Friendly Pushback on Scorsese’s Searchers Piece

I’m ready and willing to ease up on my John Ford takedowns and I could really and truly go the rest of my life without writing another word (much less another article) on The Searchers. But yesterday the Hollywood Reporter posted a Martin Scorsese essay on The Searchers — mostly a praise piece — and I feel obliged to respond, dammit. But really, this is the end.

Scorsese’s basic thought is that while The Searchers has some unfortunate or irritating aspects, it’s nonetheless a great film and has seemed deeper, more troubling and more layered the older he’s become. Which is well and good but you always have to take Scorsese’s praise with a grain of salt, I think. A lifelong Film Catholic, Scorsese has always been a gentle, generous, big-hearted critic. Show him almost any mediocre film by a semi-respected director and nine times out of ten he’ll look on the bright side and turn the other cheek. Has he ever written anything even the least bit mean or cutting or dismissive?

My basic view of The Searchers, as I wrote three of four years ago, is that “for a great film it takes an awful lot of work to get through it. I don’t know how to enjoy The Searchers any more except by wearing aesthetic blinders — by ignoring all the stuff that drives me up the wall in order to savor the beautiful heartbreaking stuff (the opening and closing shot, Wayne’s look of fear when he senses danger for his brother’s family, his picking up Wood at the finale and saying, ‘Let’s go home, Debbie’). That said I can’t help but worship Winston C. Hoch‘s photography for its own virtues.

For me, Scorsese’s wisest observation is that John Ford personally related to John Wayne‘s Ethan Edwards, the gruff, scowling, racist-minded loner at the heart of this 1956 film.

Ford “was at his lowest ebb” when he made The Searchers, Scorsese writes. “Ford’s participation in the screen version of Mister Roberts had ended disastrously soon after a violent encounter between the filmmaker and his star Henry Fonda. For Ford, The Searchers was more than just another picture: It was his opportunity to prove that he was still in control. Did he pour more of himself into the movie? It does seem reasonable to assume that Ford recognized something of his own loneliness in Ethan Edwards and that the character sparked something in him. It’s interesting to see how it dovetails with another troubled character from the same period. Like James Stewart‘s Scotty in Vertigo, Edwards’ obsessive quest ends in madness.”

Jeffrey Hunter, John Wayne

Film lovers know The Searchers “by heart,” Scorsese writes, “but what about average movie watchers? What place does John Ford’s masterpiece occupy in our national consciousness?” Wells to Scorsese: In terms of the consciousness of the general public, close to zilch. In terms of the big-city Film Catholic community (industry aficionados, entertainment journalists, film academics and devoted students, educated and well-heeled film buffs, obsessive film bums), there is certainly respect for The Searchers but true passionate love? The numbers of those who feel as strongly as you, most of whom grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, are, I imagine, relatively small and dwindling as we speak.

I’m pleased to note that some of my complaints about Ford have at least been acknowledged by Scorsese. “A few years ago I watched it with my wife,” he writes, “and I will admit that it gave me pause. Many people have problems with Ford’s Irish humor, which is almost always alcohol-related. For some, the frontier-comedy scenes with Ken Curtis are tough to take.

“For me, the problem was with the scenes involving a plump Comanche woman (Beulah Archuletta) that the Hunter character inadvertently takes as a wife. There is some low comedy in these scenes: Hunter kicks her down a hill, and Max Steiner’s score amplifies the moment with a comic flourish. Then the tone shifts dramatically, and Wayne and Hunter both become ruthless and bullying, scaring her away. Later, they find her body in a Comanche camp that has been wiped out by American soldiers, and you can feel their sense of loss. All the same, this passage seemed unnecessarily cruel to me.”

Here’s what I wrote way back when:

John Ford‘s movies have been wowing and infuriating me all my life. A first-rate visual composer and one of Hollywood’s most economical story-tellers bar none, Ford made films that were always rich with complexity, understatements and undercurrents that refused to run in one simple direction.

“Ford’s films are always what they seem to be…until you watch them again and re-reflect, and then they always seem to be about something more. But the phoniness and jacked-up sentiment in just about every one of them can be oppressive, and the older Ford got the more he ladled it on.

“The Irish clannishness, the tributes to boozy male camaraderie, the relentless balladeering over the opening credits of 90% of his films, the old-school chauvinism, the racism, the thinly sketched women, the “gallery of supporting players bristling with tedious eccentricity” (as critic David Thomson put it in his Biographical Dictionary of Film) and so on.

The closing shot of John Ford’s The Searchers

“The treacliness is there but tolerable in Ford’s fine pre-1945 work — The Informer, Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln , Drums Along the Mohawk, They Were Expendable , The Grapes of Wrath and My Darling Clementine .

“But it gets really thick starting with 1948’s Fort Apache and by the time you get to The Searchers, Ford’s undisputed masterpiece that came out in March of 1956, it’s enough to make you yank the reins and go ‘whoa, nelly.’

“Watch the breathtaking beautiful new DVD of The Searchers, and see if you can get through it without choking. Every shot is a visual jewel, but except for John Wayne‘s Ethan Edwards, one of the most fascinating racist bastards of all time, every last character and just about every line in the film feels labored and ungenuine.

“The phoniness gets so pernicious after a while that it seems to nudge this admittedly spellbinding film toward self-parody. Younger people who don’t ‘get’ Ford (and every now and then I think I may be turning into one) have been known to laugh at it.

Jeffrey Hunter‘s Martin Pawley does nothing but bug his eyes, overact and say stupid exasperating lines all through the damn thing. Nearly every male supporting character in the film does the same. No one has it in them to hold back or play it cool — everyone blurts.

Ken Curtis‘s Charlie McCorry, Harry Carey Jr.’s Brad Jorgensen, Hank Worden‘s Mose Harper…characters I’ve come to despise.

“You can do little else but sit and grimace through Natalie Wood‘s acting as Debbie (the kidnapped daughter of Ethan’s dead brother), Vera Miles‘ Laurie Jorgenson, and Beulah Archuletta‘s chubby Indian squaw (i.e., ‘Wild Goose Flying in the Night Sky’)…utterly fake in each and every gesture and utterance.

“I realize there’s a powerful double-track element in the racism that seethes inside Ethan, but until he made Cheyenne Autumn Ford always portrayed Indians — Native Americans — as creepy, vaguely sadistic oddballs. The German-born, blue-eyed Henry Brandon as Scar, the Comanche baddie…’nuff said.

“That repulsive scene when Ethan and Martin look at four or five babbling Anglo women whose condition was caused, we’re informed, by having been raised by Indians, and some guy says, ‘Hard to believe they’re white’ and Ethan says, ‘They ain’t white!’

“I’ll always love the way Ford handles that brief bit when Ward Bond‘s Reverend Clayton sees Martha, the wife of Ethan’s brother, stroking Ethan’s overcoat and then barely reacts — perfect — but every time Bond opens his mouth to say something, he bellows like a bull moose.”

Final thought: The more I think about the stuff in Ford’s films that drives me crazy, the less I want to watch any Ford films, ever. Okay, that’s not true but the only ones I can stand at this point are The Horse Soldiers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Grapes of Wrath, The Informer, The Lost Patrol, The Last Hurrah and, believe it or not, Donovan’s Reef.

  • Bob Hightower

    Ford is on the list with Spielberg. You have to be one of our greatest filmmakers to get on Jeff’s list. What does that say about Jeff’s taste?

  • Wells to Bob Hightower: That’s a really stupid thing to say. Really titanically stupid.

  • On top of which there’s something wrong with Disqus as it doesn’t accurately reflect the number of commenters as they come along (it delays, it squats) and it refuses to post the comments in sequence. Really stupid system.

    • Jeff, you can use the dropbox under “discussion” to change “best” to “newest” or “oldest.”

  • Wells to Hightower: What are you doing, sitting around your basement apartment slurping root beer? Have you ever given a moment’s thought to any of the things I’ve said here or did you just kick them around for five or six seconds and then belch out a response?

  • Matt

    Wells hates sentimentality of any kind in films. It doesn’t matter if it’s mawkish or well-earned – filmmakers like Chaplin, Ford, Spielberg, Capra, etc. are all crap because they incorporate sentimentality into their films and are not coldly analytical directors with a nihilistic outlook on humanity (like, say, Fincher, Kubrick, or Anderson).

  • moviewatcher

    Couple of things:
    “Has [Scorsese] ever written anything even the least bit mean or cutting or dismissive?”
    Don’t you think that Scorsese knows that if he so much as breathes a bad word about a film, that movie is dead in film history. Thrown in a lake with weights tied on its feet and sent to movie hell. Scorsese doesn’t want to damage a movie’s reputation because of his own.
    The worst thing I’ve seen him say about a movie was Hichcock’s “Rebecca” and it was something like: there’s only one moment I find interesting. I don’t find it to be among Hithcock’s best. I just don’t get anything from it anymore.

    • moviewatcher

      Second thing, why is it, that at the very first sign of a little emotion, Jeff just roles his eyes? You have to distinguish between well-earned emotional pulls and badly earned emotional pulls. The best directors were masters at it.

      Not being a huge cryer in movies myself, I tend to think that if I cry in a movie, it was well earned and it always elevated my opinion of a movie. Spielberg has plenty of both.

      Always and War Horse did nothing for me emotionally (though the opening of “Always” is very good and the first 30 minutes really had me rolling on the floor with laughter, it was just completely downhill from there. A total disappointment. And War Horse did have some interesting visual moments, what else would you expect from Spielberg, and I sort of liked the vignette format but did nothing for me emotionally despite trying so hard to do so).

      But Spielberg also had Munich, which was so amazing… 2.5 hours of an exciting and morally ambiguous look at the Israeli/Palestinian conflict which DID make me cry in the end, but it was so well earned that it provided a perfect bookend to the film. And tell me, How freaking courageous is that line: “There is no peace at the end of this.”?

  • Bob Hightower

    “Titanically stupid.” Thanks. I like TITANIC too. I thought Jeff didn’t like Kubrick. Sometimes it’s hard to tell. — sent from my basement

    • moviewatcher

      jeff hates everybody except for cute JLaw. That’s my playbook (*wink*).

  • Bob Hightower

    “I hate hate.” — Franklin D. Roosevelt.

    Mr. Scorsese is a lover of film and celebrates and helps preserves the film he loves. If you read his review carefully, you will see that his feelings about THE SEARCHERS have evolved, and he is critical of the Look sequence. That shows he is not uncritical, as Jeff seems to think, but is a true critic and historian of cinema.

    • (edit) Just saw moviewatcher’s comment, which is similar to mine…

      And I think with all his collaborations over the years, Scorsese would simply take the polite high road and keep negative responses to movies to himself. It’s not that he’s necessarily a Pollyanna; he just has no reason to vocalize issues with certain movies in a public forum.

  • George Prager

    I like the Searchers, but I agree with almost all of your points. I just chalk it up to old movie syndrome. Almost every American movie made after WWII through the late 60s has a few scenes that make you want to puke for some reason or another. The Searchers has more pukeworthy scenes that almost any classic film. RIO BRAVO is also problematic in that you feel like you’re seeing episode 12 of a TV series. It’s hard to like any of the characters right off the bat.

    • punkedup

      “The Searchers has more pukeworthy scenes that almost any classic film. ”

      This is some sterling insight.

      • George Prager

        Manny Farber would be proud!

        • punkedup

          More like Rex Reed.

  • Steven Gaydos

    Over the many years I’ve known him, I’ve always been fascinated by director Monte Hellman’s oft-contrarian tastes, ie no fear in loving the little-known, as well as no fear at not having much affection for the accepted “classics” and universally-praised “masterpieces.”

    So I asked him to distill his long-time lack of enthusiasm for “THE SEARCHERS” down to a few lines.

    He wrote back, “Mostly it’s Jeffrey Hunter and “Old Mose,” but also even Natalie Wood and
    Henry Brandon as an Indian. Some great scenery and Wayne has his
    moments, but the movie seemed silly to me back then, and seems silly to
    me now.”

    It seems, in tone, at least, to match Jeff’s reservations about the film.

    • Bob Hightower

      “Wayne has his moments.” An odd way to describe one of the greatest performances in film history. I guess he isn’t a patch on the so-called actors in TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, who can barely be induced to have facial expressions!

      • punkedup

        Boo yah! And I love Hellman, but he would not be the go-to guy for critiquing acting.

  • Does Wells seriously think Scorsese read his piece about the Irish-Jokes in The Searchers and thus changed his opinion?

  • You can stand The Informer?

  • Joe Puterbaugh

    I’ll concede with you that there are scenes in Ford’s work that tip into sickly sentimentality and Irish drunkenness. But you’re ignoring one of Ford’s greatest strengths – his skill in using understatement and subtext. A few examples:

    The ending of They Were Expendable, when the ensigns are forced to give up their seats on the last plane out of the Phillippines, just as the Japanese are about to overrun the islands. We all know that the ensigns doomed, but the moment is an accident of war, and Ford shoots the scene very quietly and in a restrained way.

    The moment in How Green Was My Valley, when Gruffydd watches Angharad and her husband leave their marriage ceremony. Ford doesn’t cut to a close-up of the upset Gruffydd; instead, he sets up his camera at a distance, so Gruffydd stands as a small lonely figure in the church graveyard. There’s no excessive emotions here – Ford allows the audience to experience the moment in an understated way.

    The scene in Wagon Master, when Travis asks Denver offers Denver a new life with him on a ranch. Denver, knowing this is impossible, moves away from the camera, and Ford’s camera stays with her. Again, no heavy-handed emotion here – Ford dissolves to a shot of Denver smoking a ciggie and tossing it away. Ford uses understatement and subtext to convey the meaning.

    There are many more examples. Ford’s ability to convey meaning and emotional through a small gesture or the placement of the camera or a look between two actors is extraordinary and it’s one of the reason why I admire his work so much.

  • Raising_Kaned

    Jeff — these are the long kinds of pieces that I sincerely wish you would do more often. The long-form criticism where you delve deep into a film reads SO much better than when you just take petty snipes at flicks in very small doses — that just comes across (IMHO) as obnoxious.

    Ford’s kind of a tough nut to crack for me. I believe it’s possible to respect his influence and longevity in the business (it’s almost impossible to deny that he’s got a handful of masterpieces on his filmography) without particularly…liking his cinematic aesthetic or subscribing to his worldview.

    So I think that’s pretty much where I’m at with him, which is perhaps a slight notch (or two) above where you regard him.

    Interestingly enough, you know who’s rabidly anti-John Ford? Quentin Tarantino.

    • Raising_Kaned

      Ira Parks says…

      Glenn Kenny says…

      Criticism du cinema makes for strange bedfellows, n’est pas? Mon dieu! Once again, Sunday morning lovemaking beckons and mercifully limits my string of bon mots — I must be off, my lovies…and so must be these pesky garments (loosens ascot before exiting gallantly)!

      • Yawn and yawn again. Of the many things in life I strive not to give a flying fuck about, Wells’ entirely parochial and dull and blind opinion of Ford is pretty high on my list. It’s funny how when Scorsese offers his high opinion of “The Searchers,” Wells offers “Friendly pushback” (“Marty” doesn’t care, Jeff), whereas with Dave Kehr it’s “I can’t wait until he dies.” It’s all shit.

  • George Prager

    Scorcese’s article has nothing on A LETTER TO ELIA.