At the 92nd Academy Awards, when Bong Joon Ho was accepting his Oscar for Best Director (for Parasite), he paid tributes to each of his fellow nominees. The first (and most memorable) was toward Martin Scorsese, which prompted an unexpected standing ovation. It was clear that Bong Joon Ho was paying tribute to a mentor.
In the filming industry, perhaps no other career is more vocal of paying tribute to mentors than that of a director. Most (if not all) have stated they have been in total admiration of a certain director that came before them, often rewatching their films almost to a degree of pure obsession. Certain names come to mind: Hitchcock, Kubrick, Welles, Kurosawa, Spielberg, Scorsese, Eastwood, Coppola, Lucas, Tarantino, and Spike Lee, to name a few. However, all the big named directors seem to have one person they all agree on that had influenced their career. That name is John Ford. Famously, when Orson Welles was asked the directors he admired most, he said, “John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.”
The winner of four Best Director awards (not including two others for short films) and the first winner of the AFI lifetime achievement awards, directors around the world are in some way, shape, and form in debt to Ford. He is most associated with the western. When we envision the old west, it is most likely seen the way Ford saw it. A time long ago, a relic. In a way, it is how we sometimes look at the Bible.
Though I am still in the mist of seeing as many of his films as I can (he made over a hundred, so I got a way to go), The Searchers is more than likely his most well known, and certainty the most studied. David Lean watched it to prepare for Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and even a popular song from Buddy Holly was inspired by one of the film’s lines.
Set in Texas, 1868, the door opens to the great outdoors of the west, as a returning Civil War Veteran visits his sister’s family. The man is Ethan Edwards (John Wayne, in perhaps his best role). He is tired and worn (as his face clearly shows), and wants nothing more than to take it easy. We learn his one main character trait: he is clearly racist. Not towards African Americans, but American Indians (mainly the Comanche).
Soon enough, the Comanche arrive, and kidnap his niece Debbie. He sets out to find her, only to realize that those accompanying him (especially the Reverend, played by the great character actor Ward Bond) are slowing him down. The only one truly able to stick his own with Ethan is Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), Debbie’s adopted brother, who Ethan is not fond of at all (Martin is part Indian). Undoubtedly, Ethan is not someone to mess with. There is a moment in the movie where he sees trouble, and just whips his gun out of the cover. That is one small moment when you realize that making this man mad is a death sentence.
Set just after the Civil War, first time viewers may find it strange to know that the quest for Debby indeed takes time. Five years in fact. This is shown in small touches, such as when Martin’s love interest Laurie (Vera Miles) is told she has been written by Martin. Not just one letter, but two letters in one year. It takes so much time that when Debbie is finally seen, she is no longer played by Lana Wood, but her older (and more popular) sister, Natalie Wood. Looking back, you realize that character development sometimes takes a while. How often have we heard (or experienced) times where God works on our character for months or even years?
In my view, there is a certain unique delicacy in a John Ford film. Each time you see how the camera is placed, you realize it could not be placed anywhere else. The shots can be put on pause, and you could study each one like you would a famous painting. In short, Ford was what all directors strive to be from the beginning: an artist.
While some directors are known for reshooting scenes until they are satisfied (most notably Stanley Kubrick), Ford was not one of them. He was a fan of getting the scene done on the first take (nowadays, this is especially attributed to Clint Eastwood, who has also stated his admiration of John Ford). Perhaps it was because he wanted the first impulse of the actor saying the line to be filmed, or because he was (reportedly) not a fan of dialogue, it is hard to say. The stories I have heard of working with him are, well, interesting, to say the least. The only person who seemed able to stand up to Ford was Katharine Hepurn (whom he became romantic with for a time). Regardless, the overall outcome seemed to work.
Even the comedy of the film is effective. For one reason or another, a vast majority of them involve the character of Martin: Just in the wrong place at the wrong time. My favorite is a fight scene between him and another man trying to win the affections of Laurie. The scene is not as over the top as the fight scene in Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952), but it still should make you feel unexpected uproars of laughter. The same can also be said of an very unwanted battle wound for the Ward Bond character in a very unfortunate place. How did he get that wound? If you have to ask, you were not paying attention.
Parents, I am all for kids getting a head start on old classics (especially westerns). Still, it should be noted that the racism of the film is apparent (although what the Comanche do is indeed reprehensible). Still, the film has maybe two or three minor swears, so middle school and up would be fine.
There are certain movies which are blessed to have a great opening shot, or a great closing one. Very few have both, especially when they compliment each other by being virtually the same, like bookends. Just some that come to mind include Saving Private Ryan (1998) with the American Flag, 1917 (2019) with a soldier resting under a tree, and Parasite (2019) looking out the window into the street. Then there is The Searchers. After characters have returned, there is only Ethan Edwards left in the doorway. While others have entered, he stands alone, isolated. As he walks away, the door closes on him. Closes on the story. Closes on the old west. Lost to history.
Thankfully, never forgotten.
If it were, well…that’ll be the day.