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The Movie Of The Century
It looks both backward to everything Hollywood had learned about Westerns and forward to things films hadn’t dared do
November 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 7
It is a phrase so high-concept it ought to be the title of a movie, or at least the slogan for a marketing campaign, the ultimate coming attraction. Never mind Intolerance or Citizen Kane , the real Movie of the Century would be a will-o’-the-wisp, always just about to be revealed, a hundred years in the making, cast of millions, coming soon to a theater near you. What drove movies in the past was anticipation of what the future held. In the years when Hollywood was actually producing a fairly steady flow of good-to-great movies, there was scarcely time or inclination for a backward glance.
Or else—for this impossible honor—one might take any representative slice of the old Hollywood’s product, from the twenties or the thirties or the forties according to preference. Profusion was, after all, the point. At the height of the American public’s romance with moviegoing, a night at the Orpheum was as fundamental and recurrent an activity as having dinner or going to bed; a reliable flow of cinematic pleasures was more important than any particular presentation. Tonight a double bill of a pirate adventure and a murder mystery; starting Wednesday, the screen version of a best-selling love story and a college musical. All the movies were somehow interrelated, so that even the humblest Mr. Moto thriller or Gene Autry Western had its part in the mix that likewise encompassed Gone With the Wind . Movies were not meant to live alone any more than people were.
Pushed, however, to propose a single movie for such unnatural solitary eminence, I’d have to pick the one I’ve ended up watching oftenest, John Ford’s The Searchers . Released in 1956, it’s a product of just that moment when —with the breakup of its distribution monopolies and the erosion of its audience by television —the studio machine finally began to come apart. It looks both ways in time, embodying all the traditional virtues of storytelling and technical command, yet expanding established limits to suggest a world of possibilities beyond what Hollywood had permitted itself. It’s an extraordinarily generous and exploratory work, made by a director who had just turned sixtyone. The Searchers might be taken as the outermost extension of everything that John Ford—and who else but John Ford could have made the American Movie of the Century?—had learned in the forty years of filmmaking that preceded it, from the time he made what probably was his acting debut by playing a character named Dopey in his brother Francis Ford’s two-reeler The Mysterious Rose, filmed just as World War I was breaking out.
A career like Ford’s was conceivable only in the old Hollywood. Born in 1894, he had already directed more than fifty films when he achieved his first major success at age thirty with the epic Western The Iron Horse . He went on to turn out seventy-two more, not counting a range of shorts and documentaries undertaken for the U.S. government. Laden with honors for such prestige pictures as The Informer , The Grapes of Wrath , and How Green Was My Valley , Ford expended more of his creative energy on quirkier personal projects, Westerns like My Darling Clementine , Fort Apache , and Wagon Master . Outwardly straightforward entertainments, noted for their splendid landscapes and the vigorous presence of Ford’s stock company of character actors, these were films that undermined conventional movie structure in favor of a looser, more genetically mixed form in which slapstick could adjoin tragedy and plot development might be suspended at any moment for a dance or a brawl or a serene stroll.
The Searchers was in many ways an atypical project for Ford. Derived from an excellent novel by Alan LeMay, it had all the earmarks of the newer “adult” Westerns that were Hollywood’s answer to the onslaught of TV gunslingers: a psychologically conflicted hero, adulterous (if repressed) passion, rape, massacre, interracial sex. The dramatic action was far more violent and overt than in Ford’s previous Westerns, and he rose to the challenge by forging a style unique to this film. All the amplitude and laid-back atmospherics of his earlier masterpieces are put under a pressure that takes Ford beyond himself; the garrulous impulse that often led to extended bouts of knockabout comedy and ceremonial pageantry is reined in, although hardly absent. It’s as if two contradictory approaches to filmmaking operated simultaneously. The characteristic Fordian desire to open things up, to slow down the story to allow the margins and backgrounds to be fully felt—his capacity for letting minor characters become momentarily central—works together here with a contradictory impulse toward ruthless concision and relentless forward impetus. For all its seven-year time span and sprawling geographic range, The Searchers works like a suspense movie.