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June 21, 2010


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Tony Dayoub

"...John Wayne's Ethan finally embracing Debbie, moving as the moment is, actually does not make rational sense..."

Check my own reading on this, but I've always been satisfied with this Freudian notion: Ethan, who has long been in denial of his feelings for Debbie's mother, goes on a hunt to eliminate her in an effort to a) eradicate the only surviving remnants of his one true love/sexual desire, and b) prevent that symbolic object of his desire from being continually perverted by Scar; finally seeing the grown Debbie (who may now look like Ma in her younger days) in his arms, Ethan has an epiphany, realizing this is the only piece left of the better part of him, a piece which must be saved not only to preserve the memory of Ma, but also a vital part of Ethan himself.

Stephen Whitty

Thanks for this, Glenn.

Personally, I don't think there's a moment more filled with literal grace in Ford's work than the end of "The Informer," when Una O'Connor (saved, briefly, from the strait-jacket of screaming comic relief in James Whale films) so unexpectedly, quietly forgives Victor McClaglen's Gypo, the man who sold out her son.

It's also a movie that, while dated in some parts, is certainly worth re-viewing -- particularly by anyone convinced that he or she "knows" what a John Ford movie looks like. An urban, darkly shadowed, very Expressionist film...

Just Another Film Buff

Fantastic post. A couple I can think of now are:

1. Dance sequence at the camp in The Grapes of Wrath.
2. Doniphon warning Valance at the restaurant.


Anne Bancroft's resignation while committing the ultimate self-sacrifice at the end of 7 Women: "So long, ya bastard."

Shirley Temple singing Auld Lang Syne to Victor McLaglen on his deathbed in Wee Willie Winkie (while an exquisite camera movement slowly eliminates him from the frame).

Walter Pidgeon in How Green Was My Valley, looking on from a cemetery in long shot while the love of his life, Maureen O'Hara, exits the church after marrying another man.

And lots of other things.


The "lifting up" moment puzzled me for years. Then I turned seventeen and just accepted it.

A Ford Moment of Grace? Fort Apache -
Henry Fonda wondering out loud how the son of a lowly Irish sergeant could get in to West Point when places are reserved for senatorial appointees and the sons of Medal of Honor winners.
Ward Bond's Irish sergeant stands to the stiffest of attentions, stares at some distant point beyond Fonda and quietly says "Yes Sir that is my understanding too"

The Siren

Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, Stephen beat me to it -- The Informer. What Mr. Whitty said.

As for The Searchers, it wasn't until I read Mr. Metcalf's Slate piece--and please, continue to kick that essay like a mad dog for the NEXT four years if such is your curmudgeonly intent--that I realized certain people thought the moment with Debbie didn't make sense. And I suppose it doesn't, if you are going to approach a plot like Thomas Gradgrind (bod I love Google Books):

"THOMAS GRADGRIND, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. Thomas Gradgrind, sir - peremptorily Thomas - Thomas Gradgrind. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic. You might hope to get some other nonsensical belief into the head of George Gradgrind, or Augustus Gradgrind, or John Gradgrind, or Joseph Gradgrind (all supposititious, non-existent persons), but into the head of Thomas Gradgrind - no, sir!"

There are things that make arithmetical, factual or (poor abused word) realistic sense.

And then there are things that make poetic, symbolic and emotional sense. By that calculus, Ethan could end no other way. You see him yearning to connect throughout the movie; why should he not take his one chance to do it? It isn't as though it alters his ultimate fate, That sense of space in Westerns, the hope that you can always "light out for the territories" like Huck Finn, becomes nothing but loneliness as a door closes and shuts Ethan off forever from family, home, love.

The Siren

Heh. I mean "god I love Google books." Hope my typing isn't like this all week.


The "lifting up" and ending of The Searchers always made sense to me. Of course Ethan loves Debbie--She's his *family.* That love is stronger than anything else, whatever Ethan may say about it. Besides... I just can't imagine the movie ending with Ethan killing Debbie.

Doniphon shooting Liberty Valance and keeping quiet about it, so the legend is printed and the legend becomes fact.

Nathan reading the letter in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

The Swede

Or maybe, you know, it's just a John Ford movie with a happy ending...you know?...

The Jake Leg Kid

The beatific smile Frank Campeau's con man wears on his face as he dies in THREE BAD MEN, the high card falling from his hand...

Kiss Me, Son of God

As a fan of Ford who counts My Darling Clementine and especially The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance among his favorite films, I have to sorta-almost agree with the opposition here and say that The Searchers always *has* felt rather "weird," and plodding, and sense-defying to me. I have no political agenda behind this opinion. The film is simply not that watchable to me. I wish it were otherwise, because the best of Ford's westerns achieve a wonderfully bolstering spirit of frontier humanism that one doesn't always get from the genre. But The Searchers, to me, is as emotionally and narratively distant as Ethan is from his family in that famous last shot. I dunno, maybe I'll have a breakthrough with it some time.

Now, The Quiet Man--there's a movie I do object to on political grounds, what with the horrifying misogyny and all.

The Jake Leg Kid

For that matter, the lone surviving son and his wife discovering his long-suffering mother, a Balthasar-like figure if ever there was one, asleep with her grandson in her lap at the end of FOUR SONS...

tom quinn

I just recently re-watched The Searchers after years and thought that final moment was beautiful. That anyone could be confounded by it baffles me and truly speaks to the dangers of pure academia a crippling cynicism. I see Ethan as being very similar to Terry Malloy - the man who puts on an act and feels conflicted inside, but wants to do the right thing. The difference is that his internal struggle is not overtly dramatized and there is very little exposition. Until then, Debbie is an idea - it's easy to have hatred and anger toward ideas and types of people - but as soon as he is in her arms, she's a person and one he loved. The very term "semiprimitives" is offensive in so many ways. I've just recently become fascinated by Ford, his working-class craftmanship his conflicted personality, and the intuition, rather than academic posturing, that drove his most artistic moments. I once knew a guy who signed his e-mails with this Tarkovsky quote: "The purpose of art is to plough and harrow the soul, rendering it capable of turning to the good." Perhaps the search was the same for Ethan : ) Great post!

Jesse M

Seems to me, off the cuff, that you could read this moment as having structural justification, as well as emotional/psychological/etc. justification; a story is, after all, an enclosed field of events, and sometimes that field is guided by ineffable aesthetic rules, rather than just rules of reason and character.

In this sense, I'd consider the film an exercise in symmetry via denial and affirmation. Just as the first and final "open door" shots are symmetrical, so too does the "sparing Debbie" scene play symmetrically against an earlier scene, where Ethan desecrates the body of the dead Comanche by shooting out its eyes. The latter is a moment of absolute spiritual brutality, which is almost unforgivable, but it's finally balanced by Ethan's moment of mercy and spiritual reintegration. Both are complex scenes, because both of them involve Ethan's conditional acceptance of his adversary's spirit, but whereas in the first scene, it's acceptance (i.e. of Comanche religious tenets) in the spirit of defiance, in the later scene, it's acceptance (i.e. of Debbie the self-declared Comanche) in the spirit of compassion.

That's my tentative reading, and I know there's a lot more to answer, analyze, and explain, but at the very least, I know Ethan's moment of grace is indispensable to the film's dynamic.


@ Kiss Me, Son of God: in his book on John Ford, Tag Gallagher offers an interesting reading on 'The quiet man' and how Ford is in fact exposing the cruelty and misoginy of the Irish society in the film rather than supporting it. It's certainly a debatable view, as much as the perceived progressism or racism in Ford's treatment of American Indians.

You can download it for free on his website: http://home.sprynet.com/~tag/tag/

Kiss Me, Son of God

One thing I find interesting is that, while cinephiles are quick to defend the happy ending of The Searchers, they are inclined to view the happy ending of Hawks' Red River—a similarly abrupt and illogical detente—as an unfortunate concession to Hollywood standards of the day. Does anyone out there defend John Wayne's change of heart at the end of Red River like y'all are defending his change of heart at the end of The Searchers? I'd be genuinely interested, albeit skeptical, to hear such a defense in the wake of this Searchers discussion.


Thanks, Glenn, for allowing us to sunbathe in Ethan's epiphany and read Tony's and Siren's eloquent interpretations.

I don't know if it's transcendent, but John Wayne's brazen kiss of Maureen O' Hara in "The Quiet Man" is transfiguring. Cinematically, it is similar to the scene in The Searchers because we simultaneously feel Wayne's hesitation and anger and ardor and O'Hara's fear and desire.

Tom Russell

I don't know, I always liked the ending of Red River, it always fit for me, and seemed as logical as any emotional turnaround following the fisticuffs. I mean, the Duke is basically if not biologically Clift's dad; it wouldn't be the first or the last time, cinematically or otherwise, that a father had a change of heart.

As far as The Quiet Man goes-- maybe this is going to make me sound a bit like LexG, but I think the sexual politics, like those of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, are part of the fun.

Tony Dayoub

Thanks, Carrie. I'd also commend Tom Quinn and Jesse M for their interpretations as well.

Ford's ability to allow these contradictions to exist in his film made emotional sense (in the way the Siren describes) because of his own hard-to-peg political incongruities. How else can one appreciate the right-leaning man without accepting the grace which attended his decisions to revisit race with such an open mind in a later film like CHEYENNE AUTUMN or SERGEANT RUTLEDGE?

The Siren

KMSOG, I'll bite. The ending of Red River is not transcendent, as we're discussing here with The Searchers. It's abrupt and comical, but I've never considered it the abomination that apparently everybody else on earth does--and here I'm also arguing with Clift & Wayne, who hated the ending. To me, Joanne Dru is an audience surrogate. We don't want Matt to kill Dunson (and neither did Hawks), so Tess steps in and tells them both to knock it off. It plays like a weird fourth-wall-breaking moment. And it has thematic coherence, as it shows Dunson finally accepting advice from a woman, as he should have taken it from his long-lost fiancee in the early part of the film.


Ford piles on a half dozen great transcendental endings to chose from in "Wagonmaster". You have the spiritual/biblical gathering with the doffing of hats--men to boy...the dance...the kiss..to the foal leading the wagon train forward. Great stuff. Those who think Ford stodgy today should bare witness ro a pre-Bond (James not Ward) pre-title sequence and a narrative style as loose as Altman ever was.

Dan Coyle

Why doesn't he kill her? Why is that an unanswerable? He realized the thing he'd been buidling to for the entire film wasn't necessary. Not only that, he didn't have it in him to kill this girl. That's normal, that's human.

And dissing John Podhoretz is a pasttime that I consider incredibly vital to the survival of this nation.


I agree with Tom Russell about the alleged "misogyny" of The Quiet Man; I mean, that line about "a stick to beat the lovely lady with" (delivered by a woman, no less!) is just too over the top to be taken seriously.

Speaking of The Quiet Man, would someone please restore it for a blu-ray release posthaste? I can't think of another major Hollywood film in more dire need restoration.

Ted Kroll

The one shot (or sequence of shots, I don't remember exactly) that showed me exactly what Ford is 'about' came near the end of a late night viewing of 'The Wings of Eagles'. A newspaper is thrown and hits the steps in front of Wayne's house. Immediately, I knew it was December 7th and all that December 7th implies. Somehow that clunk of the newspaper resonates with all the force of Fate. Ford's work is filled with these seemingly small touches that can be missed because they are absorbed into classic film style, but accumulate and provide a cinematic poetry that is slightly beyond verbal explanation.

Think of the eccentric back flap on Fonda's hat in 'Fort Apache'. I am always befuddled when Wayne puts on the same type of hat at the end of the film. It is a powerful moment, but handled in a completely off-handed manner - Wayne puts on his hat. The whole film is placed in a completely different context because of it. No precise meaning can assigned to that gesture given all that came before in the picture. That hat presents a profound mystery that, to me at least, feels right, but I can give no satisfactory answer as to to what it means. I have never been in the military, but somehow the gesture alludes to camaraderie of those who have shared combat - something that is rarely shared with outsiders, certainly not with those reporters. But there it is for all of us to see and ponder.

I could go on and on. Andrew Sarris' book on Ford is called 'The John Ford Movie Mystery' and so it is - lucky for us.


I always assumed he didn't kill her because no Hollywood movie, not even by Ford, is going to end with John Wayne butchering cute little Natalie Wood.

I never thought the good parts of The Searchers made up for the crude and clunky ones and the comparisons to 'Hamlet' just make me chuckle. I too am annoyed by the 'contrarian'approach of Slate but I don't see a lot of point in continuing to slang on Metcalf's old article (which wasn't that bad by Slate standards), epiphany or no epiphany. It's not as if there's a wave of anti-Searchers sentiment out there.


James Harvey makes sense of the end of Red River in his book Romantic Comedy from Lubitsch to Sturges:

"In Red River, Hawks's first great Western, nearly the whole movie--as well as the laws of its genre--has led us to expect a confrontation and shoot-out at the end between Dunson and Matt. Matt has responded to Dunson's tyranny on the cattle drive by finally taking over both the herds and the men and pushing on to Abilene. Dunson has been left behind, but for the last third of the movie he is in pursuit, with every man on he drive worried about his catching up with them, but above all with Matt, whom he has vowed to kill. And from the adroit way Hawks builds to this climax--the showdown in Abilene--there can be no doubt that he relishes the prospect, or that he means us to. There is always an element of thrill to these ritual masculine standoffs in a Hawks film--something almost erotic.
But when Dunson does catch up with them--striding through the cows and down the main street--Matt refuses to draw his gun. So they have a fistfight instead. But the heroine, Tess Millay (Joanne Dru), breaks that up by waving a gun at them and telling them, in effect, to be sensible. More than that, she is mad--she says so repeatedly. And she is mad because she's had just the impression the movie has contrived to give to the rest of us--that one of them might get killed. But she was taken in, as she now sees: "Everyone can see you two love each other." She is also, and primarily, relieved--like the audience by now, and like Hawks himself. "I certainly would have hated to kill one of them," he later conceded. "It frustrates me to start killing people off for no reason at all," and especially at the end of a movie. But "no reason at all"would be every reason in the world in a conventional western. What else have we been waiting for? And yet in fact Tess Millay is right, as we are reminded that we know. Sensible people don't kill or maim each other for revenge or honor or empty matters of pride--especially if they are friends. Hawks may love these confrontations, and he may know (no one better) how to convey their excitement; but he is finally too sensible, really too sensible, to follow through. And the surge of good feeling that now invades the film turns out to have been waiting in it all along, transforming even what's gone before, making those earlier excitements seem almost dim by comparison. It's the final powerful realization that makes the movie feel so distinctively Hawksian in the end. A sensible western. . ."

The Siren

Sean, what a GREAT quote. Thank you.

Paul Johnson

I always considered the finale to The Searchers one of the great visual epiphanies of cinema, and one of the definitive cases of a movie visually making something sensible that might have appeared abrupt in a script. The scene clicks for me because it's a direct visual quote from the opening when Ethan first picks up Debbie when she's a little girl. The visual logic of the next few scenes is all a kind of dialing back, returning us to the images of the opening moments, as if all the wandering and the trauma of the intervening years had been undone, but with the price that Ethan has to return to the state he was in before the story commenced - wandering the winds alone, for all eternity. To trot out a silly cliché that is valid in just this instance and maybe only two or three dozen others cases, I think anybody who doesn't see the climax, and isn't moved by it, might not understand movies. Or at least John Ford movies.

More transcendent moments: Henry Fonda in Young Mr. Lincoln standing in silhouette over the hill, a transcendent figure, but also an incalculably lonely one.

Tobacco Road, a movie that everyone hates, but which has a number of grace notes, like the scene at the end as the couple walks away from the home they've always known, through I series of dissolves that transforms them into ghostly figures.

In My Darling Clementine, the scenes where Henry Fonda and Cathy Downs awkwardly negotiate one another's tense, mournful company in empty rooms and crowded dance floors.


Welles said it best when he compared the cinematic styles of Hawks and Ford, he referred to Hawks as being a master of great prose, but that Ford was a true poet.

Great post, great discussion. I'm still playing catch-up in my Fordana, but I'm consistently amazed and inspired by what I see - a recent discovery in my cinephilia, and one of the most rewarding ever.

I think the last shot in Liberty Valence, probably my favorite Ford movie so far, could count as being transcendent.

Also, I think its easy to construe the term "weird" as an unintended compliment re. The Searchers. Hamlet - I'll go there - remains a pretty "weird" play, if by that we mean confounding and singular and ineffable.

Jeff McMahon

I was going to say the dance scene in My Darling Clementine, framed with the wide-open prairie beyond, but I seem to have been beaten to it.

And using 'off-putting to the contemporary sensibility' as a point of criticism is fraught with all kinds of problems. If you're doing that route, than it would have have to describe pretty much every classical musical (people bursting into song, and it's NOT a dream sequence?) or silent film ever made. Or anything in iambic pentameter.

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