52 Authors, Week 8: Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988)
Of Course

The Searchers

You have to make allowances for movies made in the 1950s and earlier, I know. Well, you have to make allowances for movies in general, but it was sometime in the 1960s that movies (American ones, at least) made a noticeable turn toward a greater realism, or at least believability (not necessarily the same things). Part of the change, I suppose, was technical. Perhaps part of it was just an increase in skill. In any case a movie like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) seems realistic in a way that few films of the 1950s and earlier do, in spite of its factually inaccurate portrayal of the title characters. It's not just the realism of the violence, which was shocking. It's in the details--the way the people look, the way things look, the dialog, the acting. Maybe in the latter case it's an increasing distance from the acting styles of the pre-cinema stage.

But anyway: I don't generally have much difficulty in making whatever allowances are required for movies of the '40s and '50s that are set contemporaneously. Considered with detachment, Humphrey Bogart as Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade is not really believable as a person whom you might actually encounter. But I accept the character...well, perhaps there's a touch of irony in that acceptance, but it doesn't stop me from entering into the world of the film.

Westerns, though, are another story. I've seen a few of the old classics over the past decade or so, and have been a little disappointed. The Searchers has been on my list for a long time, and since it's widely considered the greatest Western of all time I expected to like it.


But I found myself unable to overlook the many unconvincing aspects of it. I got off to a bad start with the fact that the story is supposed to take place in Texas, and the door of the cabin opened onto what I was pretty sure was no Texas landscape (it's Monument Valley, Utah). The cabin is made of brick and heavy timber that seem unlikely building materials for an isolated house in a remote desert, and in any case too comfortable and substantial for the time and place. "Outdoor" scenes that were shot in the studio are too obviously fake--one reviewer at the time said that the campfire scenes could have been shot in the window of a sporting goods store. Most of the actors are unpersuasive, and I have to include John Wayne in that group. One minor character, Charlie something, has the most ludicrous fake southern-western accent I've ever heard, and that's saying a lot. The Indians, at least those with speaking roles, mostly seem like caricatures. (What I thought was the worst Indian portrayal, the chief Scar played by a blue-eyed actor named Harry Brandon, may not be that at all: there is a plausible argument that the character is meant to be a white man taken captive as a child.)

The story is powerful, and unsentimental to a degree that surprised me a little. The search alluded to in the title is for a girl taken captive by Comanche raiders who have killed the rest of her family. She is the niece of Ethan Edwards, John Wayne's character, who spends years searching for her. He has a grim hatred of the Indians and speaks of them in viciously racist ways that are a bit shocking today. And the Indians as portrayed are not entirely undeserving of his fury. But probably one of the things that has made the film's reputation is that it doesn't leave the picture--either Edwards' hatred or the savagery of the Indians--entirely as it first appears.

If you are an admirer of The Searchers, you can put the blame on me rather than on it for my lack of enthusiasm for it. I wanted to like it, and I really did try to overlook what was unconvincing, but it just got in my way too much, too much for me to feel entirely the impact of the narrative.

What I did like, very much, maybe enough to make me see it again, was the landscape, and the way it was filmed. Never mind that it's not Texas; it's stunning, and magnificently photographed.



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This gives you an opening to segue to a certain book in a few weeks ... realism versus The Searchers. Was John Wayne ever really convincing? He was more an archetype character than anything.

I'm with you, Mac. I saw this and was really disappointed. I can't understand why it has the reputation it does.

I'm glad to hear it's not just me. There is the plot of a powerful story there, but for me the execution just fails.

I think John Wayne can be effective sometimes, at playing the basic John Wayne character. Or at least I used to think that--maybe I wouldn't anymore. That's not exactly the same thing as "convincing" though. Maybe the problem is that this character is not exactly the John Wayne character. You don't get the sense of tormented and obsessive rage that's needed.

I have precisely that in mind, EG.

I've not seen this one. The trouble I have with pre-1955 cinema is the scoring. Terribly over-egged. The thing is, my grandmother had a great affection for operetta (and Bing Crosby), though she was never one to put a record on a turntable. I had a pretty uncomplicated respect for my grandmother, but could never understand her taste in music. People of different eras had different sensibilities. You can watch these films anthropologically, to try to get inside the head of the audience as best you can, and appreciate them for who they were.

One of the things I find distracting in many old movies is a seemingly mandatory insertion of comic relief bits, usually very cornball and dated and just out of place. Long time since I've seen The Searchers, but I think it was marred by that as well.

The Searchers definitely has some of that. It tends to be cringe-inducing.

Funny, I have no memory at all of the music in The Searchers, apart from the opening song. So I guess it wasn't too intrusive. I don't generally find the scores in old movies to be a problem, though. I'm able to get inside that sensibility, I guess, at least enough that the music doesn't seem out of place. Though I admit that there are times when it becomes humorous.

There was one of those CBS Sunday Morning pieces a while back about Monument Valley, Utah and this movie was mentioned, along with scores of others filmed there. I think it might be more famous for the scenery than anything else (?). But it is funny that this is supposed to be Texas. Been all over Texas, never seen anything like the picture you show.

I haven't been all over Texas, or even very much of it, but I immediately thought "That's not Texas" at the first glimpse of the landscape. I'm not sure why. I guess I don't associate that size and number of gigantic rock formations with Texas.

I guess I don't associate that size and number of gigantic rock formations with Texas.

Texas is divided into three major biomes. You have forest in the easternmost part of the state, savanna throughout most of the state, and desert right along the Rio Grande and in the nine counties forming the far western part. The mountains would be confined to the far western portion, which is an extension of New Mexico very unlike the rest of Texas. Even today, that part of Texas is exceedingly sparsely populated. About 4% of the state's population is there, and the vast bulk of that slice live in and around El Paso. The total population of the rest is about 95,000. At the time of the close of the frontier in 1890, there were about 11,000. All that's spread over an areas the size of South Carolina.

I'm a fan of The Searchers and of John Ford's movies in general, but there is an ample number of appreciations out there, so there's no need to defend it here. I think that the critique applied here could be extended to a lot of well-regarded films of the same general era, or even pre-60s American movies altogether (think Ben-Hur, for instance). What Art says is correct, in that sensibilities were different then, and you have to sort of put yourself in the place of the then- contemporary moviegoer. This isn't always easy to do, and it may be especially difficult with the Western, since it's a genre that's not been served all that well since the 60s.

For those of us who grew up in the 50s and 60s, I think that a lot of it may have to do with whether or not you were a western fan as a kid. For folks who grew up later, the western had by then become a rather moribund genre, with only the occasional bright spot appearing (it was already becoming so in the late 50s/early 60s).

(By the way, I think this partly explains the appeal of Star Wars, which was basically a western set in space.)

Re: Texas, recall that at the time this film was made the interstate highway system was only a few years old, and people didn't travel nearly as much. The average American's idea of "Texas" would have been framed largely by movies and TV, so most of them wouldn't know what Texas really looked like.

Also, Ford as a filmmaker was not all that concerned with "authenticity" as such. He was much more interested in the look and the feel of the landscape and how it appeared on film, than with the geographical bona fides of the place. Couldn't get away with that today, of course, but it was a fairly common approach in pre-60s cinema.

I didn't mean to suggest that the landscape was a big problem. I noticed it but it wouldn't have prevented me from enjoying the movie otherwise. I don't think it was *totally* off base for west Texas, at least the desert areas thereof. I think it struck me because the landscape is so close to pure desert--I wondered how one could farm there.

"I think that a lot of it may have to do with whether or not you were a western fan as a kid." That's just it--I was, and those landscapes, and a lot of the other apparatus of westerns, still appeal to me. In spite of that, I just wasn't able to take it as seriously as I was supposed to, even though I wanted to.

As I mentioned I'm not entirely sure why the limits of film-making in that period don't bother me nearly as much in films that were set in their own contemporary time. Partly, I guess, because almost everything but the acting can be supplied by the actual environment--locations, dress, etc--there isn't as much that has to be reconstructed or invented.

Agreed about Star Wars.

Nothing is so dated as another time's attempt to recreate a previous time. That's how historians stay in business.

"That's just it--I was, and those landscapes, and a lot of the other apparatus of westerns, still appeal to me. In spite of that, I just wasn't able to take it as seriously as I was supposed to, even though I wanted to."

I wonder if the experience would be similar if you watched another highly regarded western that you haven't seen. I've watched six or eight of the "classics" over the past few years, and the only one that I can recall being a bit disappointed with was 'Rio Bravo.'

Good point, Paul. Makes me think of, for instance, the Robin Hood movies of the past.

I've seen a couple of others within the last six or seven years. The only one I can remember offhand is Liberty Valance, and while I didn't think it really lived up to its reputation, I don't remember having the problem with accepting it that I did with Searchers. I'm planning to watch High Noon before too long.

I think it struck me because the landscape is so close to pure desert--I wondered how one could farm there.

I think ranching, not farming, has been the order of the day throughout west Texas and Utah, when you could get anything out of the land at all. Here's a coarse map of Bureau of Land Management properties:


Re: another time's attempt to recreate a previous time


That chart was making my head spin till I realized that the 2000 on the left side is BC. What a...feat? What a thing to do. Kind of fascinating.

In my mind I was including ranching in the word "farming", though it is a rather different thing. The landscape in Monument Valley doesn't look like it could even support free-range cattle.

Ranchers could raise sheep in Monument Valley. Found an interesting piece Inventing Ford Country about "a pioneering rancher, Harry Goulding, who brought Hollywood to his home, and helped shape America’s vision of the West". Besides lots on Ford making his movies there, there's also mention of sheep.

That article looks fascinating. Have to wait till later to read it, unfortunately.

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