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Saturday, 11 September 2010

JOHN WAYNE TRIBUTE WEEKEND: Simply the greatest western of them all

The Outsider
Quite simply the greatest western of them all, so said film critic, Barry Norman and I agree with him fully. Every great actor has a performance by which everything else is judged and for Wayne The Searchers is that movie - Think of any defining performance, DeNiro in the Taxi Driver, Brando in On The Waterfront, Orson Welles in Citizen Kane and Wayne's turn in The Searchers is equal to any of them.

John Wayne gave a peerless turn as Ethan Edwards and John Ford directed a movie that stands head and shoulders above any other western. It was a perfection of the genre and a film that it is doubtful will ever be bettered.

The film even managed to improve on it's source novel - Alan LeMay's The Searchers - by adding a prologue to the story in which we see Ethan ride into the Edwards homestead. Right from the start Ethan has an air of mystery about him and Wayne gives a fully nuanced turn and he is backed up by a perfect supporting cast which included Ward Bone, Jeffrey Hunter and Natalie Wood. To my mind Wayne has never been better - he plays Ethan Edwards with vigour and brings his tortured soul to the forefront; he is both darkness and light at the same time. It is clear that Ethan Edwards has been damaged by his war experiences and even when surrounded by family, as in the opening scenes of the movie, he is still very much alone. When he stands it is as if there is a force field around him that no-one can penetrate - though it is clear that someone once penetrated it and got close to him, but that someone is his own brother's wife and so Ethan Edwards must walk a lonely road. Is it in fact his niece he is searching for or is it his own daughter? And when he clutches the girl tenderly at the end of the picture is it because she reminds him of his own forbidden love or is she a direct result of that love? In the source novel the missing girl is clearly Edwards' niece but the film is  much more ambiguous.
Years in the saddle, years in searching

Many Wayne fans argue between this movie and Red River as to which is the best Wayne performance, but whilst Red River is an absolute classic with a stand-out turn from Wayne, The Searchers is in a class of its own. Stick the film on and look into Wayne's eyes when he screams the line at Brad and Martin after he confesses to finding Lucy's body and then I dare you to say, that he always played the same character.

It also helps that the film is spread out on such an epic scale with the Vistavision landscapes being nothing short of  breathtaking. The lighter moments are also perfectly balanced and slot seamlessly into what is in effect a dark dark movie. This is pure western noir with Wayne giving us an anti-hero of real substance.

There's real hatred in those eyes
You know I'm not sure exactly how many times I've seen this movie, but I can speak the dialogue line for line with the actors on the screen - I watch it at least twice a year and always enjoy it. And the more I watch it, the more I am amazed by its sheer brilliance. That Wayne never got a Best Actor Oscar for this movie is a perfect example of how the Academy are often blind to genre movies and that fact that they overlooked this classic - Best Actor that year went to Yul Brynner and Best Director went to Michael Anderson for the plodding Around the World in 80 Days - made a travesty of the entire system.

The Searchers is now widely regarded as the greatest western of the 1950s, ( arguably the genre's greatest decade). The tale of a loner searching for a missing daughter/neice has been remade scores of times (most recently in Mel Gibson's Edge of Darkness). But John Ford's darkly profound study of obsession, racism and heroic solitude was shamefully shrugged off when it first appeared. Though Ford was Hollywood's most honoured auteur, with four Oscars as Best Director, he got nothing when he made his masterpiece. The Academy also ignored the towering performance of John Wayne as the scarred Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards, who either, depending on the viewer's viewpoint,  exorcises his demons or surrenders to them in violent revenge. Wayne would finally get an Oscar for his assured but much less complex performance as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit
But reward his most powerful role?
That'll be the day.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great review! Its been my favorite western for many years. I think you have it right by rating it as #1.