western

Is The Searchers the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

My favorite John Wayne performance is in The Quiet Man, a fish-out-of-water comedy about a gruff cowboy going to Ireland and falling in love with a fiery woman. It’s a strange movie, but it’s also not all that much more complex than that line would lead you to believe. Whatever you feel about John Wayne, it would be tough to say he has “range” as an actor, but he pulls off the comedy of that story (and True Grit, obviously) well. John Ford won an Academy Award for directing it and it’s a certified classic as a spin on a few different genres. The climactic fight really needs to be seen to be believed.

John Wayne works best when everyone around him is as little like John Wayne as possible. The idea of American masculinity at the time (and still today, in a lot of ways) is wrapped up in what John Wayne showed on the screen. In most John Wayne pictures, he shows up and gets exasperated at people who want to talk and plan. He acts. He’s effective because you don’t need to spend a lot of characterization to understand what he wants or how he plans to get it. Just as Peter Lorre visually transmits a completely different idea, Wayne requires very little storytelling for an audience to understand “good guy cowboy.”

The Searchers doesn’t completely bend that idea, but it does complicate it. John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a proud Confederate soldier who comes home to Texas years later after the war is lost and the world is changed. The subtext of The Quiet Man allows for some space where a brash American wandering into another culture and making a mess of things is actually a bad thing, but John Ford’s The Searchers is careful to tell us this hero of American masculinity and strength is actually an American terrorist. The audience in 1956 wouldn’t have used that term, but Wayne’s character is openly hostile to the figures that represent order and what we’d consider “the good guys.”

This is a really fascinating place to start. It would be one thing to introduce Ethan as a character always at odds with authority and someone we should view as a rebel, but Ford goes beyond that. Ethan makes a joke late in the movie about Union soldiers retreating, which is extra fascinating in the context of who they both are and what they represent. The Union solder is the son of a commanding officer and is clearly young and green and offers a contrast to Ethan’s experience and earned respect. Even still, every mention of Ethan’s background is grounded in his defense, even after the loss, of a racist rebellion that was quelled.

We live in a much different time, both than when this movie is set and when it was released. It’s not productive or even useful to try to ask what The Searchers means to a modern audience. This is becoming a theme in these reviews, though, because it’s how you will consume the movie. Ethan was supposed to read to the audience as a rebel, literally, but also as someone tough and resourceful. At the start of the story, Ethan has been through a tremendous, difficult journey, but one that, if examined, we wouldn’t agree was worth it.

This is important. Ethan is the main character, but he’s an evil, relentless bastard who takes every opportunity possible to extend cruelty. We aren’t supposed to hate him, exactly, but we aren’t supposed to agree with him, either. He comes home to a world slightly changed, but one where everyone still thinks he’s a hero and a symbol of virtue. Ward Bond plays the local lawman (and reverend) and he’s the only one who offers resistance to these ideas. Even he says they’ll sort it all out down the line and eventually sides with him, anyway.

Ethan’s family is murdered by Comanche and he vows to save the two women they abduct. He gives chase and stays on their trail for several years, with only his adopted nephew by his side. Martin Pawley, the nephew, is one-eighth Cherokee and Wayne’s character consistently uses slurs and insults him through the movie. It would be worth commenting on, but it’s pretty small in comparison to Ethan’s larger ethos.

Ethan believes the Comanche are soulless murderers, subhuman beyond discussion. When he encounters a dead Comanche warrior, he shoots the eyes out of the corpse explicitly to prevent the warrior from entering the afterlife. It goes well beyond establishing Ethan and the Comanche as antagonists and well beyond any rescue mission idea. Obviously the plot is a murder-revenge story, so Ford’s story tells us there’s a reason for this belief structure, but Ethan is explicitly racist, even in contrast to other characters.

It becomes clear early on that only one of the two women might be saved. Ethan vows that he will save her or kill her, and it’s really not all that important which it is. The rest of the cast is horrified, and this is really central to what Ford is trying to tell us about Ethan. It would be one thing to paint this as a reasonable response, but The Searchers is about the open war between the white settlers and the Comanche as much as it is about the fading humanity of Ethan Edwards. John Wayne usually saves the day, but here he no longer cares if the day gets saved or not. He’s going to finish this task, day be damned.

There’s a critical consensus around The Searchers as the best Western of all time and it’s easy to see why. The shots are gorgeous, even during a weird diversion in the snow. The side characters fill out the world, with a few memorable oddballs that give that trademark Western so-bad-it’s-good performance that is required to make the West feel different and specific. Natalie Wood is especially strange with the impossible task of the “converted” Comanche that Ethan and company need to save.

In 2021 it’s an extremely hard sell to watch John Wayne as a racist, psychotic Confederate soldier as the hero. But he’s not, and he wasn’t even at the time. There’s a lot of people who probably saw it all as justified and we’re definitely led down that path, but John Ford wants us to reject that. I don’t know that the story pushes hard enough on that idea for me to say that I love it, but I see what people see in it. It’s influenced dozens and dozens of iconic directors and films. John Ford and John Wayne made a million of these movies, but nothing really exactly like this one.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I don’t think there’s a legitimate defense of Johnny Guitar as a better Western than The Searchers, but I like it more. It’s not a better movie, I suppose, and Wayne’s performance has a much higher degree of difficulty than what Crawford and Hayden turn in for Johnny Guitar. This is one of the highest rated movies of all time by just about any metric you choose, but I struggled with it even though the lens of what it’s supposed to be. When I first saw it years ago I didn’t care for it much and while I liked it a great deal more and found it more complicated this time, it’s still just not for me.

Is it the best movie of all time? I don’t even think it’s the best John Ford/John Wayne movie, so no, it’s not. I also don’t think it’s better than Badlands, another story about an evil protagonist that we find hard to identify with during murders. Badlands works a trick of making the unacceptable seem benign, while The Searchers asks how unacceptable different characters find truly unacceptable things. There are similar ideas here, but I’ll come back to Badlands more often.

You can watch The Searchers on HBO Max. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Worst Best Picture: Is Cimarron Better or Worse Than Crash?

cimarron

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1930/1931 winner Cimarron. Is it better than Crash?

Cimarron is an unmitigated disaster of a film. It’s slow, it’s weird, it’s boring, and it’s dated. There is absolutely no reason to watch Cimarron in 2014 aside from a desire to watch every Best Picture winner. This movie isn’t even fun to hate.

The answer to “what makes it so bad” is everything, but we’ll go piece by piece. It’s the story of Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix), who is a newspaperman who also is a public speaker and is in politics and is a businessman and, honestly, I don’t know what Yancey Cravat is supposed to be. He’s mostly the editor of a newspaper in Oklahoma during the land rush of the late 1800s, so we’ll stick with that. Yancey Cravat (I can’t tell if that name was supposed to be serious or not for 1930) comes off like a madman. He’s supposed to read as a dignified, stately man in the wild, lawless West, but Dix plays him so silly that it’s impossible to feel that in the character. It’s full-on soap acting, and it’s way worse than in any of the other 30s movies. Plenty of them are bad, but none of them even approach the level of absurd, fake-deep voice that Richard Dix does in this movie.

Anyway, Yancey brings his wife and his kid to Oklahoma to get some land, but he has a tough time of it. His wife Sabra (Irene Dunne, who people mostly speak well of from this movie, but I don’t see it) also has a tough time of it, mostly because her husband has 17 jobs and leaves twice for five full years, each. This is where it becomes difficult to tell what is supposed to be weird within the world of Cimarron and what is weird because we live in 2014. He just up and leaves his entire family once after killing an outlaw and once for tenuous, mostly unexplained reasons. The former I can’t imagine would be a big deal, he walks around with a cartoonishly large pistol on his belt all the time anyway, and the latter is glossed over. He’s just out, bye, good luck, y’all.

No one else in the movie matters. There’s a really, really offensive black child character that rivals any moment of racism in any Best Picture winner and a Jewish shopkeeper that, well, the less said there, the better. Cimarron gets hammered in modern reviews for being offensive, which it definitely, definitely is, but I think the paper-thin structure and absurd acting are even worse. For real, you should look it up on YouTube if for no other reason than to watch some of Richard Dix’s acting.

Of course, a lot of this is just a sign of the times. People loved it in 1930, and most reviewers praised it for being dramatic and exciting. Those words mean different things now, and though a lot of the original Best Picture winners are strange in a kind of quaint, dated way, Cimarron is a bomb. At one point Yancey returns from a long absence to defend a prostitute in court, just… because. He hears that she’s in court and goes to defend her and it’s supposed to be a rousing, exciting moment of a good guy doing the right thing. But this is a guy who abandoned his family and came back basically that afternoon, and his first move is to go to court to defend someone. He’s also not a lawyer, but who cares, I guess? His first line is to say that the even-more-cartoonish-than-him prosecutor “is the only man in the whole Southwest capable of strutting while sitting down” and the entire courtroom including the judge and jury laughs uncontrollably for 10 full seconds. People wave their hats like he’s coming back from war, they love that joke so much. In that moment you have all of Cimarron: something that was probably pretty cool in 1930, but now is absurd at best and stupid and boring at worst.

The Best Part: There is nothing to like about Cimarron. It’s pretty short for a Best Picture winner. So, I guess there’s that. There’s not much of it, that’s the best part.

The Worst Part: The racist portrayals are pretty gross, but that should go without saying. I think the worst part has to be how convoluted it is. It’s possible to watch the entire movie and not really follow why everything happened.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? The only reason Cimarron is not worse than Crash is because people loved it when it came out. Everything I can find seems to corroborate this idea that Cimarron is a time capsule of what people wanted to see in the early 30s. It’s the ultimate example of those weird early Best Picture winners that were loved at the time but just don’t hold up now. It’s a mess and should be ignored at best now, but it escapes being the worst Best Picture winner because I can confirm that when Crash came out people did not love it, so compared 1:1 Crash is worse. Judged on overall quality, it’s a much harder discussion, and though there are a few to go, this might just be as close as it gets. The other major difference is that Cimarron is a confusing mess, and the worst bits of it are nonsensical. I know why everything happened in Crash, I just hate that it happened at all.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | HamletBraveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Worst Best Picture: Is Unforgiven Better or Worse Than Crash?

unforgiven

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1992 winner Unforgiven. Is it better than Crash?

Only three Westerns have ever won Best Picture: UnforgivenCimarron, and Dances with Wolves. Two of those are among the worst on the list, in my opinion, but does that make it a coincidence or do I just hate Westerns? What does that mean for the third, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven?

I certainly don’t hate Westerns by rule, though I’ll admit to being more unfamiliar with the genre than others. I like Tombstone and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which feels a bit like saying that because I’ve seen Empire and Jedi a million times each I can talk about sci-fi as a genre. But out of my element or no, Unforgiven won in 1992 and must be compared to Crash.

Eastwood plays Will Munny, a retired murderer (do you ever really retire from that, though?) who just wants to live out his life quietly. When a prostitute in a nearby town is disfigured, another young gunman named The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) seeks him out and asks him to help him get the reward by murdering the two men who harmed the girl. They’re joined by Munny’s old partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and the trio heads out to kill two evil men in an evil town.

It seems fairly straightforward and it mostly is. Three mildly complex “good” guys have to go catch two totally uncomplicated “bad” guys. The only wrench in the works is that the sheriff of the town of Big Whiskey pardoned the two men responsible and won’t tolerate any weapons in his town. Sheriff “Little” Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) reasons that if only the lawmen have guns, they can keep the populace safe. There’s a not-so-subtle message of gun control in this movie, but considering everyone with a gun has basically the worst life ever in a Western, it’s hard to consider that viewing of Unforgiven reasonable.

Munny, The Kid, and Logan show up in Big Whiskey and have to find a way to murder these two assholes before Little Bill takes their guns and throws them out of town. They’re met with resistance, and in the resistance lies the depth of the film. It’s internal, since “the game ain’t in them no more” for Munny and Logan, as they say, and it’s external, since Little Bill is basically running a kingdom that they’ll need to topple to reach their goal. With the added (but obvious) problem that The Kid might not be the fearless gunslinger he claims to be, the deck is pretty stacked. There’s some lightness to the struggles — especially a scene where the other two learn that The Kid maybe, just maybe, can’t really see — but for the most part, Unforgiven is dark as all hell. I may not be telling you something new by saying a Western called Unforgiven isn’t a happy journey, but it goes in some unexpected places that I don’t want to spoil.

Unforgiven‘s win falls in between Schindler’s List and The Silence of the Lambs, so it feels a little dwarfed by the competition. That said, it’s far-and-away the best Western to ever win and it did so mostly without issue. The problems that critics found to point out in Unforgiven feel slight now, and the overall message about the senselessness of violence is still a powerful one. I may not be a good go-to on Westerns, but I think Unforgiven definitely falls in top handful of Best Picture winners.

The Best Part: The ending, which I can’t talk about in any way. Clint Eastwood can at best be called a “complicated” figure in today’s world, but his performance in Unforgiven is both terrifying and riveting, and he makes the entire thing work. Now he just needs to stop saying crazy shit to empty chairs.

The Worst Part: There’s a short diversion from the plot towards the middle of the movie where a famous gunfighter named English Bob (Richard Harris, in a real weird turn) tries to infiltrate Big Whiskey. To call him armed is to sell him short, and Little Bill isn’t having any of it. It serves as a way for Unforgiven to show that Little Bill is ruthless and doesn’t tolerate weapons in his town, but then they essentially repeat the scene when the trio comes in a few scenes later. It could be argued that it’s important because English Bob’s biographer decides to abandon him and instead tell the tale of Little Bill, but even though the biographer is used as a narrative device through the rest of the movie, he’s certainly not necessary. It’s not bad, it’s just unimportant and it breaks up the sense of an inevitable march of one group against an entrenched foe.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It’s miles better, and it may be the last Western to win for a long time. Dances with Wolves is a really strange mess of a movie and it’s nearly unwatchable even a few decades later. Cimarron, the only other Western to win, is even worse. The “subcategories” of Comedy, Western, and Musical are discussed a lot with regard to Oscar winners, because the great majority of these are sad, long movies about horrible things and worse people. Unforgiven is more than a novelty on the list, though. It’s a truly great story told through great performances, Western or no. Eastwood isn’t my favorite person in the world, but he does what he does better in Unforgiven than in anything else, and you’ve really got to see it to believe it.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.