by Maurice Walsh)
Starring: John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Barry Fitzgerald, Victor McLaglen, Ward Bond

As you may have read in my brief summary post about why I chose to cover the films of John Ford for an entire month, the man still holds the record for most Academy Awards won for Best Director.  He won the award The Informer in 1935, The Grapes of Wrath in 1940, How Green Was My Valley in 1941, and finally for 1952’s romantic drama The Quiet Man.  The John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara starring film would be released to tremendous critical acclaim and box office success, and is still widely recognized as one of Ford’s greatest films.  It’s perhaps most notable for being such a departure compared to the violent westerns that filled most of his career, and might just shock you by how light and playful it initially comes off.  Instead of focusing on common Ford settings like the desolate western plains or the Pacific, the film takes place entirely in a small Irish community and features a cast full of Irish descendants.  It brings with it John Ford’s subtle sense of humour (perhaps more overt here), impeccable eye for photography, and a cast full of lovable and recognizable faces.  The Quiet Man once against featured the incredible cinematography of the great Winton Hoch, who would once again bring home the Oscar for Best Cinematography in 1952.  On top of bringing home awards for Directing and Cinematography, Ford’s drama was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Art Direction, Best Sound, and Best Adapted Screenplay.  The inspiration for the film – much like those in the cavalry trilogy – once again came from a story in The Saturday Evening Post, this time written by Maurice Walsh.  On top of starring the team of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, The Quiet Man also features John Ford company regulars Victor McLaglen (The Informer), Barry Fitzgerald (The Long Voyage Home), Ward Bond (They Were Expendable), and Francis Ford (The Informer).  Unfortunately for Ford, the film would prove to be his final movie to be nominated for Academy Awards, despite his career continuing on for nearly fifteen years.

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Sean Thornton (John Wayne) is an Irish-American former boxer who has just moved back to his native land in order to reclaim his family’s farm in this tiny community of Inisfree.  Upon his arrival he is met with warm greetings from a townful of odd and interesting characters.  He meets and very quickly falls in love with Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara), who has a reputation around town as a fiery young independent woman.  Mary Kate also happens to be the unfortunate sister of the loudmouth bully Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen), who had his sights set on Thornton’s family farm.  After the Widow Tillane (Mildred Natwick) sells the farm to Thornton, an angered and jealous Will Danaher refuses to allow him to marry his younger sister.  After some trickery by the townspeople, Will is led to believe that the Widow Tillane wants to marry Will, but only on the grounds that Mary Kate be out of the house.  After a whirlwind romance, Sean and Mary Kate are quickly married and Will finds out the truth about the Widow.  Enraged, he refuses to allow Mary Kate to take her dowry, which has been passed on to her by her late mother.  Sean, being American and not understanding Irish traditions, refuses to speak with Will on the matter and is branded a coward by his new wife.  The marriage quickly falls apart, and the locals conspire to have Will return Mary Kate’s rightful inheritance to her.  With a coward husband and no dowry, Mary Kate boards a train to leave for greener pastures, but is quite literally dragged away by her husband.  Will the foreign Thornton confront the traditional Will Danaher and get his wife what rightfully belongs to her, or will he stand by and watch his marriage crumble before it could ever even gain steam?  Find out in John Ford’s Academy Award-winning The Quiet Man.

The Quiet Man was a very difficult film for me to review coming off the heels of the thrilling cavalry trilogy that preceded it.  Luckily, what I found was incredibly charming (if old-fashioned), funny, and beautiful film with a great deal to love about it.  Maureen O’Hara once again steals the show, this time as the incredibly strong and independent Mary Kate Danaher, who is an incredibly progressive character for the era the film was made in.  John Wayne’s performance as Sean Thornton is equally impressive, showing off more of his newly recognized acting abilities and proving that he has more range than just playing cranky, cynical men of the old west.  Thornton isn’t exactly a romantic or strong-willed character, but he’s always interesting to watch on screen because the character is quite a mystery for most of The Quiet Man’s runtime.  The former boxer turned Irish immigrant character works well for Wayne, and his brooding, yet charismatic screen presence never fails to compel.  The true standouts of the film are the once again incredible technicolour cinematography from Winton Hoch, coupled with some very restrained direction from John Ford.  His tried and true method of not distracting the audience with overly-complicated camera maneuvers works wonders, and instead the film focuses purely on storytelling and getting the best performances possible out of its cast.  Hoch’s bright and colorful cinematography is perfectly suited to the Irish countryside, and there’s something to marvel at in nearly every frame of the movie.  The film is also very well-written, especially comedically.  It opens with a hilarious example of slapstick humour that still works today, and continues by giving its entire cast of oddball characters their own unique personalities and eccentricities.  I can honestly say that I laughed out loud more than once during my two viewings of The Quiet Man, something that has rarely happened during my Ford marathon.  It’s clear throughout that John Ford is proud of his heritage and very passionate about Ireland, and that passion and interest in the setting and traditions add a great deal of genuine atmosphere to the film.  Unfortunately, there are a few moments that just didn’t work for me throughout.  One scene in particular involves Wayne’s Thornton giving off some awfully rape-y and abusive vibes towards O’Hara’s Mary Kate.  Not only does Sean Thornton corner his new wife in her dark room, but he throws her onto her bed hard enough to break it, staring a hole through her the entire time.  Maybe I’m crazy, but the entire sequence added nothing to the supposed romance between the two leads, and instead felt out of place and old-fashioned in the worst way possible.  Luckily, these moments are few and far between and aren’t enough to derail what is largely a terrific and charming film.  

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The Quiet Man is a restrained deviation from John Ford’s usual work, and is surprising in how successful it is.  The comedy, terrific lead performances, beautiful Irish setting, and subtle direction make for a truly remarkable and memorable film, and one that has absolutely earned its reputation as being one of Ford’s best.  The Quiet Man was a tremendous surprise, and a film I can easily say comes highly recommended.

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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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