Archive for the ‘Movie Classics’ Category


Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

Next, there is a pervasive and abiding concern about the future. To those of us who lived through the Cold War this seem ludicrous. But the tentativeness and fear that pervades American society are real. Witness the catastrophe at Columbine. Those two young men were angry, confused, but most of all hopeless. We have lost our way; lost our dreams. Harvard professor Dr. Harvey Cox writes: “We once had dreams and no technology to bring them to pass. Now we have technology but no dreams!”

In fact, most social critics argue persuasively that this generation is one of the most hopeless in history. Interestingly enough this hopelessness has made us rather sentimental. We have become very sentimental about the past. Even in our most creative creations it is more of the same. Even though Hans Solo is a liar, a criminal and a fornicator, he still is a do-gooder spreading George Lucas’ version of truth and justice across the land. But God is totally absent. The Star Wars phenomenon is so appealing because it is about the past; not about the future. Luke Skywalker is more like John Wayne than he is like Tom Cruse.

To this hopeless generation history is not sacred; it is merely utilitarian. It is not didactic; it helps make them feel better. The modern psychologist B.F. Skinner, for instance, disdains history and gives M & M’s® to monkeys. We have no actions—only fate driving us. We are rudderless. The fact is we Christians know, however, that God is in absolute control of history. We need to teach our children to be tirelessly hopeful. We need to make sure that we are not mawkish! We can easily do so by speaking the Truth found in the Word of God in places of deception.

One of the greatest problems in this generation is confusion about individual responsibility. It was Freud who told us that feelings of guilt were a sign not of vice, but of virtue. That our problems stemmed from our mothers, not from our sin. Perhaps our problem began with Goethe whose Faust escapes the consequences of his sin by sincerity and good humor. What does this say for poor theistic Gretchen? Look at the evolution of the American understanding of hero:

  • 1930-1970 Traditional John Wayne . . . While he was not overtly Christian, Wayne exhibited Judeo-Christian behavior in all his actions.
  • 1970-2000 Modern Clint Eastwood . . . Eastwood is moral but the end justifies the mean. He is motivated by a golden-rule sort of moral code.
  • 2000-Present Post-Christian Tom Cruise . . . Morality to Cruise is defined by what is right in his own eyes.

Perhaps our movie icons best typify what America values and promotes in her culture.


Monday, February 9th, 2009

As one commentator, Nick Redman observes, The Searchers both enthralls and frustrates. It is a cinematic masterpiece and does break new ground, but the Ethan Edward’s character, at times lacks credibility—especially at the end of the movie (Redman). Or, as Stephen Metcalf argues, it is the “worst best movie (Metcalf 1-10).” Metcalf calls the movie “boring,” and I must confess, there are parts that are boring, and predictable (Metcalf 1). Like Metcalf, I was surprised at how “gidgeted-together this supposedly great film is, how weird its quilting is, of unregenerate violence with doltish comic set pieces, all pitched against Ford’s signature backdrop, the buttes and spires of Monument Valley (Metcalf 2).

I agree with Ebert who says, there are two movies in The Searchers (Ebert 3). First, is the internal and external development of the round protagonist Ethan Edwards who ruthlessly pursues his psychological and physical enemies. Secondly, and this goes to the credibility of this masterpiece, is the final scene of Debbie’s salvation. Ebert says, “The shot if famous and beloved, but small counterbalance to his views throughout the film…and indeed, there is no indication he thinks differently about Indians (Ebert 3).”


Friday, February 6th, 2009

John Ford makes Ethan “as big a mystery as John Carradine’s Hatfield from Stagecoach (Savant 15).” Is Ethan an expatriate mercenary in Maximillian’s army? Does he steal gold from the Yankees? Who is Ethan really? These questions do not exactly create a frame story, but they do pique the reader’s curiosity.

Many subsequent directors incorporated elements from The Searchers in their movies. Spielberg reveres Ford and uses some of his motifs in several movies (Levy 3). Individual sequences, thematic ideas (revenge) of The Searchers appear in movies starring Clint Eastwood’s, movies directed by Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, and George Lucas (Levy 4). Many critics see in Bogdanovich’s best film The Last Picture Show (1971) a tribute to Ford (Levy 2). In fact, a whole generation of American directors are inspired by Ford’s The Searchers, including Paul Shraeder, John Milius, Martin Scorese, and Michael Cimino (Levy 2).

Many critics consider Wayne’s role Ethan Edwards as his very best (Luhr 75). At the same time, this role, at the very least, evidences a divergence in the personae carefully tailored by Hollywood. Wayne’s personae “involved a particular kind of postwar American masculinity, one defined by the challenges of the World War II military, still fresh in popular memory, as well as by the mythic status of the frontier American West (Luhr 75).” Ethan Edwards is, at best, an ambivalent hero, at worse, an anti-hero. Wayne has other divergences, more aggressive and kinetic, in Flying Tigers, Pittsburgh (1942), Reap the Wild Wind (1942), War of the Wildcats (1943), Tycoon (1947), and Red River (1948) (Luhr 79) but, The Searchers(1956), without a doubt, was an ambitious new personae.


This viewer enjoyed several impressive scenes in this great movie. For one thing, I appreciated Ford’s protection of the audience, and the characters, from the sight of Native American violence by cutting to close-up reaction shots (Morris 2). Likewise the original massacre is never shown.&nbs p; It is only indicated by the shadow of the Native American leader Scar (Morris 2). Finally, Scar, in this viewer’s opinion is a more realistic and, in many ways, a more malevolent antagonist than Blue Duck in Simon Wincer’s Lonesome Dove (1989), for my money, the scariest of villains.

But my favorite scene occurs early in the movie: the farewell scene of Ethan and Martha, rich in its empathy and subtly both. There is “no dialogue, no spoken words: only photographed moving images with deeply melancholy music playing quietly and slowly in the background (Eckstein 6).” Ford’s use of the Civil War era song “Lorena” is brilliant (Eckstein 6). It is clear from the way Ethan’s eyes follow Martha that he is madly in love with his brother’s wife (Ebert 2). Martha’s holding of Ethan’s coat was almost erotic and made Reverent Captain Cayton seem like a voyeur.

As Roger Ebert explains, “Ford’s eye for composition was bold and sure (Ebert 3).” Eberts analyzes the funeral early in the film. There is a wagon at low right, a cluster of mourners in the middle left, then a diagonal up the hill to the grave—all occurring as the mourners sing  œAs we Gather at the River (Ebert 3).” Next, consider the dramatic first sight of the adult Debbie, running down a sand dune—in fact the viewer sees Debbie before the characters do!


Thursday, February 5th, 2009

Stephen Metcalf is less flattering in his analysis (Metcalf 1).

The Searchers . . . is a film geek’s paradise: It is preposterous in its plotting, spasmodic in its pacing, unfunny in its hijinks, bipolar in its politics, alternately sodden and convulsive in its acting, not to mention boring . . . and so it is widely considered, by the initiated, at least to be among the four or five best movies of all time.

Metcalf argues that t he film tells the story of Ethan Edwards, “an Ahab-like obsessive who spends seven years searching for his little niece (Metcalf 1).” Next, Metcalf argues that this obviously flawed film is embraced by critics because, if it is not the first of a genre, it is an important step forward for the American anti-hero Western. Also, “everything in The Searchers can be said to be problematized,” that favored term of art for film and culture studies, starting with the old standbys race and gender but moving on quickly to Wayne and Ford themselves (Metcalf 3).”

Douglas Pye returns to the critical issue of race mixing in his essay “Double Vision: Miscegenation and Point of View in The Searchers in Eckstein and Lehman’s Essays. In American culture, race mixing has always been a social concern as much as a biological concern. The determination of boundaries between human groups in the United States has normally been a social one. Americans have very easily catego rized people in biological terms: an interracial person is very simply a black person or what Ethan calls a “half breed.” Social definition, though, have been more difficult to control. What does one do with a Native American and Anglo couple who decide to defy social customs and covenant together in marriage? Physical appearance informed, but ultimately a person gains status and identity according to what social group he or she belongs (Stobaugh 18). Pye in particular examines the race mixing sexual fears and fantasies unleashed in The Searchers (Pye 197-198).
In 1956 the most common race mixing in America concerned black/white race mixing. The most common type of black/white race mixing in the antebellum South was sexual. Indeed, Ethan is infuriated by the sexual violence committed against the Edwards female family members. To the 1956 American viewer, this obvious rape scene must have been both titillating and intrusive.
This theme of race mixing fears is at the heart of The Searchers. Race mixing is a threat to the myth of racial homogeneity. To lose the myth of racial homogeneity was to lose white privilege (Terkel 373). In that sense, then, Pye argues that The Searchers is an iconoclastic social film.
Finally, “Sermons in Stone: Monument Valley in The Searchers,” by Richard Hutson, in Eckstein and Lehman, is perhaps my favorite article. Hutson contrasts the bleak but beautiful setting of Monument Valley with the warm safety of human dwellings. For example “the buttes represent the presence of the past as unburied but also knowable, we can never be quite sure whether action and setting oppose each other, mi mic each other, or supplement each other’s frailties and strengths (Hutson 95).” Hutson ends “the conjunction of this landscape and this narrative of human activities and relationships illustrates the mutual need for two different temporalities, two different realms . . . the self-continued buttes and monuments present a model of carrying on with a sense of destiny in the recognition of irrecoverable loss (Hutson 107).


Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

While other critics present Ethan Edwards as a recalcitrant racist, almost in a monolithic fashion, critic Gary Morris argues that Ethan Edwards has “life-nurturing potential (Gary Morris 2).

The protective, life-nurturing potential of Ethan’s character is shown in the ominous moments before the Edwards family is massacred. Ethan’s nephew, Ben, sensing his parents’ nervousness and “something in the air,” expresses the wish that “Uncle Ethan” was there. After the massacre, surveying the smoldering ruins of the Edwards home (once merely a solitary sign of civilization in a barren desert, now a cinder), Ethan refuses to allow Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), the part-Indian “adopted son” of Aaron and Martha, to look inside. In fact, he knocks Martin down in order to spare him the sight of the murdered family, an indication of Ethan’s direct, instinctive approach to problems that is sometimes appropriate and sometimes almost psychotic. In protecting characters from the sight of Indian violence — later he shields Brad Jorgensen (Haarry Carey Jr.) from the sight of the ravaged Lucy Edwards, Brad’s fiancé — he calls to mind Ford’s elliptical treatment of the film’s vioolence. The film similarly shields the audience (suggesting the horrific content of the act) by consistently cutting to close-up reaction shots, or by stylizing the violence through a montage of events leading up to and away from it. The massacre itself, a key event in the film, is never shown. It is only indicated in an ironically almost peaceful way, with the shadow of the Indian leader Scar (Henry Brandon) falling across the gravestone by which the youngest Edwards girl, Debbie (Lana Wood), huddles clasping her doll.

Morris continues to develop the Freudian aspect of this movie. “Lucy and Debbie . . . represent the twin possibilities open to Ethan: his failure to find himself . . . and his potential self-realization and belonging” (Morris 4).

This theme is echoed by Brian Henderson in “The Searchers: An American Dilemma,” in what is arguably the most comprehensive analysis The Searchers: Essays and Reflections, edited by Arthur Eckstein and Peter Lehman. Henderson, though, believes that the film’s meaning is far bigger than Ethan’s character. In fact he sees the film as a “film myth” with its “unconscious dimension.” (Henderson 51)


Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

The Searchers also is an enigma. Perhaps, in microcosm, it represents the dilemma that racism has presented American culture since its genesis (Eckstein 197-217). For one thing, Ethan Edwards, like most Americans, is betrayed by his myth of homogeneity. Racial discussions are complicated by the myth of homogeneity–as if there is a pure white race. Martin, for one is evidence that that is not true. But, ironically, American racial homogeneity is an illusion. Very few Americans are 100% anything. But Americans normally describes their racial identity in homogeneous terms. Ethan certainly maintains that myth.

When one is classified white one enjoys the privileges of the dominant caste. Non-whites do not enjoy these privileges. So, The Searchers is even more complicated by the ambiguous defining apparatus of American racial language (Stobaugh, p. 12). White Americans enjoy race mixing as long as it is ambiguously defined. Non-white Americans find that race mixing lead inevitably to white exploitation (Lemann).

Ultimately, The Sea rchers, like race relations, is a moral issue (Stone, p. 3). The way white Americans treat people of color is very much a moral issue. Whatever categories they choose to define their relationships affect their souls. Its manifestations are systemically demonic and individually destructive (Schweiker, p. 240). In effect, this is the demon with which Ethan Edwards’ journeys.

Film critic Roger Ebert, in a November 25, 2001Chicago Sun-Times article (Ebert 1) cogently states the issue:

A cover story in New York magazine called it the most influential movie in American history. And yet at its center is a difficult question, because the Wayne character is racist without apology—and, so, inn a less outspoken way, are the other white characters.&nbs p; Is the film intended to endorse their attitudes, or to dramatize and regret them?

This thematic ambivalence is perhaps director John Ford’s shining moment.

Ironically, in spite of its racist theme, The Searchers is made in the waning days of the classic Western, which falters when Indians cease to be typecast as savages (Ebert 2). As Ebert explains, “Revisionist Westerns, including Ford’s own Cheyenne Autumn in 1964, takes a more enlightened view of native Americans, but the Western audience doesn’t want moral complexity; like the audience for today’s violent thrillers and urban warfare pictures, it wants action with clear-cut bad guys (Ebert 2).


Monday, February 2nd, 2009

The following is an essay I wrote for one of my favorite movies, The Searchers, starring John Wayne, directed by John Ford.

The Searchers, starring John Wayne, directed by John Ford, is, at its core, a movie about race (Levy, p. 1). While The Searchers in fact belongs in the western genre, “in its complexity and ambiguity, was a product of post-World War II American culture and sparked the deconstruction of the western film myth by looking unblinkingly at white racism and violence and suggesting its social psychological origins (Wayne State University Press).”

Nothing has been as enduring to the American nation as racism (Books 3-6, Terkel 204-205). As W. E. B. Dubois wrote at the beginning of the Twentieth Century “Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here at the dawning of the Twentieth Century…for the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line (Dubois, xi).” In a way then, The Searchers is the quintessential American movie. It captures the essence of the American character.

The Searchers is also a compelling story. Three years after the American Civil War ends, unrepentant Confederate Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to visit his brother Aaron (Walter Coy), his sister-in-law and alleged lover/old flame Martha (Dorothy Jordan), and their family. Shortly after Edwards’ arrival, a renegade party of Comanche Native Americans murders all of the Edwards’ family except a daughter, Debbie (Natalie Wood). After an initial search party turned back, Ethan and Aaron’s adopted son Martin (a suspected mixed Native American) (Jeffrey Hunter). The rest of the movie is a quest whose purpose allegedly is to rescue Debbie; however, before long, it is obvious that Ethan wishes to kill Debbie. Finally, after five years, and an epic journey reminiscent of the Hebrew journey to the Promised Land, Ethan finds Debbie, scalps Debbie’s Native American husband Scar (Henry Brandon), and nearly kills Debbie. At the end, though, Aaron softens, and returns with Debbie to her home.