Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Way West



I remember seeing The Searchers as part of a Western film exhibit at the East Wing of the National Gallery many years ago.   This trailer greatly simplifies the theme of the movie, as it is perhaps the greatest Western film ever made, not just because of its stunning cinematography but the sense of cultural ambiguity John Ford creates in his big screen adaptation of Alan Le May's novel from a few years before.

As J. Hoberman points out in his review for the New York Times, Le May's story was based on an 1836 account of a 9-year-old girl, Cynthia Ann Parker, who was abducted by Comanches in an ongoing range war with Texas settlers.  Young Cynthia was forced to watch her parents killed, and was subsequently raised in the Comanche tribe, as personified by "Scar" in the movie.  It was one of John Wayne's few enigmatic roles, a former Southern Civil War soldier bent on revenge for the deaths of his cousins, and seeming to have no sympathy for the grown-up girl, now known by her Comanche name.

Glenn Frankel has sought out the history of the film, not just in its making but in the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, the range wars taking place in the West, and the genre of Western writing that had grown up in the 1830s, most notably in the writings of John Fenimore Cooper, in which abductions figured heavily into his novels.

Sounds like a great read.

36 comments:

  1. I read the first part of the intro at Amazon (which starts with Ford and Fonda filming Mr. Roberts of all things) -- it does sound interesting.

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  2. Let me know if you decided to read this. I just ordered a copy. Sounds like a nice change of pace. Probably will try to pick up the movie, too, because I don't think I've ever seen it.

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  3. I'm ordering a copy too. Hopefully we can convince others to read along as well. If not, the theme of the topic is broad enough to invite discussion.

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  4. Cool. Look forward to it. Much has been written about this whole idea of the captivity novel and how some women preferred to stay "captives." Hopefully this is part of what he discusses in addition to the film itself.

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  5. However, in this case it doesn't sound like Cynthia had much of a choice. It was interesting that the Unforgiven was also based on an Alan Le May novel.

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  6. I watched Little Big Man last night, which also integrates the captivity trope, but from a different angle (along with most Western myths). I was surprised by how well the movie held up after all these years.

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  7. Good movie. Might have to watch that one again.

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  8. My library has a long waiting list for the book & it won't be available for about a month. I previously ordered 2 other books one of which was re Nast.

    Dunno if I can join you but will check for the movie & chime in where possible.

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    1. The movie is available & I can watch it during the discussion - haven't seen it in many years and I believe it was John Wayne's greatest role.

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    2. I can push forward the discussion to May 6.

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  9. Trippler, hope you can get the book! I bet we'll still be waiting on ours or just starting to read it.

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    1. I just placed a request and am 7th on line for it. Hopefully, it will be available soon!

      :)

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    2. Ach! Got corrected status from the library: am 13th on line for the book. The movie is readily available and will request it soon.

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  10. Read Edward Buscombe's short commentary on The Searchers, which he wrote for a series on classic movies for BFI,

    http://books.google.lt/books/about/The_Searchers.html?id=eCVVlhu8AgYC&redir_esc=y

    He talks mostly of Ford's approach to the film, but adds in a few little historic nuggets. Looking forward to the book.

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  11. I tried to sign up again for Netflix but didn't get through without changing my email address or password or whatever, and went back to my book rather than mess with it. (Just finished my second Pat Barker novel; will start the Regeneration trilogy next.)

    In any event, will try to find a copy of the movie or sign up again today so that I can watch the film. The book gets here Saturday.

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  12. Wonder where ANONYMOUS is ... if s/he has an interest in western history or just Mormon history.

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  13. You can watch it through amazon,

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Searchers/dp/B001QJUX24/ref=sr_1_1_vod_1_ren?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1365358533&sr=1-1

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  14. Thanks. I found a copy on sale at my local book/video store. $6. Watched it last night. What a fascinating mess of a movie. Look forward to discussing it.

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  15. It's greatness is more in that it turned a corner in the genre, presaging great Westerns like Once Upon a Time in the West in the 60s, and of course its stunning cinematography.

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  16. If ever I needed a book to help explain a movie, particularly a "great" movie, this is it. I started reading the essay you linked but wanted to watch the movie first, so will go back to that now.

    You're right -- the cinematography is often breathtaking. Even the scenes in the snow are visually stunning.

    But the acting in places seemed wooden to me -- almost like they were reading their lines. And I never did figure out the character played by John Wayne. He seemed to be all over the place.

    I'm also fascinated by how those westerns like to feature the rebel soldier who never surrendered. I know I've read about that in the past -- probably in Slotkin -- but what's that all about anyway?

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  17. The Lost Cause held a lot of romance, especially when presented against the backdrop of Monument Valley. However, in this case, I think it suited Ford's vision, as finding Debbie often appeared as a Lost Cause, and drove Ethan and Marty ever further away from the ranch. Who else but a guy like Ethan would continue such a search for 8 years? And, who else but Marty would ensure he bring her back alive? I had forgotten that this was a chronological tale, and that Natalie's younger sister, Lana, played the young Debbie.

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  18. Without getting too deep into the discussion before the book, Buscombe raises the issue of miscegenation, which figured heavily into the story. I thought it was a pretty tight story. Acting could have been better though.

    I think Ford stretched Wayne's acting abilities about as far as they would go in a film like this. I have to wonder if Ford would have picked Fonda, had they not had a fallout after Mr. Roberts. Fonda was great in Once Upon a Time in the West.

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  19. It's fun to think about this in advance of reading the book since I have all sorts of questions.

    Interesting about Fonda -- maybe that's why the book starts with their fallout. Wayne did okay but if you watch it again, notice how so many of the actors seem to be sitting on their lines. It's the visual aspect of the film that carries it -- even the interiors.

    And yes, the "half-breed" as he's called, comes through. He was probably the most interesting character of the movie, although even that's a little murky, or ambiguous which I guess is considered one of its strengths. His mother's blond hair is displayed by Scar, so he's apparently "1/8 Cherokee" through his father.

    Lots to talk about, that's for sure!

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  20. It is an odd movie, like you say. All the pieces are there but something appears missing. Lindsay Anderson loved John Ford but apparently didn't think too much of The Searchers, giving it low marks in his book, About John Ford. I'm sure Frankel will pick up on this, as Buscombe did.

    However, reviews were generally very favorable, as Buscombe noted, some effulgent in their praise for the film. Yet, it received no major Oscar nominations, but then it seemed the Academy had a thing against Westerns.

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  21. Yeah, all the pieces but no unifying thread. I think that's a great analysis. I read the link you posted -- it only went for a few pages but he does a nice job of describing the opening of the film.

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  22. BFI put out a series of pamphlets on great films, including Salman Rushdie on Wizard of Oz, which is well worth reading.

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  23. I heard from Bo -- he's still getting pop-ups and page changes on this site. I did too when using a different computer. I'll report it as well.

    Hope to pick up my book today. Looking forward to it, since I've been thinking a lot about the movie. Aside from the stunning landscapes and visual framing of the story, which sets it apart (e.g., like Birth of a Nation) maybe this is what an early and very slightly anti-racist movie looks like in the 1950s?

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  24. Seems Bo and Rick don't want to use adblocker. There is no way to avoid those pop-ups otherwise.

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  25. I think Bo tried, but had other problems. In any event, it does work! And I did report it (again).

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  26. I did use adblocker and it worked for the most part but a week later something called Babylon Search hijacked my homepage and it was really nasty to get get rid of.I thought maybe it came through Adblock since that was all I added but it seems now it came through Google.An aside I downloaded a removal tool for Babylon and it turned out to be a link that hijacked my hijacked home page!I had to go back a month and restart then go into registry to remove all the crap.After that I clicked here one night and the freaking pop up page came up again.So tonight after a few weeks I took a chance and nothing evil seems to be showing up.

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  27. I had Babylon too at one point, but it doesn't come from adblocker. There is also one called SweetIM, which comes as a default search engine you don't want. They are mostly annoyances, not threatening, Youtube provides a way to get rid of these damn things,

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNMvjJcIV1g

    the same process works for Babylon. It hides itself in your browser settings and has to be removed manually.

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  28. Read the first part on Cynthia Ann. Very well written, I thought. Really looking forward to the discussion.

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  29. Yeah, not what I was expecting. I had heard some of that story before, but this was a lot more detail. I'm traveling again next week, so will read the second section on the plane.

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  30. I'll start a new heading on May 6. Hope Trip was able to get a copy of the book. If not here is some information on Cynthia Ann Parker from the Fort Worth library,

    http://fortworthtexas.gov/library/info/default.aspx?id=101296

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  31. This book looks interesting, and is available for perusing,

    The Searchers: Essays and Reflections on John Ford's Classic Western

    http://books.google.lt/books?id=BcQiOl0z2McC&printsec=frontcover&dq=The+Searchers:+Essays+and+Reflections+on+John+Ford%27s+Classic+Western&hl=en&sa=X&ei=FrSDUfIz6argBO6RgDg&redir_esc=y

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