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Film & TV

The 10 Best John Wayne Westerns from My Childhood…

…and slightly beyond.
john-wayne-4Like a lot of people who grew up in the 50s and 60s – mostly boys I have to admit – John Wayne was the ultimate hero. He kicked arse like no one else on screen. You could say he was an equal opportunities arse kicker – it didn’t matter if you were Mexican, Native American, German or any other son of a bitch – he killed them all. My dad was also a big Wayne fan so I got to see a lot of old Duke’s films as a kid from about 4 years old so this is a list in descending order of preference of my all-time favourite Wayne cowboy films from 1954 through to 1976 as these are the films I watched when they were actually released.

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)
A great score by Elmer Bernstein of Magnificent Seven / Great Escape fame and featuring Wayne’s co-star from Rio Bravo, Dean Martin. Four brothers meet up at the funeral of their mother and swear revenge on the people who murdered their father and swindled the mother. There appears to be a hell of an age gap between the older brother Wayne – 57 at the time, and the youngest brother played by Michael Anderson, who looks about 4 but was actually 22 at the time. Seems those pioneers of old were able to breed for nearly forty years at a time. But I digress.

Wayne and the director Henry Hathaway had already worked together on four films prior to this one and would go on to film True Grit a few years afterwards – more on that one later. On the face of it the film is just an old-fashioned shoot-em-up with Duke and the brothers turning the tables on the villains by the end but like a lot of Wayne’s later films – and many 1960s Westerns in general – there’s an underlying sense of men getting older and out of time in the changing West. But then maybe that’s just me.

As with all of the films in this list a perennial Sunday afternoon post-roast dinner blowout movie. Trivia note – Wayne was recovering from surgery from cancer, or ‘the big C’ as he called it – during the making of the film, having had a lung removed prior to shooting.

The Comancheros (1961)
The opening credits for this film feature Wayne, as Texas Ranger Jake Cutter, riding high, wide and handsome across the western landscape accompanied by another magnificent Elmer Bernstein score. In fact it’s nearly the best scene in the film.

The plot is a little contrived – Cutter arrests a man by the name of Paul Regret, played by Stuart Whitman, for killing a man in a duel. Wayne is then directed to hunt down a group of Comancheros, a large group of whisky and gun smuggling desperadoes, and he and Regret end up on the same side of the law. Notable for the first time that Wayne gets to kill Lee Marvin. Rumour has it Wayne stood in for the director of the film, Michael Curtiz, when Curtiz fell ill during the production.

A very long trivia note and a true story for all you Wayne fans out there. Some years ago a director by the name of Kevin Connor worked with a crew member who happened to be Stuart Whitman’s son. He told Kevin the story of how he and a young friend, invited on to the set by Whitman, both got a bit bored and wandered off down to the nearest river to throw stones in the water – I guess kids were easily pleased in those days.

Somehow or other they managed to get themselves caught in the mud on the riverbank and started sinking deeper and deeper into the water. Screaming for help, their rescuer eventually turned up on horseback, threw them a rope and dragged the kids to safety. And the man on the horse was none other than John Wayne himself. It doesn’t get any better than that. In fact, I think I’m going to cry…

eldoreado-2El Dorado (1966)
Virtually a remake of Rio Bravo – swap Robert Mitchum for Dean Martin, Arthur Hunnicutt for Walter Brennan and James Caan for Ricky Nelson, film it in Tucson, where Rio Bravo was filmed, then throw in the same director for good measure. Only, on a close viewing, it’s more of a companion piece, and of course a starring vehicle for Wayne, who this time around plays a gunfighter who comes to the aid of yet another drunk – Mitchum – but who is hamstrung by a bullet lodged against his spine.

The song over the opening credits is pretty cheesy even by Western song standards and the actress playing Wayne’s love interest – Charlene Holt – simply can’t act. I remember that when the film was released back in 1966 James Caan appeared as a guest on a talk show in the UK hosted by the late comedian Dave Allen.

Caan’s character in the film is supposed to be an expert knife thrower so Dave Allen volunteered to stand against a board while Caan threw knives at him. Before standing against the board Dave Allen asked James Caan to try a practice throw. Caan threw the knife which landed where Dave Allan’s head would have been. Oh, how we laughed in those days when there were only two channels to choose from.

Trivia note – the scriptwriter on the film, Leigh Brackett, went on to co-write The Empire Strikes Back with Lawrence Kasdan. She also co-wrote The Big Sleep for Hawks back in 1946.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
The last Western film partnership between Wayne and John Ford. Considered to be one of their best, this is the one where in Duke calls James Stewart by the name ‘Pilgrim’ which in the context of the story is not necessarily a term of endearment.

Upstart lawyer Stewart comes between Wayne and his intended, Hallie Stoddart. In the midst of all this Stewart locks horns with local town bully Liberty Valance – played with vicious relish by Lee Marvin – and the two face each other off in a gunfight. As to what happens – watch the film and see for yourself. Definitely Ford’s last great film – he made one more Western after this, Cheyenne Autumn, which didn’t do too well at the box office.

Duke shows what a good actor he could be when he didn’t necessarily have to play John Wayne all the time. One to check out if you’re at a loose end on a Sunday afternoon. Trivia note – the Gene Pitney song of the same name doesn’t actually feature in the film. The song, written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, was actually recorded for the movie but Ford didn’t like it so it didn’t make the cut.

True Grit (1969)
Duke finally got his Oscar playing the one-eyed drunk Rooster Cogburn, more of a pity award then recognition for a great performance I think (he’d only been nominated once before back in 1949 for Sands of Iwo Jima). He was much better in Red River or The Searchers or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon whereas in True Grit he really just played himself.

Still, I guess it was his turn and he deserved some kind of recognition, if only for longevity in Hollywood, having started as an extra in the late 1920s. The film tells the story of how Rooster is hired by a young girl out to avenge the death of her father. Also featuring Glen Campbell at the height of his singing fame singing another cheesy Wayne film song – although the score itself is another classic by Elmer Bernstein – and a cameo role by Dennis Hopper who looks like he’s in training for his next film, Easy Rider.

The movie was recently remade by the Coen brothers – why? – and garnered acclaim for, among other things, emphasizing the contemporary Western diction and verbal style as featured in the original source novel. For my money, apart from a couple of different story strands – Glen Campbell’s Texas Ranger dies but Matt Damon makes it through to the final reel – it didn’t really improve on the Wayne version all that much.

Jeff Bridges as Cogburn was good enough but I personally find the earlier film just as good as, if not better, than the later version. Someone should put out a t-shirt with Wayne’s declaration to killer Robert Duval to ‘Fill your hands, you son-of-a-bitch’ on the front. I’d buy it. Trivia note – the sequel, Rooster Cogburn, was loosely based on the Humphrey Bogart film The African Queen. Katherine Hepburn played in both The African Queen and Rooster Cogburn.

The_Cowboys-3The Cowboys (1972)
Considering Wayne’s co-stars in this movie are a bunch of kids hired to help him drive his cattle to market – the other ranchers leave to take part in a gold rush – this is a very brutal and violent film, featuring one of Duke’s all-time best death scenes – with the exception of The Alamo of course.

Bruce Dern is superb as the deranged killer who has to shoot Wayne at least five times before Duke bites the dust, four of the shots fired as Wayne walks away from his killer. I note with some surprise that Bruce Dern reckoned killing John Wayne derailed his career. If true, that stands as testament to how much Wayne was revered by his audience, and how unfortunate it fell to Dern to take the role in the first place. This infamously bloody and brutal death scene is in effect the climax of the film, meaning that after Duke shuffles off his mortal coil the rest of the movie is just tying up loose ends.

In this particular case though that includes Dern’s comeuppance, wounded and tied to a horse which drags him to his much deserved death. A mention here for yet another great score, this time composed by a pre-Star Wars John Williams.

Trivia note – according to my own recollection John Wayne actually died onscreen 7 times in the following films: The Wake of the Red Witch, Reap the Wild Wind, Sands of Iwo Jima, The Fighting Seabees, The Alamo, The Cowboys and The Shootist. However, in 1928 he played an extra in an early John Ford silent film called Hangman’s House with Wayne featuring as a man who has just been executed by hanging.

The Shootist (1976)
In his last film John Wayne ironically plays an ageing gunfighter dying of cancer, the illness that killed him 3 years later in 1979. The film starts with a brief compilation of some of his earlier films – Red River, Hondo, Rio Bravo and El Dorado – to illustrate the past of the main character, J.B. Books.

Accompanied by other veteran Hollywood actors such as James Stewart, Lauren Bacall and Richard Boone, the film is another example of old men railing against progress and the dying light. A pre-directing (and pre-puberty) Ron Howard of Happy Days fame plays the innocent youth who wants Wayne to show him how to use a gun. Naturally the film ends as expected with a gunfight in which Wayne’s character in effect chooses the manner of his own death – shot in the back (again) – this time by a bartender.

Elmer Bernstein’s last score for Wayne – not his most memorable but I guess you can’t win all the time. The director Andrew V. MacLaglen, who worked on a number of Westerns with Wayne back in the 1960s told me – yes, that’s right, he actually told me, back in 1998, that he visited Duke on the set of the film and Wayne told him that he’d rather MacLaglen was directing it instead of Don Siegel – he had previously directed Dirty Harry – who Wayne had not worked with before.

Seeing as all of the parties have now passed away I can say that in my humble opinion Siegel was the better director. MacLaglen was more of a workmanlike studio director whereas Siegel had a style of his own. I think The Shootist is a better film because of that and a worthy swansong to probably the best-known cowboy star of all time. Trivia note – John Wayne is the only actor to appear every year in a poll run since 1994 asking the American public who their favourite actor is.

He may have been a pinko-baiting whisky swilling commie bashing cantankerous son-of-a-bitch off screen whose politics were further to the right than Genghis Khan, but somebody out there obviously likes him.

The Alamo (1960)
Spoiler alert first. They all die. Well, nearly all. Frankie Avalon makes it out by the skin of his teeth but no one cares about him anyway. My mum took me to see this when I was 8 and watching John Wayne getting bayoneted and stuck to a door is not something any boy of that age should ever have to watch. In fact nearly 60 years later I’m still trying to get over it.

Admittedly not exactly Wayne’s finest hour – or finest 3 hours and 10 minutes if you’re checking out the uncut version – mainly because the script is so risible. The speech in which Duke as Davy Crockett talks about how the word Republic makes him ‘tight in the throat’ has me cringing even now but the battle sequences and the soundtrack by Dimitri Tiomkin go a long way to redeeming the end product. It’s notable for actually being directed by Wayne, who also produced it as well.

The film bombed at the box office and Wayne lost his shirt, which is why he ended up having to churn out so many films in the 1960s in order that he could pay mooring fees on his battleship. I visited the location of the film in Bracketville, Texas a few years back and I purloined a chunk of the many pieces of white rubble that were scattered around the crumbling set.

Also, the first poster I ever bought was for this very film. Not that I’m obsessed or anything. Trivia note – John Ford dropped by the set and to get rid of him Wayne gave him a second unit camera crew to shoot pickup shots, some of which – Mexican soldiers crossing a river – actually made it into the film.


Rio Bravo (1959)
At times this film vies with The Searchers for the top spot depending what mood I’m in. Where The Searchers is at times downbeat and cynical Rio Bravo is uplifting and even very funny at times.

Both films get shown on tv on a fairly regular basis and dropping into Rio Bravo at any point feels like you’re visiting a group of old friends. Chance (Wayne) and his compatriots Dude (Dean Martin), Stumpy (Walter Brennan) and Colorado (Ricky Nelson) are besieged by a group of outlaws wanting to get their friend out of jail before the marshal arrives.

All the good guys are known only by their nicknames – even card-sharp Angie Dickinson ends up being called Feathers. Directed by Howard Hawks – a contemporary of Ford – this is another Western that has also influenced other film makers, the story serving as the basis for John Carpenter’s 1976 film Assault on Precinct 13. It also influenced Hawks himself – see El Dorado as featured earlier. The poster’s not too bad either.

Trivia note –Harry Carey Junior is listed in the opening credits but he doesn’t appear in the film. Apparently he’d had a bit too much to drink and called the director Howard instead of Mister Hawks. His lack of deference meant the scenes he’d already appeared in were cut from the final version of the film.

The Searchers (1956)
If someone were to put me on the spot right now I’d say this is probably my all-time favourite film – ever. I first saw it in a cinema in Malta where they rolled the roof back whenever it got hot inside. It’s definitely the best of the Westerns Wayne made with the director John Ford and over the years it’s grown in stature to the point where it now regularly makes it onto the top ten list of best films ever made.

Over the years the film has influenced numerous other directors such as Martin Scorsese, Paul Schraeder and Steven Spielberg. George Lucas nicked part of the story for the first Star Wars film – John Wayne’s character Ethan Edwards (Hans Solo) helps a young man, Marty, played by Jeffrey Hunter (Luke Skywalker) to go looking for Marty’s half-sister Debbie (Princess Leia) who has been kidnapped by the cruel Comanche warrior Scar (Darth Vader).

In Attack of the Clones Lucas even recreated a scene shot-for-shot from The Searchers in homage to John Ford. The poster was my holy grail when I started collecting over 20 years ago. After many years searching for an original copy and lying to my wife about how much I paid for it the poster has pride of place on the study wall. Apparently Buddy Holly saw the film in a picture house in Lubbock, Texas, took Wayne’s signature phrase from the film – ‘that’ll be the day’ – and turned it into a hit record.

Trivia note – In 2007 I met one of the actors who appears in the film, Harry Carey Junior. He played the ill-fated Brad who goes looking for his fiancé, Lucy, kidnapped along with her younger sister, Debbie. He told me the character he played in the film was supposed to be 19. Carey was 32 at the time.

One final note. I remember a joke doing the rounds back in 1979 that John Wayne was dead but no one had the guts to tell him. A fitting epitaph I think.

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Film & TV

I Thought Cong Was in Connemara – The Quiet Man Location

Back in the early 90s I was reading a book by the now-deceased British film director Lindsay Anderson (he directed If, O Lucky Man and Britannia Hospital among others) when I came across the mention of a meeting Anderson had with John Ford in Dublin, in 1951, while Ford was in Ireland shooting location footage for The Quiet Man.

The Quiet Man PosterA penny suddenly dropped. Of course, Ford must have gone to Ireland to make one of his most famous films, something that had not occurred to me before. Typically, Hollywood films were very rarely made on location but by the late 1940s / early 1950s television had drastically reduced the American domestic cinema audience, forcing Hollywood to tempt filmgoers back with innovations such as 3D and Cinemascope, as well as the added attraction of location shooting to bring an extra dimension to the cinematic experience.

The film was shot in and around the village of Cong so, making a mental note of the name of the place, I decided that if I was ever in the area I’d take a look at some of the locations used for the film.

A few years later, 1993 to be exact, we decided to take a family holiday in Ireland and in the second week of our visit we stayed in a boarding house in the village of Spiddal, located on the shore of Galway Bay. One day the sun decided to grant us with it’s presence so, checking my road map, I plotted a route which took us north of Spiddal into Connemara, after which we hung a right to take us to the village of Cong.

We entered the village from the West, driving up the main high street until we hit a t junction, on the right of which I was delighted to see Pat Cohan’s Bar, the pub in which John Wayne threw the final punch that finished his epic fist fight with Victor McLaglen. After we parked I immediately enlisted in The Quiet Man tour, for which I still proudly hold a certificate.

Pat Cohans Bar from The Quiet Man

Our guide was a young man who couldn’t have been more than about 17 years old but who had obviously seen the John Ford classic more times than he’d had birthdays. The tour took about an hour in which we saw Mary Kate Dannaher’s house, to which John Wayne’s character, Sean Thornton, arrived for his first date with her. We were shown the gate that Ward Bond, playing the local Catholic priest, Father Lonergan, leaps over in excitement upon being informed that the climactic fist fight has finally begun, as well as the location where Wayne knocks McLaglen into a stream with one punch.

Various other locations were also visited, including the magnificent Ashford Castle, which is literally about half a mile outside of the village.

Once the tour had finished I revisited some of the locations on my own and was struck by how little everything had changed since John Ford and his cast and crew had arrived to shoot The Quiet Man over forty years before.

At some point either on that day we visited Cong, or shortly after, I started to think about what it might have been like for a young boy living in the village in 1951 when the film was being made. What if that kid was, just like me when I was younger, a huge John Wayne fan?

The Cast of The Quiet Man

Furthermore, what if one day he opened his front door to see the real John Wayne standing in the street outside his house preparing for a take? What would that young boy be thinking? How would he react upon meeting his hero in the flesh? And that, dear reader, is how I came to write Connemara Days.

Actually I wrote the screenplay first, a script which unfortunately has yet to be produced. The book version followed a few years afterwards. I couldn’t find a publisher so I self-published a thousand paperback copies, most of which I managed to sell in Ireland and to various interested parties. What with the advent of internet publishing which provides the opportunity to make contact people who share my interest in films, and John Wayne and John Ford in particular, I have decided to issue a new version of the book which has been revised and proofed by a professional editor.

I called the book Connemara Days because on the day we visited Cong for the first time we drove east through Connemara and I did not realise until quite a while afterwards that Cong is actually in County Mayo, albeit only just over the border.

I contemplated changing the title to County Mayo Days but that kind of rhymed with mayonnaise which in itself suggested the existence of some strange kind of Irish relish so I kept the original title.

I hope you enjoy it – the book that is, not the relish.

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Film & TV

Remembering Harry “Dobe” Carey Jr.

I first made contact with Harry Carey Jr., or ‘Dobe’; as he came to be known, back in 1998. I’d met up with the film director Andrew McLaglen at Pinewood studios to discuss a script I’d written about the making of The Quiet Man on which he had worked as an unaccredited assistant director in 1951.

A Harry Carey Tribute

image source:
After discussing my script we started talking about John Ford and the subject turned to Monument Valley. I told him I was planning a trip that year over to the States and that I’d recently seen a documentary in which Harry Carey Jr. pointed out some of the locations Ford used in Monument Valley. To my astonishment he gave me Dobe’s phone number and said I should ask him about some of the other locations in the valley where Ford had shot many of his Westerns.

I finally got round to ringing Dobe one evening after watching him get shot by Powers Boothe in the film ‘Tombstone’. Dobe told me that he’d been ‘shot at, stomped on and filled full of arrows’ in practically every film he’d ever made. He said he was coming over to England some time the following year and that we should meet up for a cup of tea but unfortunately he hurt his back not too long after so we didn’t actually meet up until nearly ten years later.

He sent me a copy of his book Company of Heroes  My Life As An Actor In The John Ford Stock Company – mandatory reading for all Wayne and Ford fans – which was waiting for me at Gouldings Lodge in Monument Valley. One of my cherished memories is sitting on the balcony of our apartment reading Dobe’s book as the sun went down over the valley, with ‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’ playing on the TV in the background.

Some years later I decided to write a thesis on the silent films of John Ford and figured it would be a good idea to contact Dobe, as his father had been the star of approximately 25 of Ford’s early silent Universal Studio Westerns between 1917 to 1921.By this time he and his wife Marilyn had moved from Durango down to Santa Barbara on the West Coast a few miles north of Los Angeles.

I finally got to meet Dobe and Marilyn at their house in October 2007, by which time he was 85 years old, and looking fairly frail, but very much up to talking about Ford and his father. Not having interviewed anyone properly before, we kind of went off on the main subject of the films his dad made with Ford, and, over lunch, got into talking about John Wayne and John Ford instead, and the films that Dobe himself made with Ford.

A couple of interesting pieces of information came out of the conversation, including the fact that Dobe was originally going to be cast in The Quiet Man as the IRA character Hugh Forbes, a part that eventually went to Maureen O’Hara’s brother, Charles Fitzsimons.

Both Dobe and Marilyn said that Ford was quite a formidable character, but Dobe still reckoned he was the best director he ever worked with. He’d also worked with a lot of other directors, including Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks. I’d asked him previously why he wasn’t in the Hawks film Rio Bravo, even though his name appears in the opening credits. He said he was going to write about that in his next book which unfortunately he never got around to finishing.

Harry Carey & John Wayne

If you want to know the reason why he’s not in the film refer to my article on John Wayne films, or alternatively check out the Silver Grey Fox, a biography on Howard Hawks in which Dobe is interviewed on that very subject.

Dobe also talked about how grateful he was to Andrew McLaglen for casting him in the majority of films McLaglen made in the 60s and 70s. He was also full of praise for film director Peter Bogdanovich, who gifted Dobe with an original poster of the John Ford film, Wagon Master, which he’d starred in back in 1950 alongside Ben Johnson. The poster adorned the wall of their home along with numerous other posters and memorabilia relating to both Carey Jr. and Carey Senior.

Just after lunch Dobe declared that it was time for his nap, at which point Marilyn informed me that was his way of saying goodbye. I immediately got up to leave but Marilyn said she was only half joking and I could stay as long as I wanted. Dobe signed a DVD of 3 Godfathers
for me, another Ford film, then posed for a photograph with me before saying his goodbyes. After he had retired Marilyn gave me the opportunity to trawl through the large archive of photographs Dobe had collected over the years for anything on his father that I might be able to use in the thesis, a couple of which eventually made the final draft.

I asked Marilyn why they had settled in Santa Barbara, as when I first spoke with Dobe back in 1998 they were living in Durango. She said they had to move because the air was so thin there it was literally killing him as he got older, so they moved to California to be close to friends and family.

She then ruefully told me that her father, the actor Paul Fix, had been cast as the doctor in the pilot episode of Star Trek back in the 1960s. For reasons obscured in the mist of time he apparently turned down the opportunity to play the role once the show was picked up by the network so the part went to DeForrest Kelly instead. Marilyn said if her father had taken the role in Star Trek she and Dobe would have probably been receiving me in their mansion in Bel Air instead.

Marilyn also regaled me with a story about how they met up with a tired and emotional John Wayne at a party one night. He asked Marilyn for a dance then promptly waltzed across the room holding her upside down. She said a remorseful Wayne was full of apologies the following day, and sent her a large bouquet of flowers – but she decided it was best not to dance with Mr Wayne again.

I stayed in touch with both Dobe and Marilyn over the years, and I’m happy to say that due to the research I carried out on Ford’s silent films I was able to send them copies of some of the recently discovered films Dobe’s father made with Ford, such as The Scarlet Drop (1917) and A Gun Fightin’ Gentleman (1919) for his collection. We sent each other Xmas and New Year greetings for a while then things went quiet towards the end of 2011. The news came through just after Xmas in 2012 that he had passed away at the age of 91.

For the Ford aficionados who might be reading this, you’ll know that the director paid tribute to Harry Carey Senior at the beginning of 3 Godfathers, dedicating the film to ‘the brightest star in the Western sky’, just after Carey had passed away in 1948. Well, there’s another star in the Western sky now, shining just as bright. And I’m happy so say I had the privilege of actually meeting him once.

Happy trails, Dobe

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Film & TV

A Must For All Lovers of Film But Why “The Searchers”?

In the preface to a book dedicated solely to a collection of essays on The Searchers (The Searchers: Essays and Reflections on John Ford’s Classic Western, edited by Eckstein and Lehman) one of the editor’s mentions a video installation set up in the desert a few miles to the east of Los Angeles back in 2001.The Searchers video installationimage source:
The installation was the brainchild of a guy called Douglas Gordon whose aim was to project the complete version of The Searchers onto a screen positioned not far from the main highway, but with a projection time of approximately 1 frame every 15 minutes as opposed to the standard 24 frames a second.

Gordon estimated it would take about 5 years for the film to run from the very first to the very last frame – which is the time it takes in the film for Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) to track down his kidnapped niece, Debbie (Natalie Wood). A few years before this Gordon did something similar with his installation 24 Hour Psycho in which he expanded the running time of the Hitchcock classic over a 24 hour period. The question is, out of all the films Gordon could have chosen to project onto a screen in the middle of a desert, why The Searchers?

The preface to the book quotes his childhood growing up in Scotland and watching Westerns with his dad on the tv. He is quoted as saying that he complained to his parents about the lack of pace and action in The Searchers, and they told him he would understand the film once he was older.

TheSearchers-2

For the so-called boomer generation, of which I am a fully paid up member, I think that’s really the key to it all. You need to watch the film quite a number of times over a long period – I first saw it in 1956 when I was four years old and I still watch it on a frequent basis – before you start to appreciate the complexity of The Searchers, as well as the realisation that it really is one of the best films ever to have come out of Hollywood, and certainly the finest of all the movies born out of the partnership of John Ford and John Wayne.

Rather than preach to the converted out there, people of my age and maybe those of the generation that came afterwards, the question I would pose is how can I go about persuading my children’s generation that they should watch the film in the first place? In other words, why The Searchers and not Citizen Kane / Vertigo / Sunrise / Seven Samurai / Breathless or any other film that constantly appear in best film polls.

If I were faced with an audience in their late teens / early 20s to whom I would be tasked with making the case for The Searchers then I would ask them to consider three key elements of the film itself.

John Wayne in the SearchersJohn Wayne

So here’s the first problem. The Searchers is a cowboy film. And it’s got John Wayne in it. Let’s deal with the fact it’s a Western first.

To be brutally honest, the Western genre is moribund, to say the least. It’s crawling around somewhere out there in the dust and tumbleweeds, shot full of arrows and barely able to move, the spark of life reignited with the occasional injection of a Dances with Wolves, Unforgiven or Deadwood to indicate it has not yet totally ceased to exist.

Of course elements of the Western can still be detected in one form or another – whether it ‘s Star Wars, Assault on Precinct 13 (based on Rio Bravo), Outlander (1981 sci-fi thriller based on High Noon), Serenity (Stagecoach by any other name) – the list goes on.

The presence of John Wayne, however, could be considered to be a bit more problematic for a contemporary audience. Here’s an actor whose screen character is interchangeable with his off-screen persona. Wayne still stands for old-fashioned American values, values that have gone out of favour with many people, including Americans themselves in these more cynical times.

Being honest, God-fearing and consuming large amounts of mom’s apple pie just doesn’t cut it any more and Wayne personifies those outmoded morals in spades.

This an invite to a necktie party reverend?
BUY NOW FROM THE WARM BITS STORE – $14.00

The point that needs to be made, however, is that when it comes to The Searchers you’re not being presented with the steadfast, upright, morally correct individual that Wayne is usually associated with. I can’t think of any other John Wayne film made either before or after The Searchers in which he a) shoots three men in the back, b) shoots out the eyes of a dead Comanche warrior, c) mutilates the corpse of another dead Comanche and d) attempts to murder one of his own relatives.

Admittedly he’s quite vicious in Red River, which was made about 8 years before, and he can be mean and ornery in some of his later roles in The Cowboys, True Grit and The Shootist but in those films he still embodies the characteristics that define the John Wayne we’re all familiar with.

Even in The Searchers there are occasions when he can’t help being John Wayne – ‘This an invite to a necktie party, Reverend?’, ‘That’ll be the day’ etc – but the character of Ethan Edwards transcends those clichés.

He’s a snarling, angry, bigoted racist who wants to put a bullet into Debbie’s brain because she had the temerity to be kidnaped and thus tainted by association with the tribe that took her away. She is no longer acceptable in white society so has to be eliminated. Ethan Edwards is up for the job and that’s what makes The Searchers unique in John Wayne’s acting CV.

Wayne is simply at his career best here and even though Ethan doesn’t carry through with his threat to kill Debbie – a scene that continues to make the hair stand up on the back of my neck no matter how many times I watch it – this is still a film everyone should see for themselves, even if Wayne’s presence may initially be off-putting for the audience of today.

John Ford with an Oscarimage source:
John Ford

I could write a hundred thousand words on the subject of John Ford and still do not do him justice, so I’ll just stick to the issue in hand. Ford is obviously known for his Westerns, even though the majority of the films he made in that genre were actually produced during the silent era.

He made his first sound Western, Stagecoach, in 1939 and along the way helped elevate Wayne to star status. In my humble opinion nearly all of the Westerns Ford directed from 1939 onwards qualify for classic status, apart from the occasional box-office misfire such as Two Rode Together, which is almost a virtual remake of The Searchers.

For me, one of the aspects of The Searchers that sets it apart from the cowboy films Ford made prior to this is the way in which he depicts the plight of Native Americans. I feel this is the real turning point in the director’s onscreen attitude towards America’s indigenous natives. Some of the images from the sequence in which Ethan Edwards and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey hunter) chance upon a Comanche village that has been devastated by the cavalry bears comparison with some of the late 60s / early 70s liberal Westerns such as Soldier Blue and Little Big Man.

This is Ford finally questioning the role of the military in ‘settling’ the West and he doesn’t pull any punches. The cavalry regiment that arrives in the nick of time at the end of Stagecoach, flags flying gloriously in the wind, is now transformed into a ruthless band of cutthroats who kill those that came before them.

Monument Valley with Geronimo flagI would therefore argue that The Searchers is indicative of a real turning point in the life of Ford himself, with particular regards to his own attitude towards the plight of the Native Americans, and it’s up there on the big screen for all to see.

By the time Ford made his last Western, Cheyenne Autumn, in 1963, the Native Americans are no longer depicted as ciphers or silhouettes on the horizon. They are shown as real people with real lives and emotions, the characters in the film elevated in the storyline and sharing equal screen time with the white protagonists. Ford made a lot of other films that were deemed to be close to his heart, such as The Quiet Man, They Were Expendable and The Wings of Eagles but for me The Searchers is about as personal as it gets.

As an aside to the question of the settling of the West as referenced in The Searchers, one of the essays in the book mentioned at the beginning of this article raises an intriguing point regarding the Comanche raid on the home of Ethan’s brother. The author of the essay, Tom Grayson Colonnese, is a Native American himself and he calls the siege on the cabin a counterattack against those who had themselves earlier appropriated the land by force.

This doesn’t take into account of course the fact that whoever lived there before the settlers arrived had also probably done exactly the same thing, but it’s a worthy point of discussion.

Monument ValleyMonument Valley

Where would the Western be without Monument Valley?

The silhouettes of the towering buttes and the dark orange of the desert have come to personify the cowboy film over the years since Ford first went there to film Stagecoach. It’s almost cinematic shorthand for depicting the West.

Marty McFly lands smack in the middle of it in Back to the Future 3, and Sergio Leone cheekily hijacked the spectacular setting for his Western, Once Upon a Time in the West. The Marlboro man poses in front of a backdrop to the valley, and Wile E. Coyote is forever chasing the Road Runner in and out of a landscape closely modelled on Ford’s favourite location.

It is in The Searchers, however, that for the first time Monument Valley is as much a character in the film as it is a backdrop to the action that plays out against the wilderness of the terrain.

The landscape hides the marauding Native Americans just before they snake along the slopes surrounding Ethan and his search party. The valley then reduces the size of the individuals in pursuit of Debbie until they are rendered almost invisible to the naked eye by a backdrop that has not changed in millions of years, and will remain in place long after Ethan and his compatriots have turned to dust.

Ford comes close to equating Monument Valley as character in the earlier She Wore a Yellow Ribbon but it is in The Searchers that the director perfectly encapsulates the isolation and unforgiving savagery of the wilderness as exemplified by the location itself.

So there you have it. A short defence of a film that should be seen by all serious lovers of film no matter what age, gender or ethnic background you may come from.

Over to the prosecution.

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Film & TV

“Stagecoach” – The First John Wayne / John Ford Film?

Early John Wayne Films Directed by John Ford
There is a suggestion in a number of Wayne filmographies that his first appearance in a John Ford film was as an extra in the silent Mother Machree, released in 1928. The film, however, was actually shot in 1926 but held back for release until 1928 whilst the studio, the Fox Corporation, added sound effects to incorporate the new requirement for sound. According to a number of biographies on both Wayne and John Ford, the young actor did actually appear in the film, but only by accident when, working as a prop man, he wandered in front of the camera whilst sweeping the studio floor. As only about 30 minutes of footage at the most still survives from Mother Machree it’s hard to determine if Wayne is featured as an extra so I guess the jury is still out on that one.

john-wayne-8His next acting credit in a Ford film is Four Sons, which was released in 1928, also featuring sound effects and a small line of dialogue. Again, there is some dispute as to whether Wayne featured in the film itself as he was apparently still working in the props department. The first definitive appearance of a young John Wayne in a Ford film is in Hangman’s House, also released in 1928, indicating how prolific Ford was back in the early days. Wayne actually gets to appear twice in this film. He can be seen quite clearly as a condemned man swinging from a noose in a flashback sequence. His second appearance is as a rather over-enthusiastic horse racing fan who tears down a fence when cheering on the winning horse. One filmography also claims he appears in Ford’s The Black Watch, the director’s first full-sound film but again there doesn’t appear to be any photographic evidence to back that claim up.

Wayne_SaluteHis first speaking part in a John Ford film is as a bullying naval cadet in Salute, released in 1929. A year later Wayne appears in what was interestingly the only sequel Ford ever made, Men Without Women, a submarine drama featuring characters from the earlier Salute, although there’s no evidence Wayne plays the same role in both films as he is not actually credited in the cast list for any of these early Ford films. This also applies to his work as an extra in Born Reckless, directed by Ford and released in 1930. It would not be until 1939 that John Wayne received an official acting credit in any Ford film, in this case the awesome classic western Stagecoach.
stagecoach-1The rest, as they say, is history.