Jul 10, 2006

The Searchers stinks

Stephen Metcalf says John Ford's The Searchers is the worst best movie.
Coming to The Searchers for the first time, I was surprised at how fidgeted-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. Though visually magnificent, the movie is otherwise off-putting to the contemporary sensibility, what with its when men were men, and women were hysterics mythos and an acting style that often appears frozen in tintype. (Hank Worden's turn, as the lovable village idiot, is particularly gruesome in this respect.) Not coincidentally, pop critics like Pauline Kael, who found much in the film "awkward," "static," and "corny," and Roger Ebert, who finds the movie flawed and "nervous," have been the most vocal dissenters in the cult of The Searchers. Its reputation lies elsewhere, with two influential and mutually reinforcing constituencies: critics whose careers emerged out of the rise of "film studies" as a discrete and self-respecting academic discipline, and the first generation of filmmakers—Scorsese and Schrader, but also Francis Ford Coppola, John Milius, and George Lucas—whose careers began in film school. The hosanna chorus for The Searchers is impossible to imagine, in other words, without the formalized presence of film in the university curriculum. The question, then, is: Why did the curriculum attach so intensely to so obviously flawed a movie?


For what The Searchers fails to provide (by way of pleasure) to a paying audience is well-compensated for by what it offers up (by way of raw material) to the interpretation factory. Every woman in the film is a tautly drawn and sexless pioneer wife, until we finally see the Comanche-adopted Debbie, played by the ravishing Natalie Wood. "These are my people," says little Debbie, now not so little and quite the stone fox in her snug Comanche outfit. "Unt-mea. Go. Go." Later, in the climax of the film, Ethan finally has Debbie in his sights. He has scalped—though not himself killed—his nemesis, Scar, but does not know that Debbie has at last consented to return to white society. And so he prepares, gun drawn, to exterminate her. I stand with the detractors of this silly film, but what follows must count as one of the more thrilling moments in anyone's movie-watching life. Wayne places his hands under the terrified Natalie Wood's armpits, then raises her up to the sky, examining her—murderously? Paternally? He then drops her into his arms and utters his first soft words of the film: "Let's go home, Debbie."
I don't like Westerns (with the exception of High Noon) and generally don't watch them. But I've been hearing about how great The Searchers was for years. So I decided to give in a couple of weeks ago when I saw it was being shown on Turner Classic Movies. What a disappointment. Metcalf hits the nail on the head:
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.

Boring is the operative word here. And, unlike Metcalf, I wasn't thrilled when Wayne failed to kill Natalie Wood--although I might have cheered if Wood had killed Wayne.

Added: Jaime J Weinman, who's decidedly pro-Searchers says Metcalf does a poor job of explaining what's wrong with the movie.
Stephen Metcalf saw an old movie, he didn't like it, and he devoted his column to explaining that everybody who likes the movie doesn't really think it's good, they're just looking for something they can interpret to death. Yeesh.
Maybe 'cuz there doesn't seem to be any other explanation? Anyway, Weinman the Searchers fan still doesn't explain why he thinks it's a great movie.

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