Wednesday, January 21, 2009

THE SEARCHERS (John Ford, 1956, USA)
"It's all about where you put the horizon
Said the great John Ford to the young man rising
You got to frame it just right and have some luck of course
And it helps to have a tall man sitting on a horse
Tell them just enough to still leave them some mystery
A grasp of the ironic nature of history
A man turns his back on the comforts of home
The Monument Valley to ride off alone"
-Drive By Truckers (The Monument Valley)
Ethan Edwards is an anachronism, fighting his own spiritual civil war, a cruel division that separates his humanity from pure animal rage that trespasses upon those who love him most. John Wayne’s performance steps beyond the boundaries of expectation and he delivers an exceptional and multi-faceted portrayal of a violent unlikable man, torn apart and raw, a metaphor concerning his country’s still festering and unhealed wounds, his family a desperate house divided. Director John Ford introduces this bleak anti-hero with Ethan’s face obscured by shadows beneath the brim of a black hat. The crippling love for his brother’s wife is never overtly referenced and becomes a background thrum of seething resentment: it’s him against the world. Ford’s mise-en-scene is gorgeously filmed: from the interior sets photographed in medium close-up to extreme long-shots of orange and blood red horizons, his panoramic VistaVision drenches the celluloid in unspoken emotional conflict. Though the narrative relies heavily upon western cliché (the racist portrayal of Indians as either violent or stupid) we must look beneath the veneer of Hollywood convention to understand the film’s dire beauty: Ethan Edward’s search for salvation. His obstreperous contempt for the preacher is flagrantly hostile, a one-track morality that leads him towards a murder that will destroy him completely. Ford knows when to reveal the violence…and when to keep it hidden under the darkened sky and haunting buttes: Edward’s choking curse at discovering Lucy’s corpse is left to our imagination, the sexual assault and mutilation implied. Ford utilizes very few close-ups and only one extreme close-up: when Edwards and Martin interview two captured women, neither of whom is the little girl they seek, the camera pans close to Wayne’s tortured and angry impatience…and the eyes, full of fire and brimstone. Finally, after many years the search is over and Debbie is reunited with her surviving family, Ethan is left alone, perfectly framed in the doorway, one hand resting gently upon his arm, and he turns and walks away. The door closes upon him, a stranger to his family, hopefully at peace with himself. (A+)

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