Leone’s Westerns were commentaries on other Westerns.
I like Leone and all, but that’s the problem with his films; they are interesting because they’re entertaining-fake post-modern-blah with no real feelings or stakes. Ford, on the other hand, is interesting because he has something to say about life, family, and society. Leone should act as a gateway drug to the better westerns; but unfortunately, people (like myself for a time) think Ford and Wayne are squares and Leone and Eastwood are cutting edge, but its really the opposite, I think.
Also, the antagonist (I can’t think of his name) in Terror in a Texas Town is fascinating. The screenplay was written by Dalton Trumbo by the way, which might compel people to see it more than a popcorn-western. I tried to tell some people about the ending the other day and they thought it was the dumbest thing they’ve ever heard—and it probably would have been if Lewis wasn’t behind it all.
Are the ‘minor’ Joseph H. Lewis films any good? (I have only seen Big Combo, Gun Crazy, and TIATT).
…and how ‘bout that Sight and Sound….isn’t that somethin’….
For me meta-western is what makes Leone so special, plus: visually fascinating, nihilism and blood.
He also made that over bloated piece of sentimental tripe Once Upon a Time in America.
For me the casting of John Wayne in The Searchers is likely to have audiences accept his racism more readily, even though a generous interpretation might be that it implicates respectable USA as a whole, and that it’s being unusually realistic about prevailing attitudes. The casting for Scar is hardly progressive, and the film takes the viewpoint of white settlers, while the audience is made to share the tangible fear of indigenous Americans as dark, dangerous barely known Other. So while Ethan’s racism has some sort of opponent and alternative, more sympathetic, viewpoint in a mixed parentage nephew, and while he comes to the point of “Let’s go home, Debbie” instead of killing her- touching moment- scenes like the “wife” being kicked downhill rankle with me, as does the one-sided presentation.
There have been racist ideas about dark, different ethnic groups- romanies for instance- stealing white children that are still common. The main thrust of the film is about rescuing a stolen white girl from malicious forces, and restoring her to civilised society, even if Ethan is something of an outsider who has things in common with Scar, and returns violent customs in kind. Brutal actions on the raid are unlikely to be felt by white audiences anywhere near as strongly as the plight of Debbie and the frightening atmopshere at the beginning.
So for all its qualities it worries me that it should be in Sight & Sound’s top 10. It’s easy to be carried away by majestic locations etc while giving the message and implications the benefit of the doubt. Film critics often put artistic values ahead of socio-political; ideally a film can work wonders in both areas, admirable form + content.
It’s ridiculous that 34 years later Dances with Wolves was still relatively progressive even with white protagonists, so one-sided had Westerns been.
A great film shouldn’t be excluded because it is potentially seen as racist.
It doesn’t have to be excluded, but it’s far from top 10 material.
Breaking Bad morally judges its characters. You come out with the distinct impression that while Walter and Fring are a step above Tucco and the brothers, that Walter is no better than Fring.
The Searchers morally judges the Indians, but not the white characters for the exact same barbarism. If they had shown Ethan shooting Indian children on screen, maybe you could say it’s commenting on the barbarism on both sides, but it distinctly portrayed the Indians as barbaric and not the white people. The innocent white victims are displayed on screen and the innocent Indian victims are not.
I like Leone better than Ford. I mean, The Searchers and The Quiet Man have some social commentary, but can you really say Stagecoach or My Darling Clementine have more than Once Upon A Time In The West? Once Upon A Time On The West chronicles the death knell of the Western mythology. And if you’re going to critique Leone for being focused on genre the way Tarantino is, what about Liberty Valance? Ford directly comments on the artificialness of the genre. Ford and Leone are more similar than you give them credit for, just they have a different stylistic take on the ‘badass loner’ archetype.
Mars in Aries: “No Mexicans allowed?”
“Brutal actions on the raid are unlikely to be felt by white audiences anywhere near as strongly as the plight of Debbie and the frightening atmopshere at the beginning.”
Bear in mind that this was 1956, only a couple of decades after Native Americans had merely been ostensibly uniformly granted U.S. citizenship Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 (aka the Snyder Act . . . passed in 1924, at which point Ford had already made nearly 50 films), and a time when in many cities and states in the U.S., black Americans still couldn’t watch a film such as this one from the same theater seats that a white audience would have. So while it may not be progressive in our contemporary terms, it was certainly progressive in terms of the genre at that time . . . although, since we’ve broached the subject, not nearly as progressive as Sam Fuller’s Run of the Arrow, released only a year later (and an obvious model for Dances With Wolves many years later), and not nearly as interested in actually portraying non-white peoples as Ford was, for example, a few years later in Sergeant Rutledge and in Ford’s last Western, Cheyenne Autumn in 1964.
To be fair and realistic, this is 1950s Hollywood we’re talking about, so one can expect certain typical levels of racist representations. Regardless whether or not we want to offer a revisionist reading of Ford as a progressive-minded and socially-critical artist. In general it was ok to look down on people of color in 1956 and I’m sure Ford didn’t buck the trend. I’m not mad at him for it. I’m sure there were a select few who actually had the courage to stand against the status quo, even in Hollywood.
The progressive/conservative thing is something that a lot of people struggle with with Ford. Clearly something like The Grapes of Wrath, for example, is hard to paint as anything but progressive. As context, politically, he was overtly liberal for much of his life, and seems to have drifted toward more conservative views only later in life. Regarding his real life treatment of Native Americans, one of the reasons he worked in Monument Valley was that the Navajo people of that area needed the money (and according to Tag Gallagher, he payed the Navajo who worked on his films full union wage at a time when a Navajo laborer typically commanded a wage of less than 50 cents per day). He was a student of the Navajo language and culture, and was even adopted into the tribe.
No Mexicans allowed?
Hahahaha! Never! :P
@Jirin – So you’re saying that in order to morally judge a character they must be shown doing something brutal and barbaric? If The Searchers appears to judge the Indians, it is primarily because the film follows the white frontier people who are attempting to enact revenge (and, of course, get their family member back, or kill her).
The charge of racism still bewilders me precisely because the situation that’s presented isn’t exactly simple. And merely presenting a racist character does not mean condoning his actions. To this point I haven’t referenced outside sources for my point, but Matt has done this for me so I’ll piggy back. Ford, in his personal interactions with Indians was so progressive that I think we can give him the benefit of the doubt in The Searchers and assume that he is not condoning the motivated by racism killing of Indians, their children, etc. I’m also pretty sure that Ford would not consider Debbie’s plight as being “worse than death”. If anything, I think Ford’s personal viewpoint would be that the Indian Wars were inevitable. The violence was bound to happen and that morally judging his characters (hand-wringing) wouldn’t do anyone any good.
I like Leone better than Ford. I mean, The Searchers and The Quiet Man have some social commentary, but can you really say Stagecoach or My Darling Clementine have more than Once Upon A Time In The West?
I think so. Stagecoach is about social inversion:
“Ford and Nichols show the level of concern with the genres possibilities by the thoroughgoing way they altar society itself, as in a laboratory experiment, inside the stagecoach. Characters are pushed into new positions like that of a Rubik’s cube being shifted; they acquire new values by a changed relationship with what is next to them[….]. The emphasis on social class indicates that Ford was telling the truth, not just being pretentious, when he said that Nichols’s script was based on Guy de Maupassant’s short story Boule de Suif. "
Gary Wills’, “John Wayne’s America”.
I think that’s a pretty standard interpretation, too.
Whether of not The Searchers perpetuates racist attitudes, (which it probably does), is important to me only if I judge it based on its social and political value. If anything, the tension in the film between condemning prejudice and cultivating it makes it more interesting. Ford is like Mark Twain in that he could tells us the truth and the lie about America in an almost simultaneous fashion. How much should a film be judged based on the initial interpretation of its mass audience anyways? I mean, Twain’s Jim was a more well rounded character than any of the Native American’s in The Searchers, but I don’t think the readers of Huck Finn in the 1880’s interpreted the novel as being morally progressive or defying prejudice. Now, of course, we look back at Huck Finn in a different light, the same as we do with The Searchers.
When Ford did give us relatively Liberal, clear cut answers, like in Sgt. Rutledge and Cheyenne Autumn, the results were….lacking.
Also, the scene where Marty kicks the Native American woman down the hill could very well be considered the imagination of Vera Miles’ character as opposed to an objective reality; it is pretty explicit towards the end of the film (and to Marty’s terror), that she is just as racist as everyone else. Ford uses similar, flawed subjective states of imagination in Sgt. Rutledge.
Bobby Wise: And if [Leone’s] films make all the best-ever lists, they sure don’t rank too highly in the Sight & Sound poll.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST ranked at #78, which is pretty high and the third highest western on the list, even beating out THE WILD BUNCH, which is slightly superior in my mind.
Speaking of overrated Westerns, I also think The Wild Bunch leaves a lot to be desired. Perhaps that is a less blasphemous thought than saying the same about The Searchers.
Is there Leone vs. Ford thread? That would have been a good one (although maybe it would have gotten too heated).
As mentioned in another post, Hayden’s accent was only one of my problems. I didn’t really notice any distinctive or interesting use of the camera or editing in the film. What did you like about Lewis’ direction?
As mentioned in another post, Hayden’s accent was only one of my problems
Yeah, this is certainly not the kind of Western to garner a huge fanbase or anything. The thing is, I think Hayden had such a unique way of talking that if he did speak Sweedish that’s probably what he would sound like.
I didn’t really notice any distinctive or interesting use of the camera or editing in the film.
I think these shots are pretty good.
…amongst others. It is more the way he treats his characters than anything else.
I think there are bigger Joseph H. Lewis fans than me here, but when I have time I’ll come back and explain why the film appeals to me. (MUBI is a time stealing machine; five minutes here is like 30 minutes in real life.)
In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, we part with the sentiment “If the truth differs from the legend, report the legend.”
This is a retrospective statement of Ford’s entire career, and it’s no different from what Leone is doing. The only difference is that Ford’s style is the ‘American REAL MAN’ style and Leone’s is the grittier “Loner gunman driven by pride” style.
Either way Western heroes are pretty much just desert samurai.
“Is there Leone vs. Ford thread? That would have been a good one (although maybe it would have gotten too heated).”
Stylistically, Leone is Ford via Kurosawa.
“Either way Western heroes are pretty much just desert samurai.”
Or samurai are just Japanese cowboys, considering how much Kurosawa was influenced by Ford, and how the genre of Western films and tv shows dominated international pop culture for decades.
Not that I’m denigrating samurai films or trying to start an argument about which came first—both have historical precedents and there’s been quite a bit of influence back and forth.
Personally, as a major John Ford fan, I always have trouble figuring out where to rank The Searchers among his films. It’s obviously his most influential and legendary film, with pieces of it showing up in everything from Star Wars to Taxi Driver to Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Gangs of New York, and I’m partial to those who describe it as a sort of “Great American Epic”.
But when comparing it to other Ford films, I find it more flawed and much less tonally controlled than his best work. The film’s colors are remarkably beautiful, but I find that Ford’s poetry was at its best and most subtle in black and white. The drawn-out, twisting nature of the plot has always struck me as a little awkward as well, and while John Wayne’s performance is the finest of his career, I always find myself wishing someone other Jeffrey Hunter had played Martin.
Personally, I would probably put The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Young Mr. Lincoln, and My Darling Clementine above it, and I could probably be persuaded on How Green Was My Valley, Wagon Master, and The Sun Shines Bright. That last one, incidentally, might be Ford’s most profound statement on social prejudice, so if you still think Ford was a racist, check it out (you can find it on YouTube, I think).
And finally: Leone’s Dollar Trilogy, while awesome, is just a bunch of style and nihilistic gunplay. Once Upon a Time in the West, however, is quite a complex commentary on the western as a genre and a myth, and shouldn’t be dismissed so easily. Leone didn’t know much about everyday Americans, but he knew a heck of a lot about our pop culture. I’ll also stick up for Once Upon a Time in America as a flawed masterpiece, the kind of movie that sweeps you away with it so that four hours seem like one. It doesn’t have too much substantial to say about America either (well, a bit), but it has plenty to say about boyhood, friendship, ambition, and memory.
I can’t disagree with your statements about Leone, but I would argue Ford is just as style oriented. How many of his films depend on Wayne’s trademark American personality? Leone’s films are individualist and Ford’s collectivist, and that is the only difference. The two are equally mythological and would probably agree with that statement themselves.
And why is GBU downgraded for being all about genre style and not Pulp Fiction? Why is Birth Of A Nation downgraded for culturally reflective racism and not Searchers. Why all the double standards for specific directors?
“But when comparing it to other Ford films, I find it more flawed and much less tonally controlled than his best work.”
This seems reasonable to me. I’m no expert on Ford but I have to give the man credit and believe that aesthetically, he has much more stronger films in his repertoire than The Searchers. I also think the acting is generally sub-par and the pacing/narrative is very much off. Beyond that, there are some pretty panoramas. The same I imagine he’s been using his entire career.
Why is Birth Of A Nation downgraded for culturally reflective racism and not Searchers.
Because, as evidenced in this thread, there are a lot of people who don’t think The Searchers and Birth of a Nation are comparable in terms of racism. No one really debates how racist BotN is, do they? If you screen BotN, your local NAACP chapter will be up your ass at the screening, handing out fliers and reminding you that the movie you are about to watch is vile. No such thing happens as a screening for The Searchers. Hell, I’ve seen it in Monument Valley, hosted by a Navajo man whose family has been living in the area for generations. No one there had to prep us for the movie by telling us how racist it is. And while I know the movie was being shown there because of its Monument Valley vistas and as a piece of local pride, they could’ve shown dozens of titles and tourists would’ve been none the wiser. The only two Ford selections they were screening, though, were The Searchers and Stagecoach. There were a few other non-Ford films they’d show, but I can’t recall which ones right now.
Oh, and, by the way, Birth of a Nation isn’t just “culturally reflective racism”—it’s an adaptation of a racist novel (The Klansman) by a former slave owner and genuine, full-blown white supremacist, Thomas Dixon, Jr., a novel that intentionally distorts history for propagandistic purposes. If nothing else, at least the Comanche raids during the Texas-Indian Wars are a matter of verifiable historical fact.
Thanks to all those who answered my questions. I’ll give it a shot.
-Is Lynch a better director than Bunuel?
No. That should be obvious.
-Is The Searchers really the best Western or the best film by John Ford?
No. I’ll take The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or Stagecoach. In fact, Ford made other non Westerns that I find better than The Searchers.
-Is Godard the greatest director ever?
No. I think he is important but the l can think of a few that I think are better including Renoir, Lubitsch, Mizoguchi, Hitchcock….
-Is Tarkovsky the second best director?
No, but he is pretty terrific.
-Is Journey to Italy Rossellini’s best film?
Nope, but I think it is a precursor to Antonioni’s style and that is why it made it.
-Is Rio Bravo the best Hawks’ film?
No way. I’ll take Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday and Red River over that one.
-Is Nashville Altman’s best film?
My favorite is The Long Goodbye and McCabe and Mrs Miller but Nashville did have an impact on the 70’s.
-Is Close Up the best Iranian film ever?
No way. Good film, yes but I would choose Moment of Innocence or even Through The Olive Trees, which is the third film in a trilogy.
Seems popular opinion has it that The Searchers is neither the best film Ford ever made nor even the best Western.
Also seems people like Tarkovsky, but are not willing to put him with the elite. Interesting. I thought he stood on holy ground.
Anthony Mann is many leagues above John Ford IMO.