Films, like artists or authors, tend to have their critical reputations wax and wane through a few cycles until a consensus is finally reached. Of course, consensus has little to do with real world excellence or failure. As good an example of this trend as can be shown certainly is John Ford’s famed 1956 John Wayne western, The Searchers. Upon its initial release, the film made a solid profit, and was considered a good film. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, film school graduates started championing both it and Ford as more than good, but great. By the 1980s, with the rise of PC, the film’s political content and its portrayal of Manifest Destiny came under attack as ‘racist,’ and the film was not held in as high regard for some years.
With the advent of DVD technology in the late 1990s, the film was re-released, and its current status as a ‘masterpiece’ has been little challenged since. Indeed, in watching the special features on the two disk Ultimate Collector’s Edition DVD of the film, one might believe that the film is Shakespearean. Assorted talking heads and film buffs gush over the film, even people like director Martin Scorsese. Another great director, Akira Kurosawa, is cited as declaring he learned film technique from watching John Ford westerns.
Of course, I do not doubt all of these people’s love for the film, but love (or like/hate) is a wholly different paradigm from artistic excellence. And while there is no doubt that, technically, John Ford was a superb craftsman - in the framing of shots, in the use of silences that he carried over from his silent film days, in the judicious use of close-ups, and the brilliant use of color in this VistaVision film - it is nowhere near a great work of art.
Technique and technical excellence do not equate with greatness. Were that true a poet with a merely flawless ear, like Walter de la Mare, would be ranked along with the Whitmans and Baudelaires. No, there needs to be characterization and great acting. This is where screenwriting and casting come in. The film’s actual screenplay is simplistic, larded with stereotypes, and the acting, save for a few scenes where Jeffrey Hunter (as mixed breed Martin Pawley) shines, is self-conscious, poseur, and given that the film is as triumphalist as can be, it makes such preening seem hedonistic.
Naturally, the worst sinner on this accord is John Wayne, as the film’s putative hero/anti-hero, Ethan Edwards. There is no doubt Wayne had a great onscreen presence, both physically and in his idiosyncratic emoting and speaking styles. But while watching the film, and seeing him strut and spit out trite lines while dick-waving through every second he’s on camera, I fully understand why someone like my dad - a left of center trade unionist - found both the man and the characters he played (which were really minor variations on his own faux persona, admixed with testosterone) to be symbols of everything that’s wrong with America, past and present.