Wednesday 27 March 2013

A few words on The Searchers

None of John Ford's films is like The Searchers (1956). I have seen it six or seven times over the years and it is the only one of his films which I have to struggle with. The Searchers is very good, and therefore it is a struggle since some aspects of it gets in the way. Ford made some bad films but there is no need to struggle with them, they are just not that good, but that is not the case here.

What is part annoying, part thrilling, is that The Searchers feels like it is bursting at its seams, that Ford has problem with keeping the film contained, that it sometimes feels like two films. There is the dark tragedy and there are the almost parodic scenes, like those involving the young cavalry lieutenant towards the end. For every close-up of the hardened and mournful Ethan Edwards there are scenes of misplaced comedy. It is not that there should be no humour, only that I feel the balance is off. The scene when Martin kicks Look, his Indian "wife", out of bed is an example of a jarring scene which is played for humour but is not funny at all. What is more, sometimes Ford's attention to a scene seems to be missing, which adds to the feeling that there are two films going on simultaneously. The scene when Revered Captain Clayton sees Martha lovingly caress Ethan's coat is beautiful and perfect, Ford is really there. But some scene feels much less assured. Particularly so the scene towards the end when Ethan lifts up his niece and says "Let's go home Debbie!" It feels like a let-down. Not because of what happens in it but because of the casual way it is shot, almost like a throwaway scene, when it should be a key scene in the film. Ford's heart does not seem to be in it.

Another problem I have are with some of the actors. More specific, the younger actors. Jeffrey Hunter does not in the least feel like he belongs in the West, he looks too much like a contemporary teenage heartthrob, and his acting leaves something to be desired. He has his good moments, but they are not consistent. The girls Pippa Scott, Lana Wood and Natalie Wood are not good here either, they look and sound too much like they had just walked off the set of a Ross Hunter-produced melodrama. Here too much suspension of disbelief is required for me to fully be swept away by the film. On the other hand, John Wayne is extraordinary powerful.

I find its weaknesses so annoying because the film is often brilliant, and pushes deeper than many films, and the flaws that it has need not be there, because Ford is better than this. All of his best films are marvellously sustained and contained, and there is nothing that aggravates me in, say, They Were Expendable (1945), My Darling Clementine (1946) or the cavalry trilogy, except that politically Rio Grande (1950) is a step in the wrong direction after its more progressive precursors.

There are scenes and individual shots in The Searchers that are among the best in Ford's oeuvre, which is another way of saying that they are among the best in cinema history. You might say that those should be enough, and I should just not let the other things get to me. But I want perfection, and Ford should have been able to deliver it. He has proven many times he has the capacity.

There is a lot more to be said about The Searchers of course, this was just to point out a few issues I have with it.