Geoffrey Long
Tip of the Quill: Archives
Critiques: The Searchers.

As I'm going through the AFI Top 100 (top 122, once you combine the old list and the new list), I'm continually discovering things. One, that it's a terrible idea to watch classic films late at night when you're tired, and two, it's a much better idea to wake up early on a Saturday morning and put one on – this morning, for example, I woke up and put on John Ford's 1956 Western The Searchers. The result was a nostalgic flashback to when I was a kid and the networks would play old movies after the cartoons on Saturdays, and a personal resolution that this is something I'll do with my kids someday. Laura and I were talking about the list in the car last night and I found out that she's seen way more of these than I have, in large part to this being something her family would do together. We did this in my family too, somewhat, but we never watched as many classics. I remember going to see Return of the Jedi a second time with my Mom, the Indiana Jones and Back to the Future movies with both of my folks, and seeing Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home in the theater when I was 9 and falling asleep just as the crew was about to go back in time and waking up just after they returned, which meant that for years I thought Star Trek IV was just a really short, really dark movie that took place inside a spaceship. Yeesh.

Watching The Searchers, though, makes me wish that the VCR had been invented sooner, or that it might have become more widespread much earlier, since I suspect that my Grandpa Alexander and I might have had a great time watching these John Wayne movies together. Instead, Grandma and Grandpa's TV never even had video in jacks, which I remember from being frustrated the first time I tried to hook up my original NES, and instead of us watching this kind of thing together I just know that Grandpa had piles and piles of old Louis L'amour Westerns around the house, and I was too young to really get into them. I was more interested in G. I. Joe and Masters of the Universe, and our bonding experiences tended to happen more on our regular trips to the malls in Akron and Canton and sharing fried fish and shrimp at Red Lobster. I believe that's why I like going shopping and eating out so much now, because of how much fun I had with them when I was a kid.

Missed opportunities aside, watching John Wayne movies is a great way to understand the culture of my Grandpa's generation; knowing that this actor was considered worth emulating for a large demographic of men helps to understand their ethics, their attitudes, and even their modes of communication. I wonder what I'd be like now if I'd watched more John Wayne as a kid and less Captain Kirk. More stiff upper lip, I'm sure, more "That'll be the day!" and more swagger. Which now makes me wonder who the modern John Waynes are – Russell Crowe? Hugh Jackman? I tend to agree with the popular assertion that George Clooney is our generation's Cary Grant, and that my folks' generation John Wayne was probably Clint Eastwood, but modern Westerns tend to feel more like gimmick movies instead of a real, heartfelt genre. I managed to catch the modern remake of The 3:10 to Yuma while I was in Austin for AGDC last year and I thought it was fun, but it didn't feel like a real Western – but why that is, that's more difficult to explain.

The Searchers is a fascinating time capsule, both of what the Wild West might have been like and of how Hollywood was selling the Wild West in the mid-1950s. The scenes of the the film feel like an old Viewmaster toy reel, with beautifully clear skies and towering buttes and mesas. Watching The Searchers in HD-DVD like I did is somewhat jarring; a crisp, clear Western doesn't feel as authentic as a scratchy, somewhat out-of-focus Western (although there are a few scenes in the HD-DVD version that remain fuzzy, due to an uneven restoration), but I'm not sure that's it. It might be the tinny music, or the sense of, if you'll pardon the clich̩, sweeping grandeur of the shots that are harder to get now outside of a CGI film. When watching The Searchers there's no sense that if the camera were to go over just one more hill there'd be a Wal-Mart and a McDonald's squatting next to a six-lane freeway, which is hard to replicate in modern Westerns. Political correctness also stands in the way of a really good modern cowboys-and-Indians movie, I suspect, due to both a more popular contemporary notion of relative culture values and of fear of lawsuits from the descendants of "the Comanch". And, oddly enough, the modern desire for the dark and bloody means that films where the good guys simply fall down clutching their chests when shot without a glimpse of red are getting harder and harder to come by Рalthough they might be ideally suited for the kind of low-budget filmmaking delivered on YouTube. Films like this demonstrate that you don't need huge budgets to make entertaining films, just a handful of fascinating characters, some great character actors (Hank Worden's Mose Harper was priceless) and some brilliant settings Рall great lessons for modern cineastes, media scholars and filmmakers to relearn.

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