Tag Archive: technicolor

The Searchers (1956)

John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Ward Bond, Vera Miles, Natalie Wood

Directed by John Ford

Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent, based on the book by Alan Brown le May

Chosen as the American Film Institute’s selection for greatest western by their spurious and subjective “100 Years…” series, The Searchers has certainly ingrained itself on our collective conscious in a variety of ways.

In it, John Wayne puts up one of his most interesting and well-acted roles, typifying himself as the tough, rugged loner type that his other movies have alluded to.  And his long-time friend and collaborator John Ford reaches his apex of film cinematography, pushing the panoramic lenses of his cameras to their limits on nearly every scene, while Technicolor and innovative VistaVision – a high-resolution widescreen variant on CinemaScope – made his unique, classic vision more beautiful and powerful than ever.  David Lean even used the wide-open, surreal vistas of Monument Valley as an inspiration for his Lawrence of Arabia (1962), which is the greatest example of masterful cinematography since.

It also features perhaps the most distinct and original cinematographic doorway shot since Citizen Kane (1941), that features a few times in the beginning, but is most direct and affecting in the very ending, and is key to why the ending of The Searchers is continually touted as one of the best endings of any film.

But there are several other components to this film that are more subtle in their approach that help create as indelible an image.  The plot is straightforward.  Mysterious Confederate veteran Ethan returns to his brother’s house after three years of what we are led to believe was lawlessness.  Barely a day goes by before Ethan and the rest of the volunteer Texas Ranger locals are led out into the plains in a ruse while hostile Comanche Indians burn the home and murder Ethan’s family.  The youngest girl, Debbie, is taken by the warriors, and Ethan seeks revenge, toting along his brother’s adopted son Martin on the search.

But there is darkness inherent in the film, and in Wayne’s character of Ethan particularly, that is powerful and unsettling.  The Indian populace of Ford’s Western genre were never cheerful creatures, but never have they been more menacing.  The preparation the Edwards family takes, knowing a Comanche attack looms, is claustrophobic in its terror.  In the aftermath, when Ethan comes upon the devastation, and while searching for Martha goes into the smokehouse and hangs his head at a horrific image of her fate only he can see, the film reaches darkness unprecedented for the time and genre.  The film does not shy away or glamorize death; it instead shows the desperate see-saw of survival for mid-19th century Texas settlers, the isolation and unsympathetic landscape, and the fear and loss that drives proud men to become sinister conduits of rage and racism.

Ethan’s hatred for the Comanche, by either some deep, long-brewing resentment or directly from what they did to his family, is obvious and unapologetic.  He shoots wildly at a herd of buffalo simply because, “They won’t feed any Comanches this winter!” He shoots the eyes out of a buried warrior he finds so that, in their belief, the brave will wonder the shadow lands blind for eternity.  When finding out that Debbie isn’t dead, but has been living with Comanches for years, Ethan’s first instinct is to shoot her rather than accept that she’s been living with Indian braves.  Even his pronunciation of “Comanche” – leaving off the “e” in Anglicization – is purposeful, as is his likening them to animals by calling Comanche warriors “bucks”.  And Martin’s character, who in backstory is revealed to have been rescued by Ethan as an infant, captured by Comanches that had killed his parents, becomes a target for Ethan’s hatred.

This characterization establishes a realism and humanism that makes the unfolding story and its outcome even more potent.  In more subtle approaches, this storyline becomes even more intriguing upon closer inspection of some scenes.

Despite not having one word of dialogue concerning this, there is a sense from some sequences of extended visual drama that Ethan is in love with his brother’s wife Martha.  Prolonged looks and lingering camera shots on Ethan’s face when she is in the same room encourage this opinion and lend the most obvious reason for his character’s viciousness and hatred following her death.

But perhaps the most captivating thought is that Debbie, who, played by Natalie Wood and perhaps the most immaculate and beautiful Western squaw in film history, is in fact the lovechild of Ethan and Martha, explaining his anger at her new identity and then his subsequent change in heart in the film’s heartwarming ending.

These are just a few of intriguing facets in The Searchers’ rich story, headlined by one of the meatiest roles bestowed to Wayne by Ford in their 12-film collaborative history.  In addition are the themes of bigotry and racism that other films, even in Ford’s own history, would have shied away from.  As an aside, the director also includes commentary on the responsibilities of the white man for the Comanche hostility, the most negative since Fort Apache (1948).  A harmless squaw is found dead in a camp torched by a brigade of U.S. Cavalrymen, prompting Martin to wonder, “What’d the soldiers have to kill her for?”  And the film’s obvious antagonist, Scar of the Nawyecka band of Comanches, is given some uncharacteristic understanding for the genre when he explains that his two sons were killed by whites, prompting his own yearning for revenge that mirrors Ethan’s.

And to the much-discussed final scene, where everyone goes inside save for Ethan, who for a second looks longingly at the doorway before he turns and saunters off of the porch as the door shuts.  Ethan only becomes a character of heroic element late in the film.  Before that he was a man driven by rage, pride and hatred searching for his niece as well as his own lost humanity.  Whether he found it or not in the film’s two hours can be discussed; but in the ending it’s made evident his kind is not welcome or needed in a family.  He returned to Texas alone, and most likely he’ll leave it alone as he continues to search for something only he can find.

Images courtesy of themoviedb.org, twi-ny.com and wn.com, respectively.

Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains

Directed by Michael Curtiz, William Keighley

Incorporating (and advertising) the relatively new filmmaking medium of Technicolor, The Adventures of Robin Hood (Warner Bros.’ rival MGM had the rights to the title “Robin Hood”) is probably the first genuine adventure epic in the vein of what we are used to today: bold, honest characters standing up for the good of all men in the face of greedy, evil ones, a beautiful maiden that steals the heart of every man both in the film and in the audience, a rich, much-detailed array of sets featuring exhaustible art-direction, and a gorgeously rendered score that brings out emotions for romantic parts, and heightens the suspense during scenes of great action.

It stars the inimitable Errol Flynn as the title character, who portrays Robin as an endearing trickster, a deadly swordfigher and archer, and a handsome, dashing ladies’ man all rolled into one – the direct progenitor to leading men like Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise.  His foil is Basil Rathbone, better known for his stoic, unflinching portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, as Guy of Gisbourne, the ruthless and nearly homicidal henchman of King John – smarmy, slippery and effete as only Claude Rains could play him.

Modern filmgoers will know all they think they need to know of the Robin Hood story from the Disney imitation, the quite spectacular Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) picture, and the failed attempt at a re-realization that was Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood from this year, so I will state only that in this version the King of England, Richard the Lionheart, is being held in Austria.  In his stead, slimy Norman King John and his pal Gisbourne are taxing and murdering the Saxon populace to such an extent that Sir Robin of Locksley and his pals are forced to go into hiding as outlaws, to “steal from the rich and give to the poor” until Richard’s return.

Flynn’s Robin is a revelation in how the choice of casting the lead star can alter the entire film’s production.  His athleticism, the quips and brilliant jests the script gives him, and the subtle but beautiful and emotive ways he romances de Havilland’s Maid Marian  let him quite easily own the film.  And the sets, both on the studio lot in Hollywood and in the forested canopy of Chico, California ( a better Sherwood Forest than Sherwood Forest could ever look like) are his playground.  He romps, rides, skips, swings and dashes through it with all the masculine grace that only a bonafide star could achieve.

But none of this could be as much of a success as it was without the magic of Technicolor, something I feel makes movies like Adventures and Gone with the Wind (1939) look less dated than ones released twenty years ago.  The brightest colors I have ever seen are reflected in the reds and blues of Norman flags and the bright green of Errol Flynn’s ridiculous tights.  Everything is a revelation to view, and quite definitely is something that will never be able to be filmed again.

It’s all too-easy to disregard the swashbuckling costume-laden fun of The Adventures of Robin Hood as dated, hackneyed and laughable – the sped-up swordplay more farce than suspenseful, the sets too lavish and the good/evil types too obvious and tacked on, but that mindset ignores the good fun of what a classic adventure story is.  The Adventures of Robin Hood is seminal; the best production of its kind ever made.  It doesn’t strive to be the epic it isn’t, it doesn’t fret about ignoring or suspending the myriad conflicting fables of Robin Hood through generations past, and it makes no apologies for its predictable plot and happy ending.  An adventure tale should make you “ooh!” and “ahh!” at the vivid colors and stunt work, gasp at the beautiful, sensuous romance and should leave you with a smile on your face.

In the dark-minded perception of our new millennial generation, negativity seems to parallel reality, and from the state of the world such a mindset isn’t a false one.  But films are parables, are fantasy, full of the romance and comforts one can’t experience in real life.  This is why people went to picture shows, to film parlors in the time of Errol Flynn, to escape harsh reality.  Back then people praised filmmakers for giving them the fantasy and adventure, the romance and the happy endings they would never experience in their lives.  Now those same filmmakers get accosted for suspending reality, for being predictable.  I for one yearn for a time that saw the creation of The Adventures of Robin Hood, when a film could be fun and entertaining without worrying about what realism it might be compromising.

Images courtesy of www.grouchoreview.com, www-tc.pbs.org