Monday, December 09, 2002

The Western has never been my favorite genre; for some reason, I always find it hard to relate to the concerns of the characters in them. That's not to say that I dislike Westerns, though, as I've loved some of the recent ones: Dances With Wolves, Tombstone, Silverado, and most notably, Unforgiven. The older Westerns, though, usually don't resonate with me very much -- I admire their craft, and enjoy their stories, but as a whole they're not really my cup of tea.

A case in point is The Searchers, which I just watched this weekend. To be perfectly honest, I probably would never have bothered to watch this film if not for the fact that a major subplot of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones is reportedly an homage to The Searchers: Anakin Skywalker's search for his mother, who has been abducted by sandpeople. The story of The Searchers is fairly straight-forward: a frontier family is attacked by an Indian tribe (Comanches, I think), and the father, mother and son are murdered while the two daughters are carried off. A posse, of course, is formed to go after them, and after failing, two of the possemen closest to the family -- the John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter characters -- go on alone, having a number of adventures before finally locating the tribe that has abducted the two daughters.

The film is fairly dark, with racism in its subtext. The Wayne character hates the Comanches with frightening passion, so much so that he also seems to hate the Jeffrey Hunter character, who is something like one-eighth Indian. Wayne barely treats Hunter like a person throughout the film, calling him things like "Blankethead" and refusing to let him drink in a saloon. He also makes clear that his intent, upon finding the missing girls, is not to rescue them but to kill them -- because by that point they will have become Comanche themselves. Wayne portrays this character as a man whose soul is constantly roiling in anger, and Hunter portrays his in much the same way, but their respective angers are different, which creates a great deal of tension between the two men. This is the best aspect of The Searchers (along with the frequently stunning cinematography).

There are subplots along the way that did not engage me -- prime among them, a love story between Hunter and, well, some woman. (I can't recall the character names from this movie for the life of me....) This whole storyline felt like padding, interjected into the film to give it running time. It distracted from the dynamic between Wayne and Hunter, and it distracted from the main concern of the plot. Thus, a lean and taut film took on a flabby aspect. As to my failure to really relate to the concerns of the characters, as mentioned above, I'm not entirely sure what this family is doing in that spot in the first place. The land they live on appears to be smack in the middle of a vast desert, with no crops and no irrigation, and they don't appear to be ranching (although I might well have missed this). I felt like their sole purpose was to be out in the wilderness, just to be kidnapped in the first place.

So, I'm reporting a mixed reaction to The Searchers. I can see some of why it is so highly regarded -- but at the same time, I can't admit to having really enjoyed it.

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