Ride Away: John Wayne in John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS (Warner Brothers 1956)

John Ford’s  THE SEARCHERS is without question an American Film Classic. I’d even go as far as saying it’s my second all-time favorite film, directly behind CASABLANCA. Every shot is a Remington Old West masterpiece, every actor perfect in their role, large or small, and not a minute of footage is wasted. The film has also stirred up quite a bit of controversy over time for John Wayne’s portrayal of the main character Ethan Edwards.

The plot is structured like Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”, but let’s get it out of the way right now: Ethan Edwards is no hero. He’s a mean, bitter, unreconstructed Confederate who’s been on the shady side of the law since war’s end. When he returns to his brother Aaron’s homestead, he makes no bones about his distaste for “half-breed” Martin Pawley (really an eighth Cherokee). His hatred of Native Americans even extends to their dead, as we see him shoot out the eyes of a Comanche corpse so his soul “must wander the spirit world between the winds”. He taunts Martin when the young man unwittingly marries the squaw Look, derisively referring to her as “Mrs. Pawley”.

Ethan is a hard man to get along with, yet for all his macho bravado (“That’ll be the day”, he intones whenever someone challenges him), he shows signs of compassion throughout the film. He’s tender with his nieces and nephews (and sister-in-law Martha; there’s a suggestion that they were once more than friends). He spares Martin the agony of looking into the burned out homestead to gaze upon the bodies of his loved ones. His love for family is delineated as he tries to shield niece Lucy’s grim fate from Martin and young Brad Jorgensen, and his response when Brad asks what happened is tortured: “What do you want me to do, draw you a picture? Spell it out? Don’t ever ask me! Long as you live, don’t ever ask me”.

Ethan’s search for surviving niece Debbie, captured by the renegade Comanche Scar, has a murderous purpose; he intends to kill the despoiled girl to save her from what he considers a fate worse than death – miscegenation. Yet when he finally tracks her down, blood in his eyes, he has a change of heart, and the softly spoken, haunting words, “Let’s go home, Debbie” never fail to mist me up. Ethan Edwards is a complex character, Kris Kristofferson’s “walking contradiction” come to life, as imperfect and flawed as the rest of us. It is indisputably John Wayne’s finest screen performance; the fact he wasn’t even nominated for the Academy Award is another in the long list of Oscar crimes.

Wayne’s dark Ethan Edwards is counterbalanced by Jeffrey Hunter’s sweet-natured Martin Pawley. A somewhat naïve young man, Martin longs for acceptance by ‘Uncle’ Ethan (Edwards disdains the term when Martin uses it), and is as dogged in his determination to find Debbie as the older man, though his intentions are more altruistic. Martin’s letters home to his sweetheart Laurie (played by Vera Miles) serve as narration to the story, and the scenes they share together as comic interludes to the film’s heavy tone. A 20th Century-Fox contract player, Hunter got his big break with THE SEARCHERS, and plays well off Wayne’s Edwards (Ford used the actor again in both THE LAST HURRAH and SERGEANT RUTLEDGE). Two of his most famous roles were in Nicholas Ray’s 1961 Biblical drama KING OF KINGS (which Hunter referred to as ” I Was a Teenage Jesus”) and the pilot episode of STAR TREK as Enterprise Commander Christopher Pike, later reworked into a two-part episode titled “The Menagerie”. Jeffrey Hunter continued his career in Europe, including a pair of Spaghetti Westerns (THE CHRISTMAS KID, FIND A PLACE TO DIE) before succumbing to a brain hemorrhage in 1969 at age 42.

By far my favorite character in THE SEARCHERS is the slightly crazy Ol’ Mose Harper, played by sagebrush vet Hank Worden. Long a Ford favorite, this was Worden’s biggest role, and he surely takes the tommyhawk and runs with it! The simplistic Mose greets every insult to his intelligence with a hearty, “Thank ya kindly!”, and holds the key to finding Debbie, wanting only in return “Just a roof over Ol’ Mose’s head, and a rockin’ chair by the fire – my own rockin’ chair”. Worden, best known to modern-day viewers as the waiter on the original TWIN PEAKS, was a member in good standing of the Ford Stock Company, and was used by Wayne in many of his later films (you can read my piece on Hank Worden’s career by clicking this link ).

Henry Brandon as Comanche war chief Scar is Ethan’s opposite number; he’s as filled with hatred for the white race as Edwards is for the Indians. Unlike the noble opponents found in many Wayne Westerns (SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON,  MCLINTOCK!), Scar is as ruthless and uncompromising in his hostility as Edwards, and his reaction to the white man’s hatred and oppression is hatred and oppression of his own, which only serves to fan the flames of discord between the races. It’s a lesson neither Scar nor Ethan ever learn, and continues today on the extremes of the political spectrum (Left and Right).

The rest of the cast is equally superb, including Natalie Wood as Debbie, Ward Bond as Reverend/Texas Ranger Samuel Clayton Johnson, Ken Curtis as Martin’s love rival Charlie (they engage in a comic brawl over Vera Miles’ affections), John Qualen as Lars Jorgensen, and Harry Carey Jr as Brad. Harry’s mother Olive Carey is cast as Mrs. Jorgensen, and in that famous final shot in the doorway Duke pays homage to her late husband Harry Carey Sr. by grasping his right arm at the elbow, a pose Carey struck in many a Western. Wayne’s son Patrick appears toward the end as callow Lt. Greenhill, and it’s fun to watch The Duke watching Pat act opposite Bond; that bemused look on his face is priceless! There are other Familiar Faces dotting the landscape as well, Danny Borzage, Dorothy Jordan, Mae Marsh, Antonio Moreno, Chief Thundercloud, and Natalie’s sister Lana Wood (playing Debbie as a child) among them.

 Speaking of landscapes, DP Winton Hoch beautifully brings Ford’s favorite shooting canvas Monument Valley to life in breathtaking VistaVision and Technicolor. Additional location footage was shot in California, Utah, and Alberta, Canada, as well as Hollywood’s soundstages, all blended brilliantly by editor Jack Murray. And no one other than the great Max Steiner could do justice to a film of this magnitude; his score ranks among his all-time best.

As for the Old Master himself, John Ford was at the peak of his creative talent, his keen eye for detail making every shot a work of art. But THE SEARCHERS would be his last great masterpiece (though a case could be made for THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE). Ford was 66 years old, his eyesight failing, and his years of alcohol abuse were beginning to take their deadly toll. His pictures after this seemed to be losing their vibrancy, that distinctive John Ford touch. Thus it is that THE SEARCHERS is the note the director should’ve ended on artistically, but unfortunately life never truly imitates art, does it? It’s a film that consistently ranks high in critic’s and filmmaker’s top tens, and one worth repeated viewings to soak in all the nuances of characterization and mise en scene. THE SEARCHERS is a film I don’t just recommend, I implore you to watch. It is truly that damn good.

 

Creature Double Feature: THE BLACK SCORPION (1957) and THE KILLER SHREWS (1959)

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Back in the glory days of local television, Boston’s WLVI-TV (Channel 56) ran a Saturday afternoon movie series titled “Creature Double Feature”. It was a huge ratings hit during the 1970’s, introducing young viewers to the BEM (bug-eyed monsters) movies of the past. Let’s return now to those halcyon days of yesterday with a look at two sci-fi flicks from the fabulous 50’s.

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First up is THE BLACK SCORPION, a 1957 giant monster movie from Warner Brothers. This low-budget saga starts off with stock footage of volcanos erupting and earthquakes a-quaking, and a hyperbolic narrator expounding on natural disasters threatening Mexico. Two brawny geologists, Hank and Artur, investigate the devastation. While out scouting they run into beautiful rancher Teresa Alvarez, whose vaqueros have fled the hacienda in fear. After getting them back on the ranch, our scientists attend an autopsy of a dead Mexican cop (the doctor performing the autopsy looks like he should be starring in his own series of Mexican horror flicks!). The result is “organic poisoning”, and a giant footprint has been found at the scene of the crime.

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While scientist Hank and Teresa get cozy, scientist Artur has found a fossil with a live scorpion embedded inside (this particular scorpion squeaks like a mouse for no apparent reason). Teresa gets a call from the telephone lineman repairing the lines, and at this point they’re coincidentally attacked by a giant black scorpion! The scorpion attacks the village, causing the villagers to flee in panic (one of them exclaims “It’s a giant scorpion!”, just to make things clear). Experts led by Dr. Velasco believe the Giant Scorp was released by the recent upheavals (again, in case you weren’t sure). Hank and Artur , the Mexican Army (well, one truckload), and the vaqueros seek the Giant Scorps’ lair, and the two geologists are lowered by crane into a crevice, only to discover a whole host of Giant Scorps! A Giant Scorp grabs their cage, and they have to escape by being pulled up on the cable (including little Juanito, who stowed away with the scientists… and the less said about this obnoxious little brat the better!).

Explosives are used to seal off the Giant Scorps, and the threat to humanity is over. Not quite- it seems another Giant Scorp found a way out, and is threatening Mexico City! This is the point where I lost interest in THE BLACK SCORPION, and will spare you the details. There’s far too much talking and standing around, and it’s 88 minute running time seems to go on forever.  Despite having sci-fi stalwarts Richard Denning (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) and Mara Corday (TARANTULA) as stars, and fine special effects from Willis O’Brien (except when the filmmakers choose to use the Bert I. Gordon superimposition method in some scenes), the movie drags on and on, and is one of the lesser giant monster movies of the 50’s. One viewing of this turkey was more than enough for me, with only O’Brien’s special effects of interest.

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Next is THE KILLER SHREWS, and despite having an even lower budget, this film is far more enjoyable. Captain Thorne Sherman (James Best of THE DUKES OF HAZZARD) and his first mate Rook arrive at an island to drop off supplies. They’re greeted by Dr. Cragis (Baruch Lumet, father of director Sidney), his daughter Ann (Miss Sweden 1956 Ingrid Goude), assistant Dr. Baines (pirate radio king Gordon McLendon), Ann’s ex-fiancé Jerry (Ken Curtis, GUNSMOKE’s Festus), and servant Mario. A hurricane is brewing and Thorne and Rook are planning on spending the night, despite protests from the Cragis bunch. It seems they’ve been monkeying around with some sort of formula on shrews, little rat-like creatures who are basically eating machines. The experiments were designed to study the effects of overpopulation, or so they say. Drunken, irresponsible Jerry did something stupid, and now the island is overrun with vicious, insatiable Killer Shrews the size of dogs. And not those ratty little teacup pooches either, but dogs the size of German Shepherds!

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The Killer Shrews are actually dogs made up to look like monstrous shrews, with matted fur and long, sharp teeth! They’re pretty laughable, especially in close-up, when puppet headed Killer Shrews stand in for the dogs. The dark lighting and nighttime exterior shots almost but not quite help suspend belief, but the dog/shrews are just too ludicrous. Anyway, Rook gets attacked and killed, then Thorne and the gang are trapped in the house while 200-300 Killer Shrews try to dig their way inside. At least theoretically; there’s really only about six dogs/shrews made up for the movie, but 200-300 sounds far more ominous.  Oh, and the Killer Shrews are rabid, to boot- one bite from their venomous fangs and its adios amigo!

Yes it sounds incredibly cheezy, and it is, but THE KILLER SHREWS has a certain lunatic energy to it that makes it exciting to watch, unlike the dull BLACK SCORPION. Actors Curtis and McLendon produced this made-in-Dallas film simultaneously with another giant monster flick, THE GIANT GILA MONSTER. Both films were directed by Ray Kellogg, former special effects wizard at 20th Century-Fox. Kellogg also worked as second-unit director on many films, and co-directed the 1968 war drama THE GREEN BERETS with its star John Wayne.

Let’s end this look back at sci-fi of yesteryear with the credits for Channel 56’s late, lamented “Creature Double Feature”, with music by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. (and if you’d like to see more of these sci-fi double-feature posts, let me know in the comments section!):