1950s, Action-Adventure, Western, Auteurs

The Searchers (1956)

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Director: John Ford
Screenwriter: Frank Nugent

By Roderick Heath

John Ford was hardly lacking in fame and acclaim when he released The Searchers. He’d already captured four Oscars as Best Director, proof he stood for his peers as the most admired of American filmmaking talents. Given how rarely Westerns were given such awards and serious critical interest, Ford seemed to be looking for almost the opposite of acclaim. He was chasing something more elusive, something lodged fast and discomforting, like a thorn under skin or a shard of niggling shrapnel. Ford returned from World War II without quite a few of his cherished illusions, but also nursing some ambitions he set about making realities. He moved to gain a level of independence from the Hollywood studio system by setting himself up as a producer-director for his own Argosy Pictures outfit. Keeping up that kind of freedom was to prove a tall order in the following years, but Ford began to come into his own in terms of how we think of him now, as the man who declared bluntly later in life after a career of diverse movies, “I make Westerns.” That was the genre he had found early success in with The Iron Horse (1926) but scarcely returned to during the 1930s, until Stagecoach (1939), a film that not only provided Ford with a big hit and suddenly earned new critical interest and respect for the genre, but gave a boost to its leading man John Wayne.
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Wayne had been lingering in cheap oatsers since his initial breakthrough The Big Trail (1930) had proved a box office disappointment. During the war Wayne’s star had only grown brighter, leaving him poised to become Hollywood’s biggest draw, but he found himself in conflict with his former pal and mentor Ford, as he’d failed to make good on his promises to join up, leading to tensions on the set of They Were Expendable (1945), Ford’s first civilian film in several years. Ford made good on his desire to make Westerns with My Darling Clementine (1946), starring Henry Fonda and evoking the romanticised version of the OK Corral shootout he claimed to have heard from Wyatt Earp’s own lips decades before. The past seemed to be on Ford’s mind too, as he directed Wayne to mimic his old leading man Harry Carey Snr in some places. Despite their personal differences, Ford and Wayne soon proved the kind of teaming that makes for movie legend in the following few years as Wayne became the sturdy frame Ford hung his Cavalry trilogy – Fort Apache (1948), She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Grande (1950) – upon. Ford was trying to reprocess the generational experience of the war into terms that could be contained and mediated through the Westerns and tragicomic dramas he liked. His films from this period are filled with sundered but reunited families, bands of soldierly brothers, gatherings of old former comrades, old enemies finding common cause, all trying to get on with nation-building enterprises.
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Native Americans had been provided as cosmic foils in Stagecoach, but whilst they were still often the enemies in the Cavalry trilogy, their situation was no longer so one-dimensional: in Fort Apache they’re provoked by arrogance, treachery, and double-dealing into warfare, in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon they’re neighbours to be disarmed rather than battled, and in Rio Grande a cruel renegade is hunted and surgically taken down. Wayne made one more Western in this phase, Wagon Master (1950), without Wayne, and then took a break from the genre. Ford’s Irish fantasia The Quiet Man (1953) proved his biggest hit to date and gained him his fourth Oscar. But skirmishes with Fonda during the making of Mister Roberts (1955) proved a troubling rupture. Fonda resisted Ford’s desire to follow his usual instinct and scuff up the property, for Fonda wanted to retain the essentially noble spirit of the source play. Frustration eventually, so the legend goes, saw Ford punch his leading man and retreat into a drinking binge that brought on serious illness. To recover, after some forays into TV directing, he looked back to the Western again to find some project that could expiate the poisonous, near-fatal experience. He found the project in a novel by Alan LeMay, who usually wrote scripts for Ford’s rival, and occasional nemesis, Cecil B. DeMille. The Searchers was well-received and successful upon release, but by this time movie and TV screens were so busy with Westerns it was hard to stand out. Only a few years later as Ford became one of the select rank of heralded auteurs in studio cinema, and as young movie lovers grew up and became critics and directors, would it start gaining the reputation it has now as a pinnacle of popular cinema.
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There’s a telling and fascinating conjunction in Ford swinging from a disaster like the Mister Roberts shoot into making his greatest film, and it becomes clearer in concentrating more closely upon the troubled soul of the subsequent film. The Searchers is a study in finding grace in the face of cruelty and hate in large part because it’s coming from a bleak and stymied place. Only cinema, that pool of light between black, rigid fields, offers relief. Small wonder the film starts and ends like it famously does, perfect black broken open and then resealed. The opening, which sees Ethan Edwards (Wayne) returning to family after years away at war, poses the film as the last of Ford’s homecoming-from-war movies. The setting is Texas, 1868, although the location is Monument Valley. Usually Ford’s returning veterans have the benefit of fellowship; Ethan is solitary, embittered, giving away his awards and regalia to kids and negotiating the many psychic eggshells spread about the domicile of his brother Aaron Edwards’ (Walter Coy) frontier homestead. Here also lives Aaron’s wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan) and their three children, Lucy (Pippa Scott), Ben (Robert Lyden), and Debbie (Lana Wood), as well as the adopted and raised family member, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), a lanky lad with Cherokee heritage (“At least that’s what they tell me”).
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In Ford’s earlier Westerns the wandering men of fortune were usually helping out the people who wanted to put down roots. Here the gulf is muted but unbridgeable, despite Ethan’s seeming desire to reintegrate himself at last, or at least to the extent he’s prepared to be, which isn’t much. He has mysterious wealth in a bag of fresh-minted dollars and still considers himself to be a under oath to the defeated Confederate States. Lucy is the first bobby-soxer, trying to snatch her moments with her beau, Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey, Jr.). Judging by the way she folds Ethan’s coat and swaps a charged look with him, Martha might well have been his lover before Ethan left to fight. Ethan, Martin, and Brad are quickly pressed into helping a posse led by local minister and lawman Rev. Capt. Samuel Johnson Clayton (Ward Bond), after some cattle are stolen away, presumably by a roving Native American band. But when they find the cattle dead, Ethan realises the purpose was to lure away defenders from the ranches, for a “murder raid” of punitive action against settlers.
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By the time Ethan and Martin return, they find the Edwards homestead ablaze, Lucy and Debbie missing, and the other three killed. Clayton’s posse continues after the Indian band, who prove to be a tribe of Comanche under the glowering leadership of Chief Scar or Cicatriz (Henry Brandon). After barely escaping an ambush by their quarries, the posse breaks up and heads home, leaving only Ethan, Martin, and Brad to keep up the pursuit. When Ethan finds Lucy’s dead body, discarded by the Comanche, Brad gets killed riding into their camp in a mad charge, and the other two lose track of the tribe in snow, forcing them to break off the pursuit. After being briefly taken in by Brad’s parents (John Qualen and Olive Carey) and sister Laurie (Vera Miles), who carries a torch for Martin, Ethan and Martin set out again to locate the band after receiving a possible clue to their whereabouts. Martin becomes increasingly worried that Ethan doesn’t intend to rescue Debbie anymore, but plans to kill her in case she’s been “living with a buck.” After several years on the trail, thanks to a Mexican trader, Figueroa (Antonio Moreno), Ethan and Martin finally gain access to Scar’s camp and find him not only aware of who they are, but all too happy to taunt them with the scalps of their murdered family members on his spear, and the sight of a now-grown Debbie (Natalie Wood) become one of his wives.
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The set-up here – the ragged warrior and the settled family, the pining matriarchs and hero-worshipping boy – is reminiscent of Shane (1953). Ford might well have internalised that hit, that most aesthetically purified and self-consciously mythic of Westerns, trying to decide if it meant anything to him or not, and proceeds from the realisation that George Stevens wanted his fabled concept just a little too unspoilt. Shane lived and died for the sake of letting civilisation getting on with its follies, stirring its contradictions but not despoiling them. No blonde seraphim to stir hearts and take the rap here. Ford speeds through that work in miniature and comes out the other side to leave desolation and terror where the little house in the prairie stood. Ethan is no-one’s idea of a white knight. But the actual aesthetic antagonist to be wrestled with here is My Darling Clementine and the Cavalry trilogy, their perfection as a summary of Ford’s concept of the west revisited, tested, and finally endorsed again, but only after the deepest agonistes. Martin is the family’s adopted son, regarded with squint suspicion by Ethan when he sits down to eat at the dinner table: “Fella could mistake you for a half-breed.” Ethan’s jagged, reactionary-racist sensibility is already fully on display. So too is his humane streak, as he rescued Martin as a child from the wreckage of a massacre. Martin and Ethan’s relationship compels the film even as they seem to barely tolerate each-other’s company and even at points seem to be mortal enemies, as Ethan explicitly denies Martin any kind of familial status to him early on, but also becomes almost a caricature of the hard-bitten, tough-love paterfamilias.
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The Searchers’ DNA is scattered today throughout the length and breadth of contemporary cinema, from the dreamlike transpositions of the Star Wars films to the grimy, pensive immediacy of Taxi Driver (1976) and all their descendants in turn. The greater part of The Searchers’ power and vitality wells precisely from contradiction. It’s a film where the hero is also its villain, where the American landscape is both worshipped and regarded as suspicious and duplicitous. The narrative itself rests upon contradiction, as the characters tread the length and breadth of the American heartland and yet find their reckoning mere miles from where the hunt started. It’s no cutely liberal take on the Western like Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow (1953), but that’s precisely what allows it to dig into the dark side of the American enterprise, capturing the marauding mindset of men like Ethan and Scar, who both operate out of motives of vengeance and tribal identity. Perhaps that’s why Ford socked Fonda over Mister Roberts and then turned around to make this: a little voice in the back of Ford’s mind insisting the only way you could grapple with what infuriates you was not to play wise elder but to swallow the hot coal.
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Ethan is reminiscent of Jesse James as a veteran whose post-war crime spree seems to him at least have been a mere extension of the conflict, as it’s hinted Ethan might have been supporting himself in a similar way. “You match a lot of descriptions,” Clayton notes when Ethan won’t take his deputising oath because “it wouldn’t be legal.” Later, he guns down the duplicitous Futterman (Peter Mamakos), a trader who sells Ethan and Martin a clue for gold but who then tries to kill them to get more, and his helpmates with cool thoroughness, so much so that later he and Martin are suspected of murder. Ethan and Scar are the frontier death-dream incarnate. There’s a tonal reflex reminiscent of horror cinema in some of The Searchers, particularly the creepy moment when Scar’s shadow falls upon the child Debbie in the graveyard where her grandparents are buried and soon too will be the rest of her family, and the rhyming scene at the climax as he looms over Debbie and Martin. The bookending doorway shots feel more than a little inspired by Hugo Fregonese’s Apache Drums (1951), a film which transmitted its producer Val Lewton’s psychological and folkloric sensibility into the Western, and perhaps Ford absorbed a little of that sensibility along with the technique. The struggle for domain that takes place in the course of the movie is physical but also subsists on this atavistic level, fought on the level of symbols and totems, to which in a way Debbie is reduced often throughout.
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Scar’s spear loaded with scalps, including those of the Edwards clan and Martin’s mother, is held out as a triumphant standard, in the grip of Debbie, another captured prize. Ethan removes any dividing line between himself and his enemy as he stoops to claiming Scar’s scalp. But the laws of tribalism negate the need for moral discernment. What I do to you is righteous and what you do to me is savagery. Ford’s celebration of space throughout, the grandiose forms and climes of the Monument Valley locations and all their primeval strength, is constantly contradicted and complicated. Ethan is all too aware the posse’s been drawn out just far enough to stop them fending off the murder raid; the vastness becomes a trap under such circumstances. Scar’s tribe are able to remain ever so tauntingly ahead of Ethan and Martin. The open area around the Edwards homestead harbours enemies advancing unseen and nightmarish. The bluffs of Monument Valley are a canvas to describe the tension: they stand grand and worshipful but also dominate and dwarf Ford’s characters as the posse rides out to chase down. Ford constantly captures his actors with the rock forms behind or looming over them, trying to cage their elastic physicality, their volatility, their challenge to nature.
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Stagecoach was a legend that skirted Monument Valley but found its stage in the open ground; The Searchers inhabits vertiginous zones where the moral danger seems mapped out in canyons and caves. Scar’s tribe exploit the folds of land to surround the posse, riding along parallel ridges, whilst the posse use a river as a defence. Ethan and Martin wander a continent but the first time they attain their goal they’re chased inside a cave that seems like a zone of moral nullity, a cave that looms again at the end as Ethan hunts down Debbie with apparent murderous intent. This oppressive use of the landscape is particularly apparent in a uniquely vicious scene in which the posse, still in the early stage of its pursuit, come across the body of a dead brave, actors and rock forms constantly caught in dialogue. Spiritual violence is stirred: Brad picks up a rock and pummels the corpse, but Ethan has a more exacting sense of justice, shooting out the body’s eyes so that the dead man’s spirit must roam the afterlife in blind desolation.
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Ford’s frontier homes and outposts have low, slightly oppressive ceilings (one of many lessons Orson Welles took from Ford: in cinema, the sets don’t just frame drama but generate it), and his camera framings obey the rectilinear demarcations of the architecture as much as his exterior framings respond to the jagged upthrust of the land. Here cotillions form and rituals of marriage and justice unfold, obeying their own social architecture, cordons far more unyielding than any cavalry column into which Ethan and Martin crash upon their second return home. Years of fruitless wandering, is reported via a letter Martin writes to Laurie, a missive she’s obliged to read out to her parents and to the letter’s deliverer, the guitar-picking, haw-hawing local flash Charlie McCory (Ken Curtis). A great chunk of narrative and time is ingeniously compressed this way, whilst making other points, as Charlie presents a romantic threat to Martin whilst Laurie’s increasing exasperation with her peripatetic beau boils over at the news that Martin picked himself up a wife. Accidentally, of course, as Martin thought he was trying to trade for a blanket but found he’d purchased a squaw instead, a woman he dubs “Look” (Beulah Archuletta) and whose presence, helpful as she tries to be, he can’t stand. When he and Ethan got the idea of asking her about Scar, she became fearful and left them, and they later found her dead in an Indian village, attacked and left in carnage by a Cavalry patrol, leaving the perplexing question as to whether Look was merely trying to get away or was trying to help Martin.
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The Searchers is as much a film about generation conflict as Rebel Without A Cause (1955), which Wood had starred in the year before, and its many followers. One reason, perhaps, why so many young men watched the film and found in its something like their cinematic bible, over and beyond its imagistic and storytelling force. Home, the locus of simplicity and order, is shattered early in the film, and tensions were already brewing; gruff pseudo-father and maturing pseudo-son are then obliged to chase the ghost of common meaning. So easy to see the conflict between Ethan and Martin as the uncomprehending gap between a generation of fathers who had been off to war to defend a settled world and sons who wanted to renew it, and the bewilderment and sullen anxiety of the young in the face of their elders’ mysterious prejudices and unreasoning demarcations. Despite his many protestations to disinterest in Martin’s lot, Ethan acts like his father – one of the great bits of movie business comes in the cantina scene in which Ethan keeps foiling Martin’s attempts to get a drink of liquor even as the conversation involves something else entirely. It’s a moment that’s just as revealing and even more cunningly parsed as the more famous scene with Martha folding Ethan’s coat: bonds of family, of love, of instinctive connection take place on a level that’s near-subliminal. Moreover, this sort of thing illustrates exactly what a filmmaker like Ford can conjure, and any great filmmaker, over and above even the layers of Frank Nugent’s already tight-wound script.
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Martin seems exempt from the ranks of tribalism as such identities are melded in his frame as well as nullified by his youthful openness. Ethan and Martin represent a dichotomy of experience commonly seen in Ford’s films but usually safely contained by social constructs like the military, the youth learning about the world and passing through baptisms of fire, and the older, hardened, life-scarred man. Look to one of Ford’s early films like Seas Beneath (1931), where the young man has his first erotic experience with a senorita and the older man is the stalwart captain shepherding all through the curtain of fire. Here the rhythms are off-kilter, the figurations twisted. The captain is a landlubber Ahab chasing after a girl who may or may not be his daughter from a transgressive romance, and the young man, played by Hunter with his stark blue eyes and passion play physique as a beautiful gelding, never gets time to get it on with Laurie or the flamenco dancer making eyes at him in the frontier cantina. Sexual transgression lurks behind so much of The Searchers, in the barely-coded anxiety over miscegenation and sexual slavery, but its tenor is rather one of neurotic severance from the erotic. The ascending order of racist neurosis is invoked, driving Confederate holdout Ethan crazy, and Scar’s motives are calculated as revenge by precisely triggering them, for the chieftain who’s lost two sons to the encroaching white man knows well what hurts his foe. The resulting sense of obsession builds relentlessly to specific moments of baleful paroxysm, as in Martin placing himself between Ethan and Debbie as he moves to gun her down, and the final battle. The film repeats the generational conflict in miniature towards the end with a level of in-joke humour. Ethan and Clayton find themselves confronted by green, young, sabre-waving Lieutenant Greenhill, envoy of his Cavalry commanding father, breezing in to alert the elders to Scar’s presence with callow energy, and played by Wayne’s son Patrick.
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The margins of the central drama are filled out by such a gallery of oddballs and frontier grotesques, covering a range of types and cultural entities, filled out by ingenious detail and performances. Clayton is a leader both spiritual and temporal, embodiment of all social authority in the sparse precincts of the frontier and perfect contrast to Ethan’s individualist indomitability. Yet he’s anything but abstract in his bristling, bustling vigour, tying his top hat to his crown with a handkerchief and vowing to get himself “unsurrounded” and barking at Greenhill to “Watch out for that knife” only to cop it in the backside in the midst of battle. Crackpot Mose Harper (Hank Worden) longs for a rocking chair and makes fun of the Comanche by mimicking their war cries, tolerated and patronised by all who know him, which proves to be a great survival talent, as he gives Scar the slip and alerts the heroes to the tribe’s return. Brandon, a character actor who bobbed about Hollywood for decades and who had bigger parts than this but none more famous, makes a tremendous impression although Scar remains for the most part an antagonist over the horizon. His appearances early in the film galvanise the characters aura of threat and dark, scowling, brutal charisma, from looming over young Debbie as he comes across her attempting to flee the homestead to putting on his chieftain’s bonnet and sporting the medal Ethan gave to Debbie about his neck. When he and Ethan finally meet, the doppelgangers stand almost touching in their fearsome mutual challenge, whilst refusing to break the rules of the chivalrous game of hospitality.
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The Searchers also undoubtedly contains Wayne’s best performance, lacking the slightly calculated feel to some of his other major turns like the aging Nathan Brittles in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and ornery Rooster Cogburn in True Grit (1969). His Ethan Edwards simply is – his smouldering aggression, his patronising assurance, his surly turns of phrase (“That’ll be the day”) and grit-toothed ferocity and private moments with eyes deep pools of sorrow and regret and flashes of lunatic rage. For a man of undoubted, bullish presence and martial skill, Ethan is trapped in states of impotence throughout much of the film, reduced to finding and burying the mangled remnants of his family. Wayne’s performing intuition grasped gesture as the essence of film acting, the sort of considered motions generations of kids have mimicked in trying to grasp the essence of screen cool. The badass spectacle of whipping out his Winchester from its holster before riding in to the burning homestead. The spins of his revolver as he shoots out the dead Comanche’s eyes. More than that, though, here Wayne uses such gestural precision to describe Ethan’s frustrated power, finally blatant in the seething fury in his eyes as he barks at Clayton for spoiling a shot at Scar and finally near-lunacy as he shoots down buffalo in his desire to starve the Comanches, becoming in his unreasoning wrath and sense of punitive mission the embodiment of the dark side of the Western conquest, and his schoolyard posturing before Scar when finally they men meet.
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Ford, like Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks, had always made complex Westerns, although there was certainly a general accuracy to the notion the genre was becoming more meditative in its historical considerations. Although his political allegiances were becoming more conservative, Ford was becoming more direct and questioning about who could be considered American and what the country could mean to them were becoming more pointed. He would soon construct creation myths for African-Americans (Sergeant Rutledge, 1960) and finally Native Americans (Cheyenne Autumn) in terms of his traditional Western form, on the way towards the cosmic crack-up of his last film 7 Women (1966). The sequence here where Ethan and Martin encounter the massacred tribe and the Cavalry who did it evokes his Cavalry trilogy through music cues and images but there’s no sense of heroic necessity: Martin is bewildered by their motives. This is the west being bludgeoned into passivity and coherence rather than coolly policed. The ruined, lunatic women the soldiers gather, inspected by Ethan and Martin in hope Debbie is amongst their number, are the by-products of civilisations crashing together. “It’s hard to believe they’re white,” one of the Cavalry officers comments, but notably, the women are all in a crazed state after being rescued, whilst Debbie, when they finally encounter her, remains entirely lucid and intelligent enough not just to simply remember her old life but to try and save Ethan and Martin from imminent attack. Ethan repays the favour by advancing to shoot her down, with Martin thrusting himself between them. Fortunately, Scar and his braves interrupt the moment of truth.
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Ford stands today as one of the definitive classicists in film technique, but to watch The Searchers is to experience an unusual approach to storytelling and cinematic structure. To see Ford utilise the mid-‘50s widescreen colour format is to see a born cinematic eye unleashed upon a natural habitat, exploiting space from actors’ faces looming in close to features in the peering distance. Ford’s DP Winton C. Hoch isn’t exactly one of the celebrated cinematographers of his time, and yet few films are better shot than The Searchers. Hoch imbues Ford’s precisely-composed tableaux with life through jostling, precisely inscribed detail even in the midst of colossal landscape shots. Ford and Hoch work in hints of Expressionist texture into interior and dialogue scenes, hinting at the repressed and the fetid in even the most seemingly easygoing interludes, and capturing the intensity of existence out in these tiny abodes and hamlets through the decor in a homestead. The Searchers is a big movie, and yet big moments are almost thrown away, like the final confrontation between Martin and Scar. Exposition scenes double as character revelations, jokes distract from momentous discoveries and urgent truths. Nothing in The Searchers is ever just one thing, one reason Ford was able to knock over such an epic tale in less than two hours. Perhaps the most notable example of this discursiveness comes in the action climax, as the long-nursed thirst for revenge against Scar comes as fast as reflex, in perfect contrast to the ceremonial death-dealing in Sergio Leone’s Westerns. Few directors could resist the bloodthirsty spectacle of moments like Ethan’s discovery of Lucy’s body and Brad’s subsequent ride to a quick death, but Ford elides both, describing the first by Ethan’s harassed and snarling behaviour afterwards, and marking out the events of the latter purely by sound.
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The hint of Expressionist influence in the film is hardly surprising. Ford had gained a great deal of early acclaim and admiration for his skill in fusing that heady Germanic style with Hollywood exigencies in movies like The Informer (1935) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Like many directors who had started working in the silent era now confronted by the blazing colour and stretched screen of ’50s film culture, he seemed to be thinking back to those days wistfully in shots like one filmed in silence and silhouette, in which Martin is lowered down a cliff face as he goes to pluck Debbie from the midst of Scar’s camp. One of the best shots in the film – in cinema in general – comes when Debbie appears on the sand dune behind Martin and Ethan as they bicker outside Scar’s camp, unnoticed for a long time as she approaches. The perfect economy of Ford’s framing allows the epic, even the miraculous, to suddenly transform the drama, as if the land itself has finally unleashed its captive. Ford’s love of alternations in tone between high drama and slapstick humour has long been one of his peccadilloes that can vex contemporary viewers. But it’s also essential to his cinema, where sobriety and clowning are indivisible as part of the texture of life, expressions of the unruly energy released by common humanity, mimicking and to a certain extent offsetting more genuinely chaotic instincts. This aspect of Ford’s art had been purveyed with careful, contrapuntal rhythm in his Cavalry trilogy, but here comes in a series of violent swerves and headlong crashes. Certainly the “comic relief” of Martin’s irritation with Look never sits well, particularly as he shoves her rolling down a slope when she tries to sleep by his side: it’s supposed to play as rambunctious in a brotherly manner, echoing Laurie’s exasperated assaults on Martin, but just comes across as mean and bullying.
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The awkwardness is also a by-product of the film’s hysterical, blue-balled intensity, an aesthetic reflex on Ford’s part in registering the need to relieve its perpetually gathering psychic thunderclouds. Better moments of comedy include Ethan tossing a glass full of rotgut tequila on a fire to save Martin from unthinkingly drinking it, and the full-on physical comedy of Martin’s fistfight with Charlie, upon returning him to find him about to marry Laurie, another moment that converts the larger tension of the drama into an absurd islet, as the two young men battle over their lady. Ford’s unique blend of precision and elision in staging reaches its height in the finale, as Clayton’s posse join Greenhill, Ethan, and Martin in a raid on Scar’s encampment. Ford’s dashing tracking shots move with the charging horses through the camp offer the deliverance of unfettered movement after the tight and stifled precursor, but also with haphazard speed and reckless force: Ethan riding in it to chase down his foe casually knocks over a fleeing Comanche woman. Nobody’s standing around duelling or going down in noble last stands.
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Martin sneaks into Scar’s tent to locate Debbie: the sound of the great war chief cocking his rifle is matched to a mere shot of his legs in the tent flaps. Martin spins, lets loose with his revolver. By the time Ethan arrives, he finds only the oblivious corpse of his foe, felled by the kid. The famous upshot, one of those moments that can make ancient cynics get misty, one that tormented even Jean-Luc Godard with its mysterious impact: Ethan chases down a fleeing, fearful Debbie, only to snatch her up like he might have as a child, cradle her in her arms, and softly suggest, “Let’s go home, Debbie.” Some of the power of this lies in surprise, but also in its subterranean logic. Scar, his mirror, his task, his animus, is dead. Ethan’s concerted rage is spent, and all that’s left is an ageing man clutching the last thing he might call kin in the world. It’s easy to hate Ethan Edwards so often throughout The Searchers, but then you love him, much as Debbie runs in terror from him only to curl up against his chest, like a father who has lapses of inchoate and unknowable darkness at night but returns like the sun in the morning.
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Ford’s 1961 follow-up Two Rode Together would deal explicitly with the problem elided here, as the protagonists of that film would become obliged to help the woman they rescue from living with an Indian tribe overcome stigmatisation as someone beyond the pale, socially and sexually speaking. Ford obsessively examined a schism in his own mindset that was also a schism in his concept of America, albeit one that could also manifest in his portraits of Ireland and Wales and anywhere else. The need to belong to a community, an ordered way of life, a hierarchy, striking sparks against an opposing truth, the desire for freedom, for essential being, for standing beyond the power of the corrupt and the hypocritical, those ignoble foils that always come with society. Younger Ford had happily sent Ringo and Dallas off to be “saved from the blessings of Civilisation” at the end of Stagecoach.
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Older Ford envisions the possibility of a future free of racial neurosis and violent instinct, and knows it’s right, but also knows very well it means the end of something else he cherishes, that great stage upon which his dreams live and die. When the door closes on Ethan, much as it found him, it closes not just upon the character and his embodiment of the Western hero cut off from the settling world, but upon an entire concept of the genre, perhaps even the genre itself. Everything else was just waiting for Sam Peckinpah to come and shoot it full of holes. Ford’s overreaching artistic desire, to create mythic-styled narratives about becoming and finding, here admits at last a failure, a point where some things cannot be contained, reconciled, kneaded into the great American project. History rolls on, leaving its ruins, its dead, its forgotten, heroes and villains all churned together in the dust.

Standard
1990s, Epic, Romance

Titanic (1997)

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Director/Screenwriter: James Cameron

By Roderick Heath

To say that pop culture in the 1990s lacked in romanticism would be an understatement. The decade that gave unto us grunge music and the indie film craze can still be aptly celebrated for general dedication to grit and eccentricity, but it also left a vast audience desperate for classical cinematic values of arresting spectacle and star power purveying high-flown passion. James Cameron’s sixth feature rode in on a wave of publicity over its colossal expense and often worrying buzz: the production had been troubled, the test screenings negative. Cameron had, until this moment, been a hero for many younger movie fans, the man who perfected, if not invented, the scifi-action film and brought a walloping, sophisticated intensity to all of his projects a legion of wannabe filmmakers wanted to emulate. But True Lies (1993) had been an awkward attempt to blend his high-powered template with relationship comedy, and for a fateful moment with Titanic, it seemed like he might have his Heaven’s Gate (1980). Then, of course, the opposite happened: Titanic became, in unadjusted terms, the most successful film of all time.
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Titanic’s place in the psyche of the moment was, like other record-breakers before it, including Gone with the Wind (1939), The Godfather (1972), and E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), unavoidable, whereas Cameron’s own successor, Avatar (2009), faded swiftly from the collective eye, and many big money-spinners today represents total surrender to the age of franchise cinema, purveying copies of copies. It seems that our most officially beloved movies don’t have the same singular gravity anymore. For this reason and others, revisiting Titanic nearly 20 years after its release felt like a fraught proposition. It seems wedded to its time, in spite of the fact that, superficially at least, Cameron’s work seemed closely related to the epics of Cameron’s old Hollywood forebears as an evergreen example of supersized cinema, and aims to be essentially timeless. Like many pop movie hits, Titanic left some totally cold, but charmed so many others that it felt like a communal trance. There was a price to be paid for this, of course: Cameron conquered the moviegoing world, but lost his cool in the process. Although Titanic’s glitz and gilt seemed contrary to the pop cultural mood in the years preceding it, the storyline’s essential thesis that the moment of passion must be seized before everything goes to hell was perfectly in tune with the time. The insistent concentration on the impact of burgeoning modernity and catastrophic epochal shifts also presented a perfect simile for another looming pivot, the approach of the millennium.
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Similarly, the film’s flashback structure and nudging contemplation of the present’s relationship to a radically different past still somehow within living memory also tapped the zeitgeist, the way nostalgia was ceasing to be a quirk merely of the aging and transforming into a new cultural state. Cameron, a fetishist both of the ritual structure of melodrama and of technology as a mode of expression and mediation rather than mere facility, found in the Titanic story a way to bundle his obsessions together with symbolic force. But for Cameron, as for many of us, that pseudo-romanticised past was one seen chiefly through the lens of old movies. Titanic is, amongst other things, a relentless remix of dozens of ancestors, harking back not just to 1930s movie melodramas and comedies, but to Victorian stage thrillers, penny dreadfuls, and silent cliffhanger skits. Titanic is blatant in trying to position itself in a grand tradition of big cinema. Cameron’s showmanship often wields tremendous visual acuity, right from the stunning opening shot of submersibles sinking through the endlessly black sea: the details of underwater exploration are described in highly realistic terms, and yet Cameron also charges the sequence with a note of eerie, numinous adventure, penetrating the sunken graveyard of memory and times past. Cameron quickly contrasts this otherworldly note with the tyranny of the mundane, as he introduces treasure hunter Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) and his boorish assistant Bodine (Lewis Abernathy). Brock makes self-dramatizing pronouncement for a video record, only to be made fun of, before invading the Titanic’s wreck on the hunt for the legendary lost necklace called the “Heart of the Ocean.” Brock thinks he’s found a safe containing the necklace, but instead proves to enclose a sketch of a beautiful nude woman. Brock is furious, but he tries to use the find for publicity on TV and attracts the attention of 100-year-old Rose Calvert (Gloria Stuart), who quickly snares Brock’s interest by revealing she knows what he’s after.
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Brock has Rose and her granddaughter Lizzy (Suzi Amis) flown to his vessel, and after suffering through an instructive, but abstract lesson in how the Titanic met its end, Rose begins recounting her own history of the ship’s ill-fated maiden voyage. Like many highly successful filmmakers, Cameron’s work arrives in a mass of contradictions, affecting to encompass the tragedy of the Titanic’s victims whilst turning their fates into a kind of fun fair, showing off the paraphernalia his budget can offer whilst offering a theme that money doesn’t matter, and evoking the tone of a certain brand of cable television documentary whilst lampooning them at the same time. He presents Brock and crew as a bunch of slick-ass adventurers indifferent to the real history of what they’re exploiting. Cameron writes an unstated mission statement as Bodine shows off his goofy computer-animated version of the disaster, only for Cameron to reproduce it in exact, bone-shaking detail later. The crassness of the modern is soon contrasted with the splendour and legendary aura of the past, though that past is soon ransacked for inequity and snobbery. Rose’s narrative begin at age 17, a porcelain beauty and poised aesthete (Kate Winslet) silently enraged that she’s been contracted to marry Caledon “Cal” Hockley (Billy Zane), son of a Pittsburgh steel tycoon, because her father lost all her family’s money before dying, and her mother Ruth (Frances Fisher) was anxious to make the match to halt a slide into poverty. Cal’s possessive, dictatorial streak is immediately apparent as a self-appointed neopharaoh of the transatlantic sphere.
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Meanwhile young, footloose artist Jack Dawson (DiCaprio) wins steerage-class tickets for himself and Italian pal Fabrizio (Danny Nucci) in a poker game, and the duo just manage to get aboard the liner before it sails. Jack, of course, thinks he’s one lucky guy. Soon Jack is gazing at Rose from afar, emblem of the impossible world of first class, even as fellow passenger Tommy Ryan (Jason Barry) boasts proudly about the Irish labour that built the ship: the picture of Rose’s floating beauty and her world based in skilled toil of working people. It’s all headed, of course, for the big crack-up, both on the personal level, as Rose flees her impending fate in a momentary fit of suicidal intent, and the impersonal, as the ship nears its rendezvous with the iceberg. Jack’s gallant attempt to talk Rose off her precarious perch on the ship’s stern turns into more physical heroism as he hauls her back over the railing, and, after a brief but telling moment where he’s mistaken for a sex fiend, is thanked by Cal, who asks his manservant Lovejoy (David Warner, nicely mean) to pay him off. When Rose protests, he adds an invitation to dine in first class the following day. Jack is taken under the wing of the unsinkable mining millionairess Molly Brown (Kathy Bates), who loans him her son’s tuxedo. Suitably armoured, he proceeds to charm the hoity-toity guests with his enthusiasm and philosophical take on fortune’s perversity, whilst trying his best to deflect the barely veiled contempt turned his way by Cal and Ruth. Then he entices Rose down to steerage to enjoy a “real party” amongst the buoyant, hard-drinking, melting-pot folk of the lower decks, and Jack and Rose’s attraction combusts on the dance floor. Cal, catching wind of this, thanks to Lovejoy’s patrolling, releases a squall of rage the next morning to Rose’s shock, and Ruth uses emotional blackmail to ensure Rose stays the course.
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From the shift into flashback and up until nearly the midway mark, Titanic essentially plays as a romantic comedy, one with many motifs in common with 1930s and ’40s versions of that genre in which class versus love fuels such stalwart works like Love Me Tonight (1932), My Man Godfrey, (1936) and Holiday (1938). The diamond that is both the film’s McGuffin and central symbol also recalls the kinds of prized shiny things at play in many a screwball work, like Trouble in Paradise (1933) and Hitchcock’s tribute, To Catch a Thief (1956), both films in which those jewels were both plot motivators and metaphors for sexual frisson. Titanic even has connections with more overtly farcical works, like the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business (1932) and A Night at the Opera (1935). As the comic brothers did in those films, Jack dashes through a luxury liner upturning the microcosmic social mores and wielding outsider, underclass energy to a point where try as the snobs might to ignore him, they find him an unshakeable, even necessary nuisance. As in A Night at the Opera, the working-class passengers’ celebrations are viewed as an eruption of positive life force that dwarfs the pretensions of the upper classes, and the polygot immigrant tide promises an upset to the familiar ways of life the forced structuring on the vessel is nominally erected to exemplify. For a more elevated reference point, one could also say there’s a hue of Henry James in it all, as Cameron explores his schema through strident contrasts: Old World and New, high class and low, male and female. Notes of menace and impending danger contradict the droll tone, partly because everyone is heading for an inevitable disaster and also articulated meantime by the signs of danger apparent in Cal’s behaviour and the looming threat of irrevocable emotional (and physical) damage to Rose.
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One crucial element in Titanic that makes it stand out is the way art is crucial to both the story and its very structure. Jack’s artistic ability services the story, as Rose, who partly defines her intellectual independence through her own critical interest in art and Freudian psychology, is fascinated by his talent. In one of the film’s most famous and oft-lampooned passages, Jack sketches a nude Rose in a scene that works on several levels. The lush but also suppressed eroticism arcing between the pair finds its perfect iconographic expression, whilst reflecting Jack’s ability to transmute that eroticism into artistic purpose and a higher-minded ideal, whilst Rose uses it to declare independence from her class and her fiancé. Jack’s status as a bohemian protomodernist whose journeys and experiences anticipate the Lost Generation and the Beats emphasises the notion Cameron purveys of an oncoming world, just as Rose’s fumbling move towards liberation contains feminist rumblings, and their nascent modernity as the couple is spotlighted by this complementary and equivalent intellectual passion. The level of respect Cameron offers art in the film is evidently personal—he made Jack’s sketches himself—and defiant in some ways: usually, the passion of the artist is transmitted through some more metaphorical device in Hollywood. Of course, it’s “art” in a corny and reductive sense, with the ready-made signposting of Rose’s early modern collection and Jack’s embodiment of the artistic spirit as above all a sexual-romantic one. Dig the careful way Cameron both presents him as a happy eroticist with his sketch book full of naked chicks, but also reassures us he not merely some perv by noting how a prostitute’s hands obsessed him above all. At least Titanic was relatively unabashed in championing a little pulchritude and buoyantly portrayed, unashamed youthful sexuality, at least by the standards of a Hollywood that was becoming increasingly timid about featuring such things in big movies, leading up to Jack and Rose perhaps being the first teens to ever have their first screw in the back seat of a car.
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Jack’s way of feeling and seeing pervades the film’s visuals. The other most famous moment in the film, coming much earlier, is the one in which Jack stands on the Titanic’s bow and loses himself in ecstatics at the limitless promise of the future, whilst the ship’s captain, E.J. Smith (Bernard Hill), lets the brand-new product of human ingenuity and vision off the leash to sprint across the ocean. Cameron’s camera sweeps over the ship and explores the process by which Smith’s order becomes mechanical fact. Machinery and personal vision, the best products of the human world, combine in a moment of transcendence, one that visualises Jack’s artistic fugue that climaxes with his cry, “I’m the king of the world!” The filmmaking, blending special effects and expansive emotion, creates the experience and also rhymes with it, Cameron’s purest expression of his delight in the showmanship of cinema.
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One of Cameron’s defining traits as a filmmaker had been a fascination with technology, and his depictions of the minutiae of the Titanic’s working parts recalls filmmakers like Dziga Vertov, John Grierson’s GPO film unit, and Howard Hughes in his desire to lay bare how things work, to get at the very guts of an industrial society’s relationship with its works and wares. Utilising the near-limitless freedoms allowed by modern special effects, he takes time out to note things other filmmakers would scarcely consider —the ship’s great propellers starting up and stirring a vortex of mud as the ship leaves harbour, the desperate effort of the chief engineer to reverse the engines during the iceberg collision—in his desire to encompass the nature of the Titanic as a technological creation that is also a near-animate, but vitally flawed, expression of its creators’ dreams and blind spots. In a naïve, but very real sense, Cameron explores the workings of the human world aboard ship in the same regard: his sociology has a similarly mechanical sensibility. When the ship does hit the iceberg, the smooth functioning of both the machine and its human parts begin to break down, both essentially becoming a cage Jack and Rose try with new desperation to escape.
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The Titanic’s history has long retained a specific gravitas and mystique as the apotheosis of a certain brand of ethic, carried down to us by tales like that of the ship’s band playing right until the end, and Benjamin Guggenheim sitting down with his valet to calmly await the end. This stoic Victorian ethic would soon be tested to the limit and finally shattered, along with whole social structures and institutions, during the Great War. Variations on the history had been filmed many times before Cameron took it up, most stacked with their own microcosmic studies. A 1943 German take, made as a Nazi propaganda film, turned it into a parable of British decadence. 1953’s Titanic, directed by Jean Negulesco, presented similar tensions to Cameron’s, emphasising the looming divide between nascent American motivation and Old World loucheness, with some cross-class romance. Roy Ward Baker’s 1958 film A Night to Remember, usually regarded as the best Titanic film, took a measured, docudrama-like approach. A Night to Remember wielded a very British sense of cool but intense fortitude, but also, underneath that, regarded the human failings as well as the sad beauties revealed by the tragedy, including portrayals of the repression of the steerage passengers just as biting as Cameron’s. The little-remembered, but excellent miniseries SOS Titanic (1979; David Warner also costarred in that) similarly emphasised realistic detail. But Cameron’s film arguably goes further than any of these in encompassing the event on a metaphorical level, becoming something like a myth of the death of the Old World two years before the start of World War I, and the birth of the New World. Cameron, naturally, finds a telling detail in naval architecture: the great ship, the embodiment of newness, has a rudder too small to allow it to miss the iceberg. In a similar way, the rituals of gentility can’t stand up to the eruption of the repressed when push comes to shove. Cameron interrogates the stoic mystique by refraining obsessively to the survival will of the steerage passengers, kept at bay by the reflexive containment of the crew, and offering noisy, declarative, proletarian wilfulness as the only thing that can keep them alive. In short, Cameron attacks the Titanic myth’s very British aura and remakes it as very American. This mediating idea probably explains why Cameron was mostly spared greater ire from U.S. conservatives, in spite of the relentlessness of his class-war message.
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As filmmaking, Titanic feels like it has at least one foot planted in John Ford’s oeuvre, particularly the phase in Ford’s cinema that climaxed with Stagecoach (1939), packing a socially diverse lot into a vessel and sending it where death and disaster await, with a refrain of outlaw romance, one Ford brought over from The Hurricane (1937), which was, of course, a disaster film like Titanic. At the time of release, some compared Cameron’s labours to David Lean in his sweeping, screen-filling vistas and gifts for orchestrating massive events. Cameron’s visuals do sometimes wield the mimetic quality of Lean’s, particularly the “king of the world” sequence in rhyming Jack’s inner world to the outer, whilst the film’s focus on an artist in love amidst turmoil recalls Doctor Zhivago (1965). But it almost goes without saying that Cameron lacks the often irony-spiked intelligence and sophistication of either director, who based themselves solidly in strong screenwriting and the divergent qualities of old Hollywood and British dramatic styles. DeMille is a more obvious relative, with his gift for manipulating massive elements and tying them to large dramatic ideas. Another close relative, it strikes me, is Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927)—like Lang’s supercity, the RMS Titanic is conceived as a doomed social vessel upon which the tensions of the turn-of-the-century zeitgeist are projected, climaxing in flood and ruination, images of squirming masses desperately trying to hold on. Lang also squarely rooted his parable and more sophisticated ideas in raw morality-play schemes of Victorian pulp fiction.
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The problem with Titanic is that whilst its themes and imperatives are beautifully visualised and intelligent, if obvious, they are conveyed on a dramatic level by strokes so broad they border on crude. Cameron had energised big-budget genre cinema by entwining unexpectedly emotional stories with crashing hardware and conceptual fancies, but stepping out of his comfort zone in hypermodernity, he sold his period fantasia not simply by presenting his heroes as frustrated, nascent citizens of a world yet to be created, but by leaning on clichés and caricatures to evoke the era. Writing period dialogue, especially for an era like the 1910s that lurked between the familiar and the alien, can be tricky, and Cameron barely even tried: Jack and Rose often interact in the same slightly provoking, sarcastically aping manner as a pair of ’90s teens. As exacting as he is in his recreation of the visual textures of the past, Cameron remains often oblivious to the ear. The comedy, far from being as witty as the stuff he references, manifests instead in gauche moments like when Jack challenges Rose to engage in a spitting lesson, like someone let young Huck Finn on the ship. Cameron’s dogged evocation of class rage is admirable on some levels, but facetious on others: at its worst, the film is less 1930s screwball than 1980s slobs-versus-snobs farce with pretensions. One heralded aspect of the film that has dated awfully is James Horner’s Oscar-winning score. The pompous theme song, “My Heart Will Go On” got old very quickly back in the day, but the whole score sounds misjudged now, with its cheap-sounding synthesiser chords and excessively lyrical passages that sound like background music for a John Tesh album. It’s a pity that Horner, a great movie composer for the most part, was most remembered for this pap.
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The dialogue is littered with egregious anachronisms, and many smaller roles are overplayed. Paxton, usually a reliable presence, hits an annoyingly overripe note early in the film and holds it right through. That said, most of the leading members of the cast labour to give the film vitality it might not have had otherwise. Fisher’s lethal jade gaze wields more violence than any of Cameron’s Terminators, and Victor Garber’s performance as the ship’s tragic designer Thomas Andrews is deft, capturing the pathos in a warm-hearted, brilliant man living just long enough to see his own worst nightmare and failure come to pass. Zane’s performance as Cal is usually targeted as a weak point, but upon returning to it, I found him one of the chief pleasures. Zane grasps Cameron’s bull by the horns in presenting Cal in all his unregenerate, Snidely Whiplash-esque caricature: clasping, possessive, snotty, bullying, with an apparent streak of intense neediness that makes him all the worse, delivering Cameron’s lines like, “What made you think you could put your hands on my fiance? Answer me, you filth!” with glee. By the film’s later stages, he becomes entirely splendid in his awfulness amidst all the noble behaviour, using a random lost child as his cover to enter a lifeboat, like some Terry-Thomas character at loose in an Arthur Miller play. I almost find myself wishing there exists a cut of the film composed purely of Cal being awful. DiCaprio and Winslet had harder jobs in making their characters seem nuanced and lifelike, and in conveying the necessary passion to ensure Jack and Rose emerged as more than mere puppets amongst the set design and screenplay determinism. They rose to the job with performances that set both solidly on the path to long and interesting careers. But time has dimmed the lustre of their chemistry, at the mercy of Cameron’s sometimes laborious signposting and cardboard approximation of classical romantic themes, to the point where patches of the first half are a bit hard to sit through.
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Winslet was awarded an Oscar nomination, whilst DiCaprio was not. Winslet’s intelligently layered performance is still admirable, if beset by a period mid-Atlantic accent often brittle in its fastidiousness. With her cascading mane of wavy red hair, she seems to have stepped right out of some John Waterhouse painting, whilst belying the passive images of femininity her looks evoke, evolving by the last act into the kind of robust, gutsy lady Cameron likes so much. DiCaprio meantime offers the height of quicksilver matinee appeal. Underlying his superficial embodiment of a kind of boy-man dreamboat ideal of ’90s stardom and the broadness of the cowboy poet character he’s asked to maintain, he still comes on in Titanic like the nexus of a half-dozen Old Hollywood star archetypes—here a flick of Gable’s roguish charm, there a shot of Jimmy Stewart’s gangly wryness, the physicality of Flynn, the impudence of Cagney. By comparison, many of Winslet and DiCaprio’s subsequent performances, mature, intense, artistically committed, and often punishingly dour as they are, feel like weird cheats in looking back to the way Cameron unleashed them as pure movie stars. Cameron nods to the Twelve Oaks ball sequence in Gone with the Wind as Jack beams up at Rose on the ship’s grand staircase with knowing amusement, and again when the two kiss in the fiery sunset on the ship’s bow. The steerage dance sequence is one of the film’s silliest interludes, working on one level to reduce the pains of the immigrant journey, which Titanic affects to champion, to a dinner theatre experience. But it’s also the most enjoyable, particularly as Jack and Rose swap dance moves, delighting in physical release. Cameron tips his hat to another pop movie smash of years past, Saturday Night Fever (1977), when the romantic couple on the dance floor spin, the camera alternating viewpoints of each in the centrifugal rush.
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Titanic represents a blend of impulses Cameron wasn’t a good enough screenwriter to make work in tandem. The melodrama framework is too slender to stand the full weight of his ambitions. Then again, Titanic’s occasional lapses into cartoonish broadness are perhaps partly the reason it was so successful—its transmutation of history and ideas into an artefact anyone can comprehend. But a true classic epic has finesse in its bold strokes, a finesse Titanic often lacks. Jack and Rose never have the unruly life, straining at the edges not just of social obligation but also the limitations of their own storyline, that Rhett and Scarlett obtain. Once the ship collides with the iceberg and begins to sink, Cameron’s filmmaking rolls on with the force of a freight train, if still with some notable problems. Cameron’s already familiar habit of presenting his action finales as nested events with surprise second and third movements here has him playing the same tricks a couple of times too many. He sets up a wonderfully tense situation in which Rose must venture deep into the sinking ship to find and free Jack, one which obeys the classic cliffhanger rules straight out of a Pearl White or Tom Mix two-reeler, except with the familiar genders of the trapped and the rescuer purposefully reversed.
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But Cameron can’t help but contrive to send the pair back down into the ship again to repeat the sequence. Also, Cameron’s relative uninterest in most of the crew and background characters during the early parts of the film mean that as he starts ticking off the familiar vignettes of the sinking, many of the people enacting them seem vague and random. The film took flack for the portrayal of the ship’s first officer, John Murdoch (Ewan Stewart), usually acclaimed as a hero. Cameron depicts him fraying under the intense pressure of the moment, flabbergasted when Cal tries to bribe him for a spot in a boat and later throwing the money back in his face but, after accidentally shooting Ryan in a bid to keep order, finally killing himself. I can see the offensive side to this, but on the other hand, it’s one of the film’s more dramatically interesting aspects, offering moral ambiguity and a sense of personal catastrophe underneath the plaster saint aspect of the ship’s legend with a purpose that otherwise Cameron tends to slip by in favour of less subtle effects. I find myself more irritated by the way Cameron heedlessly perpetuates a few bogus canards about the disaster, reducing the White Star Line manager Bruce Ismay (Jonathan Hyde) to a cheesy villain (both upper-crust Limey and corporate honcho, the perfect twofer), and particularly the idea that the ship was speeding for the sake of some kind of glory.
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And yet, despite his hesitations, Cameron still delivers his climactic sequences with incredible force and no small amount of true visual artistry,with Russell Carpenter’s photography a great aid. Indeed, Cameron’s eye decorates the film throughout with cinematographic coups. The sight of Jack and Rose dashing through the boiler room, Rose’s dress floating amidst stygian surroundings like a visiting angel in hell. The dolphins leaping before the Titanic’s knifing prow. The repeated dissolves from past to present seeing the glorious ship turn into the rusting hulk in sonorous depths. The last hour of the film counts, in spite of Cameron’s repetitions, as one of the great cinematic set-pieces, depicting the ship’s slow and monstrous transformation into exterminating leviathan, its sturdy and stable forms suddenly collapsing on hapless passengers and rearing up like a dying beast to dump them all in the icy ocean. Cameron alternates perspectives godlike and immediate, at one moment observing the ship and its distress flares from a distance, revealed suddenly in its remoteness and failing, and next offering a close-up of Rose’s face as she cowers in a flooding corridor, lights momentarily fading, the sounds of the dying ship like a growling belly, capturing her own isolation and terror. Anarchy falls hard upon this floating world; even Cal is momentarily left astounded as he beholds a funnel collapsing upon Fabrizio and other hapless swimmers, Captain Smith pummelled by gushing green waters as the bridge floods. Rose’s paintings drifting in the rising tide. A drowned woman with diaphanous clothes swimming around her, a shot that quietly answers the rhyme of the earlier shots of Rose in the boiler room, the spirit of genteel old femininity lost and gone.
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In such moments, Cameron is a man in unrivalled control of his medium, able to pivot between styles and affects with casual ease. The sinking stands comparison with DeMille’s fabled moments of cosmic-scale, orchestrated spectacle, most particularly the collapsing temple at the climax of Samson and Delilah (1949), a sequence with a similar sense of awe in destruction and an overtone of punishing judgement falling upon the iniquitous. Yet Cameron doesn’t quite make the jump to such a level, in part because of his fastidious technique. Whereas the last reel of A Night to Remember starts to feel like a horror film as it depicts the same events with far cruder special effects but with an exacting eye and ear for individual desperation amongst collective terror, Cameron’s showy stunts and special effects that delight in depicting people crashing and spinning to their deaths from the ship’s stern evoke no horror, whilst the audience can take refuge in concentrating on the heroic couple, at least one of whom is guaranteed to survive. Upon this revisit, I noticed how incidental the fictitious Jack and Rose seem through all this, whilst the depiction of Wallace Hartley (Jonathan Evans-Jones) and his band sticking out their job to the bitter end still pierced me.
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Action tends to describe symbolic meaning better than dialogue in cinema, and yet the more he tries for import here, the less Cameron gains it, at least until the ship finally disappears and he stages a bloodcurdling pullback shot from Rose alone in the water to reveal hundreds more thrashing in the water. The eerie, expressionistic passage where a would-be rescue boat searches the expanse of people turned to icy statues, with Rose croaking desperately for aid, is similarly excellent, at last pushing again at the veil between life and death, heaven and earth, Cameron tested at the start. Jack begging Rose to go on with her life as he slowly freezes to death gilds the lily more than a little, but there’s still an authentic whiff of the kind of heightened Victorian romanticism Cameron’s been chasing all along, particularly as she bids farewell to his ice-daubed, cherub-lipped corpse and watches him sink into the black. But Cameron can’t help but overplay his hand as he returns to the present, reassuring us that Brock has learnt a lesson, whilst Rose drops the Heart of the Ocean into, yeah, the heart of the ocean, and dreams of a reunion with Jack to the applause of their old shipmates. Titanic hasn’t aged so well, it’s true. Yet it still leaves you with the sense that, for better and worse, you’ve just had the kind of experience for which the movies were invented.

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