October 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 5
Overrated So many to choose from— The Best Years of Our Lives , The Night of the Hunter , High Noon —so little space in which to vent one’s spleen. But right up against it, I’d have to choose John Ford’s The Searchers .
It was a late starter in the masterpiece sweepstakes; when it appeared in 1956, the critics more or less dismissed it as just another Western, albeit more handsome than many. That it surely was; Ford never worked his little patch of Monument Valley ground, as well as other Western locations, with greater power. And it does contain what may be John Wayne’s most towering and ferocious performance, as lonely, lovelorn Ethan Edwards, returning from the Civil War to his brother’s bleak ranch and his unacknowledged love of the man’s wife.
The film owes its growing reputation particularly to that generation of cineastes (Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas among them) who saw it as kids and were permanently knocked out by Ford’s marvelous vistas—so much so that they elide, in their appreciation, its central story, in which the family, all save its youngest daughter, Debbie, are massacred by a renegade Indian band. She is abducted by its leader, Scar, and, played as a grownup by Natalie Wood, she eventually becomes his “squaw.” The film is largely preoccupied with Ethan’s seven-year search for her. His intent is not to rescue her but to kill her. It makes no difference to him that her crime, miscegenation, was obviously forced on her. She is, in Ethan’s view, irrevocably tainted.
All right; there is in this narrative the hint of a dark and deeply twisted American tragedy. But Ford and his screenwriter, Frank S. Nugent, back away from it. They introduce a comically earnest young man, Jeffery Hunter’s Martin Pawley (a.k.a. “Blankethead”), as Wayne’s companion. At some point a fat Indian woman becomes obsessively enamored of him, much to Ethan’s vulgar amusement. Throughout, Martin is trying to return to his fiancée (Vera Miles), who finally decides to marry an oafish suitor. The movie pauses for Martin to have an endless seriocomic brawl with him. None of this is funny or appropriate to the film’s major theme. It is just Ford selling out, as he so often did in his movies, to his low populist impulses (he was always introducing raucous revelry and sentimental Irish ballads in pictures, generally to bewildering emotional effect).
But the worst thing about The Searchers is its ending. We may not entirely believe that it would require seven years for someone as wise in the ways of the wilderness as Ethan to track down a fairly substantial tribe of Comanches. We may rationally wonder why a man would devote so many years to a quest not for redemption but for the murder of an innocent. But thanks to Wayne’s great performance, we somehow accept Ethan’s psychotic implacability (it obviously has to do with his own frustrated love). Then, however, when he finally finds Debbie, he rides her down—and sweeps her up into his avuncular arms (“Let’s go home, Debbie”).
It is, let’s face it, a Hollywood ending. And a cheat. We cannot believe or accept this change of an embittered heart. We cannot believe that a film constantly shadowed by a potential for epic and tragic grandeur would dwindle, at last, to this pallid and sentimental conclusion. Imagery aside—and some of it is fabulous—you wonder why Ford and company bothered. Or why we should.
Underrated It doesn’t appear on anybody’s list of 100 greatest movies—not the American Film Institute’s, not the National Society of Film Critics', not Leslie Halliwell’s or Roger Ebert’s. Am I alone in believing that William Wyler’s adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth (with a script by the playwright Sidney Howard, who had previously done a hit Broadway version of it) is one of the abiding ornaments of American film’s classic age?
I can accept that. I can also accept, without liking it at all, that Lewis’s fiction, like the meticulous Wyler’s reputation, is at something of a discount these days and that the film’s stars—Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, and Mary Astor—have no resonance with today’s DVD buyers, and therefore no hope of stirring their nostalgic regard. But I have to insist: Dodsworth is one of the great American social comedies, as well as one of its great romances.
Its greatness begins with what we would now call “the underlying property.” For once Lewis relented in his satire on Mid-western go-getters. His eponymous hero is a lovely man—wry yet taciturn, gently self-satirizing yet a hard and dutiful worker who has made a fortune manufacturing automobiles. He was a perfect fit for Walter Huston, who won great acclaim playing him on the stage. Huston was a man who could portray integrity without seeming to congratulate himself on that virtue, and in this film, dragged off on a European grand tour by his social-climbing wife, he gives us the American abroad with perfect Jamesian aplomb. He’s there to absorb, to understand, not particularly to judge a culture exotic to him. His wife, Fran (Ruth Chatterton), is the opposite. The actress fought with Wyler, thinking she should be an overt bitch. But the director won. She is giddy and heedless and soon swept up by a circle of aesthetes and aristocratic poseurs, among whom she finds a lover. Sam Dodsworth, meanwhile, has met Edith Cortright (Mary Astor, who was, I think, the sexiest woman in the movies at the time). She’s a self-sufficient expatriate. Her sensibility is, in its way, Sam’s mirror image, open to new experience but never seeking it out merely for its own sake.
They become lovers. But Sam is haunted by guilt—and duty, of course. He returns to his wife, determined to make the best of things. Then, aboard the ship that will take them home, her brittle, empty chatter begins. Sam is suddenly on his feet, leaving for good, and speaking the movie’s (to me) immortal line: “Love has to stop short of suicide.”
Indeed it must. Sam has now symbolically embraced modernism. He’s going into the airplane business, with this beautiful, sensible, sexy woman at his side. Except that she doesn’t make too much of her sexiness. It is an implicit force in Astor’s performance, but never an explicit one. She lets it steal over us. It’s the same way with the rest of this movie. Its wish is not to épater la bourgeoisie ; it wants to understand it. It has some sympathy even for the socially bedazzled Fran. It is, in all respects, a beautifully measured movie, mature in its attitudes, mature even by the standards of our own, more freely spoken age. It is like the best of Lubitsch, or Charlie Chaplin’s great, virtually unknown A Woman in Paris , a movie that wears its sophistication gracefully, even occasionally gravely, and so transcends the manners and mores of its moment (1936), retaining its ability to speak to us as freshly, as poignantly, and as immediately as the day it was made.