Wednesday, August 21, 2013
Heath Holland On...Finding John Wayne Through The Searchers
One of my very favorite genres in all of movies is the western. I didn’t grow up watching westerns, and when my parents had a western on when I was younger, I’d usually leave the room. I just wasn’t interested. But around the tail end of high school I discovered Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy and a new western fan was born (spoiler: I’m talking about me).
Because that was my doorway to westerns, I tend to gravitate toward spaghetti westerns and those with more pop, violent sensibilities: I like protagonists that don’t wear white hats and have no qualms about shooting someone dead if they get in their way. I like the big, guitar driven scores of Ennio Morricone and Luis Bacalov and the Spanish landscapes that substituted for the American West. And above anything else, I love Clint Eastwood and his unshaven grimace. You don’t know what’s going on behind his eyes. He’s a mystery.
John Wayne has never held ANY interest for me. He represented a time in the western genre that existed before my beloved spaghetti westerns. Compared to Clint Eastwood or Franco Nero, John Wayne has always felt very old fashioned and irrelevant. His movies had lavishly-orchestrated scores with weepy strings and triumphant horns, and Wayne himself always felt like a cartoon character -- a dude who said things like “little lady” and “circle the wagons.”
So all these things have never tipped the scales in John Wayne’s favor when it came to how I viewed him. Keep in mind, all of these opinions came without ever once watching one of his films. I smell a hypocritical douche bag! Coincidentally, that’s a new fragrance sold exclusively at Urban Outfitters.
As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve softened quite a bit on many of my harsh opinions (particularly baseless ones that I’ve never bothered to confirm with research), and I find that more and more I am able to enjoy things from older eras of Hollywood. I’ve developed quite a passion for old '30s and '40s Warner Brothers movies, Charlie Chaplin and silent film, and yes, those old-fashioned westerns where Indians were stereotypes and the good guys almost always wore those white hats that I hated. Turns out I was wrong about a lot of that stuff. The only thing that had been keeping me from enjoying all those great movies all along was myself and my bad attitude.
It was with that new, seeking attitude that I viewed The Searchers from 1956.
The Searchers is one of John Wayne’s most highly regarded films and was directed by his frequent collaborator John Ford. Ford made some of the most important westerns in the history of film but I’d never seen any of those either. The Searchers was my introduction to both John Wayne and the work of John Ford.
The movie co-stars Natalie Wood, Vera Miles, and Jeffrey Hunter. Hunter acted as a bridge into the movie for me because I know him from his short but legendary appearance as the original captain of the USS Enterprise, Captain Christopher Pike, on the 1960s Star Trek television show. Seeing Kirk’s predecessor struggling to deal with John Wayne truly did serve me well on my initial viewing of this movie.
A Comanche raid wipes out most of the family, but there’s a chance that one or two of the children are alive, so Wayne and Hunter set out to find the Comanche who did the murderin’ and scalpin’ and rescue the kidnapped kids. Hunter is leaving behind a romantic interest; Wayne, ever the loner, is leaving behind seemingly nothing. Will Hunter return home to a happy ending and will Wayne be enough of a tough guy to defeat the Indians and rescue the kidnapped children?
I’ve seen my fair share of westerns from this period; I thought the traditional plot would unfold with a search into enemy territory, a big fight, and the hero saving the day. The Searchers has other plans, though, and things don’t exactly work out in the most expected way. What I was not anticipating was that the titular (tee hee) search would take YEARS of their lives. We see John Wayne develop gray hair and age before us. We see Jeffrey Hunter go from a young and inexperienced fighter to a seasoned tracker and survivalist.
I also wasn’t expecting John Wayne to have dimension and depth. He’s a fully realized character with flaws, not the cartoon I was expecting. It becomes pretty clear as the movie develops that Wayne’s character is a racist and trusts absolutely no one. He makes decisions of questionable moral integrity and doesn’t necessarily always do the right thing.
And as much as I love the Spanish country as a substitute for the American west, The Searchers was filmed in Monument Valley and seems almost too beautiful to be real. The score is equally epic and has the same feeling of importance, proving to me that musical elements other than jangly guitars and whistling can be just as iconic.
There’s a wonderful documentary on the Blu-ray that contains interviews with directors Martin Scorsese, John Milius and Curtis Hanson. They discuss the importance of the movie on their careers and its place in cinema history. Another documentary on the Blu-ray goes deep into the history and making of the film, which I thought was UBER-educational. It seems that this movie was the culmination of the long-time collaboration between John Wayne and John Ford. Watching the special features, I learned that Wayne and Ford didn’t have the best relationship for most of their work together. In the beginning, Ford was hard on Wayne, belittling him and making him try over and over again in repeated takes. Years later, when Wayne was a household name, he didn’t take much direction because he saw himself as an established star, which caused tension when he and Ford DID eventually work together again.
But the documentary on the disc points out that by the time of their collaboration on The Searchers, Wayne had aged into a seasoned pro who was perfect for the role of the grizzled, weary protagonist of the film. Their relationship had started out as a teacher/student, then developed into a tense rivalry, and finally into two seasoned veterans who had no longer had anything to prove and could work together without ego. The end product is stunning.
I’m not going to talk about the finer plot points of the movie or how exactly things end because everyone should see the film if they haven’t. Besides, that’s not the point of this column; the point is to say that I now LOVE John Wayne, and it’s all because of The Searchers.
In 2008, the American Film Institute named The Searchers the greatest American western of all time. It sits at number twelve on their “Greatest Movies” list. I have to say that I agree with the praise and accolades. The Searchers is really something. I’m glad I gave it a chance and I’m glad that it opened the door for me to John Wayne’s career. I’ve watched other movies of his since my first experience with The Searchers and I honestly haven’t had my mind blown like it was that first time. But that’s alright, because The Searchers set the bar pretty high and I don’t think much will be able to touch it.
Before I came to the other side, one of the criticisms of John Wayne that I had was that John Wayne didn’t act; he was simply himself in every role. When I was anti-Wayne, I used that against him. “He’s the same guy in every single movie!” But looking at it from the side of an admirer, I’ve decided that’s the mark of a true star. After all, isn’t that what all the greats do? Isn’t that why we love Humphrey Bogart, or Jack Nicholson, or Julia Roberts? The best actors, the actors we love to watch, often times don’t give us a creation; they give us themselves. If I’m being honest, that’s why I love Clint Eastwood.
And now that’s why I love John Wayne.