5/10 (too long; bad acting and dialogue; shamelessly racist; the opposite of timeless)
Okay, I know this is a classic, and maybe “the best western ever” or however you want to call it. But it is also one of the least enjoyable two and a half hours I’ve spent in recent memory.
First of all, it’s too long and the characters aren’t interesting enough to warrant your attention. Sure there are some decent gunfights, and breathtaking desert panoramas (if you’re not distracted by the fact that the film’s supposed to take place in Texas but Ford has shot in the unmistakable Monument Valley of Arizona/Utah), but what else?
Full disclosure: this is the first and only John Wayne film I’ve ever seen. I guess I get the attraction of the guy — he’s a real man’s man, or something. His is the best acting in the film at least, but I can’t say how good it is since I’ve never seen any of his others. He could play the same asshole in every film for all I know.
The other acting (along with the dialogue) is uniformly atrocious — uber-campy and melodramatic. Co-star Jeffrey Hunter was just annoying, an unfortunate circumstance when he’s in almost every single scene.
Defenders will whine that I should consider the context in which the film was made, this being basically the swan song of the “romantic western” genre. But other film classics are fascinating regardless of the context. There’s a word for it, it’s called “timeless.” Do I have to consider “12 Angry Men” in context? “Paths of Glory“? “Solaris“? “Night of the Living Dead“? “The Battle of Algiers“? How about Chaplin, Hitchcock, or Kurosawa? What about probably my favorite film, “Harakiri“? It was made in the 60s and it’s still awesome.
HELL NO you don’t have to consider them in context, because they’re fantastic regardless. If you’re going to try and tell me that a classic film requires a history lesson on the cinema of the era in order to be enjoyable, I’m going to tell you that you’re full of shit. You don’t even have to leave the romantic western genre to find a classic that’s actually worth its reputation. “High Noon” is not a perfect film, but it is leagues above “The Searchers” in the acting on display and its enjoyability, and it was made 5 years before in black and white.
From there we can pass onto the main problem of the film: its racism. It’s not just a little racist either, it’s very black/white Cowboys-good-Indians-bad, every-protagonist-trying-to-kill-the-evil-Comanches, REALLY FUCKING RACIST.
The Indians’ way of life is both implicitly and explicitly depicted as worse than death, and they are all brutal, kidnapping and murdering savages. Scar, the villain, is momentarily given a semblance of humanity in one scene where he explains his hatred of the white man by having lost his children in a massacre. But that’s quickly glossed over and it’s clear that you’re not supposed to care about the evil war chief. He’s just there to rape your women and burn your houses down.
Again I hear the whining of the defenders reaching fever pitch. “All westerns were racist back then!” they’ll say. And they’re actually right (excepting the aforementioned “High Noon,” which even treats one of the Mexican main characters rather nobly). Except that this isn’t “all westerns,” it’s supposed to be the best of them. And this isn’t any director either, this is John Ford, the same guy who showed a world of sensitivity to the plight of the poor underclass in “The Grapes of Wrath.” Ford can’t feign ignorance here about what he was doing. We already know that he was a supremely intelligent and sensitive director. So what happened?
John Ford and others kinda sorta defended the racism by calling it an accurate portrayal of the reality of the old west, and I don’t doubt that it was. But in that case, was this anti-Indianism really suffering from under-representation on film? Didn’t we already determine that it was present in all of the westerns?
So why would Ford be so lazy about it? How difficult would it have been to take out 10 minutes of the whining nephew and replace it with some humanization of the soulless native? Ford’s justification is weak at best. If you’re going for truth in film-making, you have to consider different perspectives from just the prevailing one. And releasing this xenophobic “classic” to the already racist crowds of the 50s was worse than lazy. . . it was irresponsible and gave audiences an excuse to justify their hatred.
Even if Wayne and Ford didn’t actually believe what the character Ethan Edwards was saying about how living with Comanches “ain’t living,” to not realize that they were perpetuating such discrimination by presenting it uncritically on screen was idiotic. To not care would have been worse.
So where does that leave us? With an epic western that has little to recommend it besides beautiful cinematography, good action sequences and John Wayne. Acting and script are horrible, and the overall racism of the film is despicable.
If sitting through two and a half tedious hours for the pluses sounds up your alley, by all means go ahead. I’ll just be over here, not losing that time from my life, never able to get it back. Ever.
13 April 2010