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June 21, 2010


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I would simply say that in Alan LeMay's original novel, Ethan ends up rescuing Debbie as well. The moment doesn't play quite as well as it does in Ford's film, but it's there.

Other transcendental moments in Ford films? Well, I would say maybe the reconciliation scene between Wayne and Maureen O'Hara in RIO GRANDE.

As for RED RIVER: The Siren makes a good point about it being a comic scene, but my primary problem with the scene is, quite frankly, Joanne Dru. I found her to be too shrill in the role, and that was especially true in that last scene. I always wondered how the movie would have been had Margaret Sheridan, Hawks' original choice, not gotten pregnant and forced to withdraw.


The beauty in Ford's films run so close to the surface, yet I don't think it bursts forth often - usually it's more present in the stoic restraint you mention in your last example. The moment in The Searchers is a moment where beauty trumps logic; one can see this in terms of the characters, as you do, or even in terms of the auteur as if the Fordian film was so overwhelmed by the beauty of this gesture that plot came crashing down.

Really, in a sense, narrative exists primarily to facilitate moments of transcendence and sometimes it even has to step aside for them.

Blake Lucas

Good comments in response, and especially your fine post here, Glenn. Since THE SEARCHERS has always made complete sense to me and couldn't be any other way than it is (how much drama has always been about someone on one course but they finally come to a different point than they expected), I don't worry too much about absurd and narrow surface-type accounts of it which decry its deeper inner logic, which is both dramatic and aesthetic.

Please remember, Glenn, that John Ford will outlive all his detractors. He is one of the greatest artists of all time, with a vast body of work to prove it, THE SEARCHERS surely one of the greatest of all his works.

The detractors are caught in their own time, the narrowness of their own idealogy and presumed right attitudes. But Ford is not, and he far from being a "semiprimative" he was a conscious artist and far more sophisticated than they are.

I know this is all pretty obvious, but I'm posting a reply just for one single reason. To say, thank you, Glenn, for restoring the word "spiritual" to the discussion.

It should be the first word about this story of a man's spiritual journey (reflected in his physical one), but it disappeared from accounts of it some years ago for reasons I don't understand. I suggest anyone who is puzzled start looking at the film from this perspective and what happens inside Ethan at the moment of picking up Debbie in the climax will not only make sense, but will become, as others have said, the only possible thing that could happen.


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

Maybe my favorite Ford ending, with Lincoln turning and walking alone into the storm.

Tom Block

Frank Nugent's screenplay supplied plenty of motivation for Ethan--too much, obviously, for Ford's taste. When Debbie hides out by "Grandma's grave", Nugent specified that the tombstone was to read: "HERE LIES MARY JANE EDWARDS/KILLED BY COMANCHES/MAY 12, 1852/a good WIFE & MOTHER/In her 41st year". The tombstone in the movie actually *does* say all that, but the action around it is staged so quickly that you literally have to freeze-frame it to read most of it; there's no way audiences without a pause button could have taken it in, and that's assuming they'd even think to read it at such a hectic, scary moment.

So the Comanches killed Ethan and Aaron's mother 16 years before the start of the movie, but Ford obviously decided no one needed to know this except for the one or two speedreaders who might be in the audience. But it also makes me wonder if, when Aaron says that he could see "before the war" that Ethan wanted to get away, that he isn't really talking about farming after all--if it wasn't the memory of his mother's death that drove Ethan away from Texas.

I've always been surprised the second thing hasn't gotten more attention than it has. In his final script Nugent had Ethan chase Debbie until she fell to the ground, then he was to pull out his gun, aim it at her, and tell her to close her eyes. Instead she was supposed to return his gaze "fearlessly, innocently," until it causes him to lower his gun, at which point he was supposed to say "You sure favor your mother...", then holster his gun and help her to her feet. Ford could have saved the world 50 years of debate, and shut up Meathead Metcalf forever, if he'd just let Ethan say that line while he was holding Debbie up in the air. But since that's the kind of overt dialog he hated most, it had to go, to which I can only say huzzah. I'm sure he knew that decision would fortify the poetry of the moment; if he knew it would transform what otherwise would've been an interesting character turn into the stuff of myth, ehh, that's hard to say.

There's a third piece of buried info in the movie I've always wondered about--it comes when Ethan is trying to dump Martin at the Jorgensons. They're fighting about it when Ethan/Wayne takes on the tenderest tone he ever uses with Martin and says "Martin, I want you to know something". Martin interrupts him with his speech about "I know, all I got is a dead man's clothes, yadda yadda", and Ethan drops whatever he was going to say. Maybe Ethan was already planning to make Martin his heir then, but it's awful early for that to be happening. They haven't been together that long, and they don't know for sure then that Debbie's "been with a buck," i.e., that Ethan will have to kill her, making Martin his only kin--the issue they fight about much later.

That last bit plays in the movie just as it did in Nugent's script. But Ford's handling of the tombstone epitaph and the dropped line about Ethan's mother, I think both of those decisions are just incredible.

david hare

two more moments...
Clark Gable's final embrace of Grace Kelly in Mogambo;

the staggering final shot of Pilgrmage in which Henrietta Crosman, the mother who's sent her son to his death, in revenge for his sexual transgression of falling in love with Heather Angel finally reaches the Fromelles gravesites of the war dead, and falls prostrate at the foot of her dead son's grave.

You could just go on and on.....

Asher Steinberg

You know, I watch and watch and watch The Searchers, and I really am convinced that it's not one of his best films. I'm much more impressed by, to offer a non-exhaustive list, Wagon Master, Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Judge Priest, The Sun Shines Bright, Young Mr. Lincoln, My Darling Clementine. It's hard for me to think of a Ford where the supporting cast falls so short, to think, for that matter, of a worse performance in a Ford film than Jeffrey Hunter's or Natalie Wood's, or to think of a Ford film where the filler, so to speak, is so uninteresting. In every other Ford - take Fort Apache for example - the stuff that's happening when nothing particularly important is happening is lovely. In The Searchers, you've got Old Mose and his rocking chair, a very annoying performance from John Qualen (who's wonderful in Liberty Valance), some really inert stuff with Vera Miles, the awful business with her semi-retarded fiancee, Natalie Wood's wretched cameo ("Mauna Leah! Mauna Leah!"), the most perfunctory dance scene in any of Ford's movies, etc. The comic diversions feel like just that, comic diversions, rather than a piece of an organic whole, as they usually do in Ford. I find that The Searchers, while a great film in spots, reaches to be a masterpiece at the expense of a lot of what makes Ford Ford.


One story has it that the line in the Nugent script (which indeed motivates Ethan's change of heart) was dropped because Natalie Wood looks _nothing_ like Dorothy Jordan, who plays Martha. I imagine Tom Block is right, and that it was dropped because it was just too on-the-nose for Ford.

The Searchers is sort of an anxious object for me. What's great in it is as great as Ford gets--as great as cinema gets. But I have to make allowances for other things (some line readings, some of the studio artifice) and much of the comic relief always rubs me the wrong way, even though I have no problem with the knockabout moments in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, etc. And so I'm never quite sure what to "do" with it. Cinephiles, often against their better natures, obsessively shuffle films in and out of their not-entirely-personal canons according to principles of unity, emotional impact, good taste, and whatever else -- and The Searchers just won't stay in or out.

But I've _never_ had a problem with the lack of motivation for Ethan's act. What do we need to know? There are a million possible reasons; choose your favorite.


Wow, 38 posts and no one has pointed out you have the wrong year on THE SEARCHERS? Filmed in the summer of '55 and opened in March of '56.

Glenn Kenny

Well, Cad, that's clearly because this particular post is concerned with Higher Things, ahem.

Thanks for the heads-up. Correction in the works.

Larry Gross

Great post. Thanks.
Not sure it's exactly Transcendental in the Schraderian sense, but the finale between Wyatt and Clementine at the end of My Darling Clementine,
pirouetting on the heart-breaking line, 'I gotta go tell Pa what happened,' and then the tentative kiss, the courtly wave, and the final walk that Clementine takes to the fence, renders an experience of the enigmatic boundary between the personal, familial, social experience and its relation to everything spiritual 'beyond' it, as only the greatest religiously informed modern art has done. I guess it's tragically negative transcendence with the glory of America's future as the consolation prize for everything we've lost.


Does this mean that those of use who listen to Melcalf's podcast are thorough-going twits as well?

Glenn Kenny

@ Neil: Hey, it's your life. Jeez. I don't even wanna imagine what he sounds like...

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