Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Searchers

The Searchers
seen on TV @ TCM

Back in the 90s, there was a popular comic book series called Preacher, which Hollywood has been trying to turn into a movie for awhile now, without success. The plot is... rather complicated. What's relevant here, though, is that Jesse, the main character, is a huge John Wayne fan; has been since he was a child. Periodically, throughout the story, what appears to be Wayne's ghost appears to Jesse to offer advice and inspiration when he needs it, a relationship not unlike that of Clarence and Elvis Presley in True Romance. It could be a ghost, but it could also be the protagonist's imagination. As in that movie, we never quite see Wayne's face; it's always in shadow, but there's never any question that it's him. 

Wayne in Preacher represents a certain idea of America in general and American manliness in particular (which is ironic, since it was written by an Irishman). Jesse has always tried to live his life according to the principles represented by Wayne in his movies, handed down through Jesse's father, but over the course of the story, Jesse learns how to grow beyond those basic, black-and-white, might-makes-right ideals in order to be with the woman he loves. In the story's context, it's not that they're inherently wrong. They're simply not enough.

The America of today bears little resemblance to that of Wayne's time, when we kicked Hitler's ass, stared down the Commies without blinking, and were the envy of the rest of the world, or so said the legends. The reality was much more complicated than that, but it was in a John Wayne movie, after all, where we learned what to do when the legend becomes fact. Wayne personified that era of American history, that self-image of the country, as much, if not more, than any other actor. Where can his like be found today?

Some have lamented that the male movie stars of the 21st century lack a certain ruggedness found in their forebears, and to a certain extent, it's hard to argue that. Shia LaBeouf or Taylor Kitsch can't hold a candle to the Duke and I think it's safe to say that they never will. Still, there ought to be some sort of middle ground, where Wayne's machismo is wedded to a more modern sensitivity. George Clooney probably comes closest to embodying that middle ground, though he's more Cary Grant than John Wayne.

On screen, Wayne was like a force of nature. His physical size was a factor, naturally, but it was also his bearing, the way he interacted with the rest of his cast, the way his most memorable characters lived by their own code - their own sense of right and wrong - that was evocative of less complex times. And I suspect that's why he remains appealing to those who believe life would be a lot simpler if it were more like a John Wayne movie (in spirit, I would hope, not in fact).

But then there's The Searchers, a movie with all the grandeur and scope of Wayne's greatest films, but one in which Wayne's character Ethan is problematic, to say the least. There's no delicate way to put it - Ethan is straight-up racist. The first time he meets Jeffrey Hunter's character, he calls him a half-breed. He spends all these years looking for his young niece, who was kidnapped by Indians, and when he finds her, he's ready to shoot her because she's been assimilated into their culture. What the hell is that about?

Perhaps it's about the reality behind the legends of the Wild West: that if you were anything other than a white male, you had it a hell of a lot rougher. That's not something people usually choose to dwell on, but it's impossible to avoid when looking at The Searchers today. 

The movie remains compelling to watch, though, partly because of all those breathtaking Monument Valley landscapes, and partly because of Wayne himself. One gets the impression that Ethan knows that the things he's seen and done sets himself apart from everyone else, an idea expressed in the famous final shot of Ethan, having returned his niece to their family, standing on the threshold of the frontier house, but not quite able to cross it. He loves her and goes to great extremes to rescue her, but he hates what she has become and won't be part of it. Not exactly a black-and-white, might-makes-right situation, and yet Wayne fits into it well.

No comments:

Post a Comment