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
1970s, Action-Adventure, Western

Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

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Director: Sydney Pollack
Screenwriters: Edward Anhalt, John Milius (uncredited: David Rayfiel)

By Roderick Heath

John Jeremiah Garrison “Liver-Eating” Johnson was one of those authentic characters of the American West’s history who nonetheless occupies a blurred zone between fact and legend. Born in 1824, Johnson became one of the strange breed of wandering trappers and traders called mountain men in Western mythology, after he deserted from the US army during the Mexican-American War. In later years he served during the Civil War, worked in various law enforcement jobs around Montana, and died in Santa Monica, California in 1900, a month after finally entering a retirement home for veterans. In between these reasonably verifiable incidents in his life, Johnson survived by hook and crook, trying his hand in dozens of professions and money-spinning endeavours, becoming the subject of campfire tales and popular legend along the way. The defining event of his life, and his myth, was a twenty-five-year-long blood feud with the Native American Crow nation, sparked when some of their warriors supposedly killed his wife, a woman of the Flathead nation. Johnson supposedly defeated untold numbers of their braves and committed the purposefully blasphemous act according to Crow belief of eating the livers of his felled foes, before eventually making peace with the tribe.
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In the late 1960s Western films began to change radically. After years of being annexed by Italians and over-plied on television, its great stars aging or dead, and many of its fundamental assumptions held in dubiety by the rising new zeitgeist, the genre seemed ready to slide into pompously moribund irrelevance. For a while, however, a fresh, eccentric, wilfully heretical breed of Western film suddenly appeared on the scene, armed with a revisionist outlook and shot through with countercultural questionings of both the historic and current states of America whilst often trying to call back to the cultural roots of the genre with greater authenticity. Sydney Pollack’s take on Johnson’s life isn’t as celebrated today as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) or Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1972), but it stands with them as an exemplar of the breed. If Pollack’s adherence to an ethic of chic entertainment eventually made him entirely too safe and tony later in his career, his first decade’s work in particular remains startlingly strong for the way he managed to blend this ethic with the verve of genuinely rich and inventive cinema, achieving rhapsodic intensity in his best work.
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Pollack’s work with actor Robert Redford eventually defined much of both men’s careers, and began with Jeremiah Johnson, with Redford playing a role far out of his familiar character zone and yet echoing through his career to his solo role in 2013’s All Is Lost, where he played a similar self-exiled wanderer who has given up the world of men but finds that self-reliance entails facing great existential terror. Pollack’s film was made in uneasy collaboration with the spikiest of the young talents in New Hollywood, John Milius. A more peculiar collision of talents is hard to imagine. Milius, the self-appointed wild man of the Movie Brats, had steeped himself in frontier and outlaw mythology, and as he kicked off his directing career with Dillinger (1973) he also gained attention writing Jeremiah Johnson for Pollack and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1973) for John Huston. Milius was hired by Warner Bros. to try and wrangle a workable script out of Raymond W. Thorp and Robert Bunker’s biography of Johnson, Crow Killer, and accomplished the feat by working in material from Vardis Fisher’s novel Mountain Man. Milius’ love of rambling narratives that move in obedience to the happenstance rhythm of folklore might have seemed a tad too eccentric at first glance and Pollack fired him, hiring the experienced Edward Anhalt in his place during production, only to then be obliged to rehire Milius because only he could handle the stylised, old-timer idiom of the dialogue.
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Jeremiah Johnson became a passion project for Pollack and Redford, who both eventually mortgaged their houses to help get it made, and some of it was shot on Redford’s Utah property. They were rewarded when it became the first Western ever in competition at the Cannes Festival, and became a big, surprise hit. Jeremiah Johnson extended a theme Pollack explored repeatedly as he depicted various periods in history and portrayed deeply alienated individuals at odds with official mythologies in each. Such characters ranged from the pathetically marooned protagonists of Castle Keep and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (both 1969) and the radicals of The Way We Were (1973), the conscientious spy hero of Three Days of the Condor (1975), the rebellious rodeo man of The Electric Horseman (1979), and the cross-dressing wannabe of Tootsie (1982). Even Pollack’s Oscar-winner Out of Africa (1985) to a certain extent offered a gender-flipped take on Jeremiah Johnson as it portrays Karen Blixen’s introduction to a land that serves as cradle for personal transformation.
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It says as much for the mood of 1972 as much as Pollack’s efficiency in erecting the essentials of the story that it takes little to explain why Johnson wants to leave behind civilisation and the company of human beings for a solitary existence relying on his own muscle and wit (and it might well explain why it feels a tad appealing now, too). A quick glance at Johnson’s faded military trousers, a store sign that invites white men only as customers, and a general sense of disgust with civilisation is quite easy to grasp. Johnson steps off a boat and takes only what he needs to survive up into the Rocky Mountains, “the marrow of the Earth” as one character calls them. Johnson is hardy but inexperienced in fending for himself, and his early travails confirm his lack of bushcraft, his fires doused by snow, his attempts to fish by hand ending in humiliation as he’s watched by a silent, grim-faced Crow warrior on horseback, a man he will later know by the name Paints-His-Shirt-Red (Joaquín Martinez): so pathetic a figure does Johnson cut that the great warrior decides he’s not threat and rides on. Johnson knows his life in the mountains depends on the forbearance of the local native populaces, so he makes a gift of hides he’s collected to Paints-His-Shirt-Red. He obtains a longed-for article, a .50 calibre Hawken rifle, when he comes across the frozen body of a predecessor named Hatchet Jack, who, with legs broken in a struggle with a bear, took the time to pen a will explaining the story and bequeathing the weapon to whoever finds it.
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Johnson soon encounters the prickly, long-experienced mountain man ‘Bear-Claw’ Lapp (Will Geer), who specialises in hunting grizzly bears for their hides, and chews out Johnson upon their first meeting for scaring away one of his quarries with his blundering ways. Bear-Claw gives Johnson a rude introduction to his own sense of humour as well as the vicissitudes of grizzly hunting as he deliberately lets one chase him into his cabin and leaves it to Johnson to deal with the critter. Johnson nonetheless sticks with Bear-Claw for a time as the old-timer schools him in survival in the mountains. After he takes his leave, Johnson encounters a tragic scene: a frontier cabin with two children left dead and scalped by some Blackfoot marauders, leaving their mother (Allyn Ann McLerie, in a brief but extraordinary performance) a distraught, unhinged wreck. When she threatens the interloping Johnson with a rifle, he manages to placate her (“Woman, I am your friend.”) and helps bury for the dead children, prompting a cruel miniature lampoon of John Ford as mother and man sing a ragged version of “Shall We Gather at the River” over the graves: the “civilising” march, which Ford so often used that hymn to denote as having arrived in the frontier, here has outpaced itself in the ugliest way possible. Johnson finds she has a third child, a young boy who can’t or won’t speak, and the woman thrusts the lad upon him with a vague assignment to get him away so she can maintain her mournful vigil. Johnson takes the boy in hand, naming him Caleb.
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Johnson’s picaresque encounters see him, in a fashion anticipatory of Steven Spielberg’s fascination for pick-up families, piece together the rudiments of a quasi-normal life, forging odd and spiky friendships with men like Bear-Claw and shaven-pated nut-job trapper Del Gue (Stefan Gieresch), performing neighbourly acts for the crazy lady (his using a boot sole as an improvised hinge for the cabin door is one of the film’s marvels of throwaway detail), before finally gaining a son in the form of Caleb and then a wife and setting up a home. Johnson’s first encounter with Gue is a surreal moment as he and Caleb find him buried up to his neck in sand, victim of robbery and misuse by the same band of marauding Blackfoot warriors that killed Caleb’s siblings. Johnson digs Gue out and agrees to help him take back his stolen articles when they locate the sleeping band, but Gue starts a fight with them, forcing Johnson to help until all their foes are dead. A band of Flathead braves comes upon them and Gue transfers his collected scalps onto Johnson’s horse in fear they might want to repay the favour, but instead Johnson finds himself celebrated for the feat of slaying the wanton band. When he accidentally commits a faux pas by gifting the scalps to the head of the Flathead tribe, Two-Tongues Lebeaux (Richard Angarola), a gift that’s hard to match, Gue warns they’re at risk of being killed, until Lebeaux gets the great idea of marrying Johnson to his daughter Swan.
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“I see I missed another war down there,” Bear-Claw notes as he sees Johnson’s military trousers, offering the promise of blissful indifference to the drop-out who can make a go of it in the mountains. Later, Johnson has to ask whether or not the war he fled is over yet. Jeremiah Johnson contemplates this corner of the American landscape as a place of terrible but rarely entirely arbitrary violence. People kill for many reasons in the course of the film, for the cause of survival, defence of territory, for revenge and points of honour and even an eccentric spiritual cause; but it’s a deeply personal kind of violence all the way, rather than the anonymous clash of civilisations and abstract forces of history, which is one reason why, for all the woe he suffers and exacts, Johnson still prefers this way of life to any other. The narrative describes a great concentric circle that moves in accord with Johnson’s peripatetic ways, early scenes meeting their mirror later in the film, those early episodes gaining new meaning and import, as Johnson returns to places and reencounters people he met along the way, and experiences things he previously only glimpsed as an onlooker in his attempt to remove himself from the flow of history and society. The mountain man gives way to the settler; the land of the Crows becomes the Department of Colorado. The land gives unto Johnson unexpected bounties and burdens and then takes them away again with the same curt beneficence.
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Jeremiah Johnson bears distinct traces of the odd and volatile blend of creative sensibilities involve in its making – Milius’ ornery admiration for outsized figures at war with the world, Redford’s quiet, mindful observation and regard for setting, Pollack’s romanticism – and yet it never feels divided against itself. The film mediates ideas and images Pollack had parsed already in his films as well anticipating works to come. His interest in characters trying urgently to find a place for themselves in the world, and finding they can step in and out of roles with surreal mutability, echoes the gritty social drama of This Property Is Condemned (1966) and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? as well as the multiverse fantasia of Castle Keep, whilst The Electric Horseman would transplant the drama to a contemporary setting. Pollack’s suggestions of time and being in a state of flux as human nature wars with itself explored in Castle Keep recur here too, particularly in the sense of time in a gyre, of events repeating over and over according to cycles of nature and human perversity. The eagle embodying some spiritual force that haunted the soldiers of Castle Keep returns here to appeal to Johnson and warn him as it wings high above, seen vanishing in the mountain peaks where Johnson will soon face a consequential test.
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Since Ford’s Rio Grande (1950), with its band of troubadour choruses, and particularly High Noon (1952) with its faux-folk ballad theme song explaining the film’s essence, many a Western had aspired to entwining musical and cinematic narrative. This idea had a particular appeal in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in the wake of a folk music boom, and many of the Western films around this time aspired to the state of achieving a cinematic texture closely akin to such music, a moody, low-key, ambling place that immerses completely in a way of feeling and seeing. McCabe and Mrs. Miller, with its soundtrack of carefully inserted Leonard Cohen hits and Bob Dylan’s score for Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) came close, but Jeremiah Johnson matched them with a specially crafted soundtrack that entwines deeply with the onscreen images and presaging motifs, like “the day that you tarry is the day that you lose” for a hero whose dedication to movement lends him the aspect of a holy fool. Purportedly because it was a cheaper option than hiring a name composer, actors Tim McIntire and John Rubinstein successfully sold Pollack on using their score with interpolated songs, charting Johnson’s life passage playing over images of his physical journeying in low, sonorous phrases. All this leads to the totemic final sung line, “And some folks say he’s up there still,’” as Johnson passes through a metaphysical veil to become the spirit of the land itself.
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The song scoring is particularly vital as otherwise Jeremiah Johnson could be one of the quietest mainstream films ever made, with long passages with scarcely any dialogue spoken or with untranslated Native American speech, and Pollack depending almost entirely on the rhythm of the editing and behaviour to hold the screen: he referred to it as his silent film. The audience learns the arts of mountain survival alongside Johnson. Pollack’s developing instincts as filmmaker for a mass audience nonetheless emerge in touches like the bear scene, where he offers an effect faintly reminiscent of Looney Tunes cartoons by simply watching the cabin from outside with the tumult within registering on the soundtrack. The cinematography by Duke Callaghan always considers the characters in relationship with their environment, the great cathedral domes of the mountains crusted in snow beckoning with promises of the sublime, the snow-packed alpine forests and grey, gritty scrublands. All have a specific meaning in terms of the human drama as well as foraging, as Johnson’s yearnings for escape aim always towards the high peaks but demand hunting for subsistence down where the animals lurk, and finally when Johnson drifts into something like wedded bliss he builds a cabin down on the flatlands. When he finally does venture into the highest stretches of the mountains, Johnson finds himself doomed to disturb a taboo, because communing with the sky is a pleasure reserved for eagles and spirits.
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Johnson finds unexpected accord with others who share the land with him even though they’re all seemingly defined by the same distaste for company; even the mad woman and her husband seem to have been driven out to the middle of nowhere (which is always someone else’s somewhere) in obedience to impulse that has no name. The likes of Bear-Claw, who admits that he’s never been able to adapt to a domestic situation and remains bewildered by the thought (“I never could find no tracks in a woman’s heart.”) and the shambolic Del Gue are weirdos suited for the wilds, whilst Johnson is still young and retains the reflexes of a romantic hero, much as he tries to bury it under a taciturn surface. The gentle humour, close to a romantic comedy, of Johnson’s unwilling marriage and setting up home with Swan and Caleb, sees Johnson gobsmacked by erotic contact (“Lord!”) and contending with forces he’s not too happy with, like religion, as Swan comes from a Christianised tribe who insists on saying grace. Johnson’s occasional slips into absurd boastfulness with Bear-Claw and then his serendipitous wife and son (“Great hunter!…Fine figure of a man!…That is all you need to know.”) betray his intense unease with company and also the constantly noted tension between his pretences to haughty self-reliance and the knockabout way he achieves it.
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The longing for a Zen-like deliverance from the bawling pressure of American life Pollack would return to repeatedly comes closest to being realised in Jeremiah Johnson, but also terminates in the fractious violence that results when ways of life collide. There’s an echo of this in a pivotals scene in The Yakuza (1974) in which Richard Jordan’s young gunman meditates upon his Japanese lover’s tea making skills moments before a gang of hoodlums breaks down the door. Johnson’s journey can be seen as a logical end-point for the countercultural idyll of going back to nature, and as a wistful conservative fantasy for the days of self-reliance. Pollack depicts the process of Johnson, Swan, and Caleb fusing together into a family and constructing a life for themselves with a dash of cosiness that might seem a bit too Little House on the Prairie at points, although it’s a cosiness that eventually turns out to have a ruthless price. Pollack’s sense of rhythmic visual storytelling and feel for detail certainly never desert him. Life together sees Johnson absorbing Swan’s language to the point where they can converse, the couple clearly genuinely in love, and Johnson taking pride in Caleb learning the arts of trapping and other vicissitudes of frontier life.
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Casting Redford as Johnson had a counterintuitive quality, particularly considering Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood had been considered for the role before him. Redford’s screen persona was usually considered anything but hard-bitten, with his golden boy looks and urbane, upright, but slightly cagey aura, and the period brogue sounds odd coming out of his mouth at first. But his presence soon proves vital, as he imbues Johnson with an everyman quality. He’s no giant frontier warrior who seems fittingly born to the wilds, but an ordinary guy who slowly but surely grows into the role he’s chosen, and there’s an almost shocking sense of revelation when he finally shaves for Swan and Redford’s handsome mug is revealed again. Wry deflations continue, as Johnson does the unthinkable and shaves off his beard to save Swan from being scratched by it, only to find she doesn’t recognise him, and their domestic bliss is frustrated by annoyances like scarce game and Swan’s unimpressive cooking skills. Nonetheless Johnson finds tranquillity in a life that seems to be the opposite of what he wanted, enacting, after a fashion, a version of the real Johnson’s life that doubles as a parable for the unexpected way life tends to accumulate around us.
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Johnson’s reverie is shattered when a cavalry unit arrives outside his cabin, and for a long moment he stares in bewilderment at the commander, Lt. Mulvey (Jack Colvin), and a reverend, Lindquist (Paul Benedict), before laughing and explaining to them he hasn’t heard so much English spoken to him in a long time. The soldiers have sought him out because he knows the land and can guide them to a party of settlers lost and probably snowbound up in a high mountain pass, and Johnson agrees to help. A unique diptych is offered for Johnson’s perusal: Mulvey, with his dedication to service and sense of necessity (“You say you have to hunt – I have to try.”) represents the best of civilisation and Lindquist, with his casual racism and self-righteous disdain for Johnson’s sensibilities and anything outside the purview of God and empire, embodies the worst. Crisis arrives when Johnson finds the path he’s leading the unit on leads through a Crow burial ground. Johnson becomes afraid of what offending the Crow might entail, Lindquist advocates bullishly moving through, and Lindquist feels bound to do what will fulfil his orders. Johnson reluctantly acquiesces, presaging a strikingly tense and eerie sequence as the horse soldiers proceed in deathly quiet across a somnolent, snowclad land amidst vaulted skeletons grinning at the sky, the feeling of deadly violation and broken covenants all but palpable.
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Johnson succeeds in guiding the soldiers to the lost party, but panics at some subliminal cue as he returns through the burial ground and speeds home. Pollack stages one of his greatest sequences here as he portrays Johnson’s dash along the last few metres to his cabin with a hand-held camera shot, breaking upon a scene of carnage as Swan and Caleb both lie dead and scalped. Johnson remains sitting for a night and a day in silent meditation before his horse wandering around outside rouses him. Johnson tenderly places Swan and Caleb together on a bed and sets the cabin afire, watching it burn down as their pyre before setting out after the Crow war party responsible. When he finds them encamped, Johnson strides into their camp, taking them by surprise through his sheer audacity, and a whirlwind of violence is unleashed as Johnson shoots two and smites others. Johnson only comes out of his berserker state when the last one stands off against him and starts singing his death song, and Johnson lets him flee. Something like justice, blended in with primal revenge, but Johnson soon learns the cost is a vendetta as the Crow send out warriors one by one to take him on, dogging his days and nights.
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Jeremiah Johnson reveals itself as, in part, the tragedy of a man who gains exactly what he wanted at first even as life gave him other possibilities. A late scene sees Johnson reunited with Bear-Claw and the two men struggling to work out what month it is. But it’s also a tale that uses Johnson’s life as a parable for mastery over self, the necessity life sometimes presents of picking up from square one again and making sense of it according to a private compass, and the narrative undercuts the idea anyone can live a life separate from humanity, as Johnson’s initial status as onlooker at the crazy woman’s calamity gives way to his own. The land itself is bounty, arena, church, and trap for all the characters: Johnson’s late encounter with Del Gue sees him deliver an ecstatic, poetic paean to the glory of the Rockies, a land worth all suffering to experience and dwell in, in the film’s most Milius-esque moment. The film’s gyre-like structure sees Johnson encountering his comrades in solitude and returning to the crazy woman’s shack, where he finds a shrine set up to him by the Crow and a new family led by a quaky patriarch named Qualen (Matt Clark), representing the clumsy, clueless, yet unstoppable tide of colonisation: they might be doomed to like their predecessors end up strewn around like gory confetti, but there will be more, and more.
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The slaying of Swan and Caleb was a remarkably dark and risky twist even by the brusque standards of early ‘70s cinema, however demanded by the nominal historical record and leavened by proto-Death Wish (1974) satisfaction in Johnson’s swift retribution, reflecting the way the film sprung from, and spoke to, a specific anxiety of its era about roles of masculinity and fear of social breakdown. But eye-for-an-eye morality quickly descends into a self-perpetuating bloodbath, albeit one that both Johnson and his Crow enemies feel represents a deeper challenge. White man and indigenous man are doomed to ruthlessly battle, but there’s a sense of unity in opposites that points the way to the film’s last frame. It’s not the cheeriest of portraits of the old west, but it’s certainly greatly superior to the laboured, audience-flattering parables of Dances With Wolves (1990) and its ilk in suggesting a tentative understanding between Native American and European emerging from ruthless struggle for domain. The film’s last segment is often criticised, but I feel it’s perhaps the best thing Pollack ever did, as he depicts Johnson’s transformation from man to myth in a dazzling montage, Johnson battling various adversaries. Such contention is glimpsed in a string of Pollack and Callaghan’s most technically masterful shots, as Johnson is glimpsed atop a great boulder, a lens flare grazing across the screen as his opponent is felled and tumbled down a rock, somehow encapsulating all the epic flavour of folklore into one frame.
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The montage ends with Johnson swatted off his horse by an ambusher’s bullet, and another amazing shot results as Johnson plays possum, lying in wait for his enemy with one eye wide and waiting as the warrior pads cautiously up to his fallen form. Johnson refuses to be ousted from his chosen home and the Native Americans pay tribute to Johnson in the form of the shrine, which each warrior going out to meet him adds to, for Johnson learns he’s become a great ennobling enemy to the Crow and a fabled figure to the settlers. Although their duels apparently have little to do on the surface with the war of civilisations unfolding on the American landscape, still they become spiritual avatars for that clash, locked in a perpetual death brawl that ends not in triumph but in exhausted, wary, mutual respect. Johnson sees Paints-His-Shirt-Red salute him from a distance, and Johnson, after a long moment of contemplation, returns the salute with a smile: Pollack freezes the frame and fades out, using only that song lyric as a capstone. It’s one of the most understated movie endings ever, but also an enormously moving one, as it condenses a sense of struggle becoming accord, chaos birthing understanding, hatred yielding to brotherhood, the crude and terrible business of life touched with a breath of the eternal.

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1930s, Epic, Western

The Big Trail (1930)

Director: Raoul Walsh

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By Roderick Heath

One of the first true epics of sound cinema, The Big Trail left a deep and permanent imprint on movie history without a lot of people knowing about it. The late 1920s saw the cinema forcibly redefined by the advent of sound, a ruction for audiences, filmmakers, and theatre owners alike. True colour film processes would arrive soon after, but most filmmakers shied away from any further innovation until television forced them to fight for an audience. When they did, they would turn to the widescreen format, which had been introduced unsuccessfully in the 1920s. In France, Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927) had demonstrated the artistic potency of the format, and three years later, The Big Trail came at the leading edge of another, brief campaign to promote the format in American filmmaking.

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A mammoth undertaking by the Fox Film Corporation, The Big Trail was shot, incredibly, in six different versions simultaneously: editions in four alternate languages, a standard 35mm format version, and another in an experimental 70mm widescreen process called Grandeur. The exhausting labour and cost involved in this reflected the cumbersome demands of the era’s technology, and came on top of a colossal, already difficult location shoot that trailed nearly 2,000 miles across five states. Fox may have hoped to maximise the film’s box office potential by making so many versions, but instead The Big Trail became a sad failure, as most exhibitors refused to take up the widescreen format and the regular-sized print couldn’t make enough money to cover the huge expense during the straits of the early Depression.

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The Big Trail languished in relative obscurity for a long time as a result, whilst the similar, but far creakier Cimarron would capture the Best Picture Oscar a year later. Director Raoul Walsh took a blow to his career and wouldn’t get to helm another film of such a scale for some time. The new male star he had discovered for the project would languish in small roles and B westerns for nearly a decade. That young man, a former college footballer and bit-part player, was recommended to Walsh by mutual friend John Ford, who liked the actor’s cocky walk. He came on The Big Trail’s set named Marion Morrison, but thanks to Walsh and a cadre of studio executives, continued his career under the name they chose for him—John Wayne.

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Walsh himself had been a rough-and-tumble cowboy actor in the pioneering days of Hollywood and dabbled in directing even before he appeared in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), including work on the legendary docudrama The Life of General Villa (1913), starring the great bandit-revolutionary as himself. Walsh evolved into one of the most sublimely rigorous and no-nonsense of classical Hollywood filmmakers. With The Big Trail, he matched Lewis Milestone’s work on All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) in freeing early sound film from its stagy reflexes to discover the world at large. For Walsh, this discovery resulted in a relative crudeness, with dialogue recorded out in the open and sometimes muffled by a general clamour, but also fascinatingly rich and with a lively naturalism quite different to the smoother, but more artificial textures that would become the norm.

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As a film, The Big Trail shows its age in places, but its general vigour and expanse is still breathtaking. As a depiction of the travails of early pioneers, it still dwarfs many amongst generations of imitations. The plot is merely sufficient to lend the film a through-line that sustains the panoramic study in a human tide on the move. Wayne plays frontiersman Breck Coleman, a product of life in the western expanses, one who credits his knowledge of hunting and exploring to the Native American tribes he grew up amongst. Coleman knows the land and can clear a path across the country for a huge wagon train forming at a trading post in Missouri, intending to be the first such large expedition to go across the country to claim farm land in Washington state. At first, Coleman is uninterested in joining the expedition because he’s on the hunt for the killers of his friend, Ben Griswold; someone tried to make the crime look like an Indian raid, but Breck looked closer and found signs revealing the true culprits, including the stub of a burnt-out cigar. Whilst he tells another old friend, Zeke (Tully Marshall) about this, Red Flack (Tyrone Power Sr.), the man hired to lead a cattle team ahead of the wagons and blaze the Oregon Trail, overhears him and is clearly rattled. Breck finds he leaves behind the same brand of cigar in his wake. Walsh employs a brief flashback to illustrate the processes of Breck’s deduction, revealing his discovery of Griswold’s last camp site in the wilderness and his comprehension of a masked crime. As he probes further, Breck discovers a large quantity of pelts probably stolen off Griswold were sold to the trading post by a man named Lopez (Charles Stevens), who happens to be a friend and employee of Flack.

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Breck agrees to scout for the wagon train so he can stick close to this suspect pair and see if he can dig up more evidence and bring them to whatever kind of justice the moment provides. Meanwhile, he accidentally antagonises some of his prospective charges. He mistakes proper Southern belle Ruth Cameron (Marguerite Churchill) for another girl he knows and plants a kiss on her, only to realise his mistake as she stomps off in an offended huff. Ruth is the daughter of a greatly respected Southern elder, but she’s set on building a new life with her brother Dave (David Rollins) and younger sister. She has a self-appointed guardian and would-be suitor of traditionally gallant credentials, Bill Thorpe (Ian Keith), who claims to be a plantation owner looking for adventure and tries repeatedly to talk Ruth into marrying him. He exchanges pithy words with Breck, as the young man tries to apologise to Ruth—except that Thorpe is actually a gambler who can’t stay at the trading post lest he be hung and can’t go back lest he be shot thanks to excessive displays of his prodigious skills with firearms. But he’s friends with Flack, and he joins the wagon train with an eye to netting Ruth and taking out Breck as a favour to his pal. Breck tries to do his job whilst avoiding Thorpe’s various attempts to kill him, barely surviving one ambush in which his horse is killed. Meanwhile, Breck negotiates safe passage through Cheyenne territory with their chief, Black Elk (John Big Tree), but danger waits as other native nations join in a coalition to block their path through the Rocky Mountains.

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The basic storyline is familiar genre melodrama and mostly serves to give a little sinew to what is otherwise a survey of frontier experience, a depiction of a communal event that strays legitimately into the true definition of epic as an account of the social flux and great undertaking that creates a nation. Walsh records this with such elaborate detail and rhythmic intensity that he creates a virtually pantheistic work of art. Although there’s a brief patch of speechifying towards the end, when Breck underlines the overall meaning of the event, Walsh is for the most part happy to let his images speak—visions of prairie schooners rocking along in clouds of dust under the rays of the setting sun, his characters traversing rivers and mountains and forests. The unusual, laborious shoot meant that The Big Trail comes close in nature to one of Robert Flaherty’s staged documentaries simply by the unavoidable authenticity of much on screen, the peculiar thrill of such moments as the wagons being lowered with improvised cranes down a cliff face and trying to negotiate a swollen river. The vast number of extras look unusually like the kind of people they’re portraying. Walsh delights in zeroing in on sights like strong, muscular woman chopping down trees and lashing along their oxen amongst the broad diorama of human activity, this moving city in the wilderness, all achieved without recourse to tricks like back projection.

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The admiration for the pluck of ordinary men and women is typical of Walsh, who stayed in the Hollywood game as a jack-of-all-trades but made his clearest mark in Warner Bros. plebeian melodramas, like They Drive By Night (1940) and Manpower (1941), and films with sociological breadth, like The Bowery (1933) and The Roaring Twenties (1939), the latter a particularly potent influence on subsequent waves of filmmakers from Orson Welles to Martin Scorsese. Walsh could handle any genre, but found real focus in gangster and war films. Where his great rivals in the classic cadre of macho auteurs Ford, DeMille, and Hawks, tended towards mythologising in their different ways, Walsh, like William Wellman, retained something of a reportorial attitude, comprehending the shifts from the plucky energy of the ’30s to a despair over the illusions of the American dream (The Roaring Twenties), the defeat of individualism (High Sierra, 1941), the neurotic birth of the atomic age (White Heat, 1949), and overtures of fascist power and resistance in the burgeoning Cold War (The Naked and the Dead, 1958). The Big Trail, meanwhile, feels like a preparatory sketch for those canonical Western epics, Hawks’ Red River (1948) and Ford’s The Searchers (1956), whilst How the West Was Won (1963) is a partial remake. Like Red River, The Big Trail watches an intimate drama play out in the midst of a massive undertaking, and neither can resolve until the end of the trail is reached. Like The Searchers, the quest to write a form of justice and human meaning upon an impassive and voraciously expansive landscape and the need for safe harbours and human connection remain in constant tension.

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The drama in The Big Trail is much more elemental than what Walsh usually offered, but it’s rewarding to look closely at Thorpe and Flack, a divergent pair of characters united by the fact they’re both nefarious criminals, forming with Lopez a kind of shadow society within the greater enterprise. Thorpe is a fake gentleman, slick and charismatic, precursor to John Carradine’s similar, if more ambiguous character in Stagecoach (1939) but also a type for whom Walsh might later have offered far more sympathy as the man who can’t submit to a society bent on ironing out wrinkles like him, dogged by his impulses towards nobility rather than merely using that attitude as a disguise. Indeed, by the time of White Heat, Walsh would reveal the processes of empathy completely inverted: the psychotic, desperate Cody Jarrett had become the hero and the man quietly shadowing him to bring him to justice the villain. Keith has lean charisma in the role of Thorpe, and he would later become a favourite actor of DeMille’s. Flack is a monstrous brute who nonetheless has great reserves of native cunning and authority, and reportedly provided the direct inspiration for Popeye’s Bluto. Power, a former matinee idol as his then-teenage son would become, looked gnarled and terrible by this time. With bushy beard, snaggy, rotten teeth, and belly-deep, broken-bottle voice, he creates an unsubtle, but galvanising villain, like some kind of prehistoric monster born aberrantly in human form. Both Thorpe and Flack represent fading varieties of authority, the raw force of the barbarian king and the deceptively lethal self-interest of the pseudo-aristocrat who wants to be taken for a slave-owning oligarch, men who tellingly “lead” the expedition but don’t actually do much for it.

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Interestingly, Walsh would later combine the Thorpe and Flack characters to create his unstable antiheroes who waver between nobility and base violence, particularly White Heat’s Cody Jarrett and The Naked and the Dead’s Sgt. Croft, who, like Flack, is an ancient kind of he-man who leads his team on an epic mission but with more Melvillian overtones per Norman Mailer’s source novel. Meanwhile Walsh pulls apart the presumptions of a film he starred in, The Birth of a Nation; note that Ruth is, like the central family of that film, a Cameron, but is running away from her legacy following the telling death of the old patriarch and the loss of property and standing. Thorpe mentions that there “isn’t a home in all the South that wouldn’t be happy to take in the daughter of Colonel Cameron” (notably, much later Walsh would take on the legacy of slavery more pointedly in A Band of Angels, 1957). By contrast, Breck is the egalitarian son of the frontier who doesn’t fear a fight. but also easily negotiates with the Indians he understands and with whom he shares a worldview. Meanwhile, Ruth’s brother Dave takes the place of another character Walsh was fond of, the fresh-faced neophyte anxious to take his place amongst men. Walsh also plays with his camera and storytelling methods: the flashback to Breck’s discovery of Griswold’s camp counts as an unusual touch for the time, whilst Walsh’s way of shooting the fleet of prairie schooners, including a shot from inside one wagon as it negotiates the land, surely influenced Ford’s work on Stagecoach.

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The photography by Lucien Andriot and Arthur Edeson is remarkably alive to physical texture—the grains of wood in the fixtures of the wagons seem almost alive—whilst hinting at some larger spirit in their visuals, found in rays of sunlight gushing through clouds over the convoy, and the bone-chilling final hunt sequence in the forest at the extremes of mortality. Walsh’s grasp on orchestrating massive action and hordes of extras and the precision of his flow of vignettes, suggests what he learnt from Griffith, as well as the relentless logic of his horizontal compositions. But even as he contends with some hokey comedy and the simplicity of the story, Walsh has left the Victorian sentiments of Griffith far behind: here there are only strong and hardy people contending with the land. The soundtrack captures a constant clamour of juddering wheels and rattling pots and lowing cattle, the ambient din of the wagon train, with enriching authenticity, the kind of effect that would later be commonplace, but here still has a quality of discovery. The final sequences, filmed in the midst of California’s awe-inspiring redwoods, sees the wagon train climb down from soaring white mountains to verdant valley floors fringed by the great trees, underlining a feeling of having passed into some mythical realm where gigantism is a norm and everything is touched with a dusting of mythology. Critic Fred Camper tellingly saw The Big Trail it as an epic where the place of the individual human was displaced by nature at the heart of the film, and this often feels quite true, laying seeds for the ways later generations of filmmakers like Werner Herzog, Terrence Malick, and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu would attempt a similar sensitisation to environment as character.

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Walsh might also have been taking a few ideas from the trickle of Soviet Realist films in the way he plays down individuals in favour of observing group action with an intensive eye for their way of life. Interpolated title cards reinforce the heroic bluster in the film’s take on the colonising event, but for much of its length, The Big Trail actually takes a droll, even laid-back approach to the human level. Breck and Ruth’s thorny romance is played mostly for light comedy as Ruth remains superficially cold to Breck’s ardent attempts to romance her. Ruth obeys a programmed cultural loyalty that sees her gravitating to Thorpe in spite of all warning signs, whilst even the Comanche who come along for the ride can recognise their budding relationship, labelling her “Coleman’s Squaw” to her extreme aggravation. Some of the humour verges on silly, particularly as Zeke’s drinking buddy, Windy Bill (Russ Powell), ruffles Thorpe’s savour faire as he tries to romance Ruth by making animal noises. El Brendel contributes his patented comic Swede act for some gags that were probably hoary at the time, contending with his rather perturbingly large, forceful mother-in-law and at one point, sitting in a mud puddle only to explain the mud’s so deep he’s actually still on top of his horse. The sight of Zeke and Windy drunk as lords as they set out on the great expedition does a lot to dent the grandiosity with a sense of human scruffiness. Ruth decides to leave the wagon train with Thorpe after feeling humiliated by the jokes of the pioneers and Indians, and Thorpe decides to try to complete his job for Flack by taking a chance to gun down Breck before departing.

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Lucky for Breck that Zeke keeps an eye out for him and plugs Thorpe as he’s taking aim at Breck’s back. This sparks a brief travail for Breck as Ruth, misinterpreting what Dave reports of the event, accuses Breck of murder, an accusation Flask tries to take advantage of. Fortunately, Zeke intervening to set the record straight and an Indian attack head off trouble for Flack. The settlers circle their wagons and battle off the massed attackers. Breck still can’t prosecute his vengeance against Flask and Lopez, not until they make a move as the convoy nears its destination and the necessity of stopping him before he can bring in outside authorities grows urgent. It’s truly fascinating to see Wayne here at the very start of his career, easily commanding the screen as a leading man in spite of his youth and tenderfoot status. Gary Cooper was initially commissioned to play Breck, and it’s easy to see at this time why Wayne would be taken as a substitute, just as tall but still fairly rangy, dashingly handsome in a way hard to associate with his older, craggier visage. It’s clear from the first moment what a different screen persona he wields compared to Cooper’s cagey intensity, with his hearty laughter and easy stride and yawing line deliveries. Cooper often played characters adapted to a rugged life in a cautious and thoughtful way, whereas Wayne just seems to belong in this world, body and soul. There’s still something boyish to Wayne here, his looks rather foxy and his voice ringing a little higher, accentuated by the old Vitaphone sound recording, that’s particularly appealing. Some of the half-suppressed playfulness filmmakers like Ford and Henry Hathaway could get out of Wayne later is evident here, particularly in the scene when he accidentally kisses Churchill’s Ruth with a young masher’s energy.

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Churchill is less engaging, though she handles well the crucial moments when she finally gives up trying to hold in her feelings for Breck and begs him not to go after Flack and Lopez, and she has a certain pithy tilt of chin and flash of eye that repeatedly demonstrates that under the remnant façade of the prim Southern belle, Ruth is a hardy, worthy lady. Walsh was particularly great when it came to vivid action finales for his films, pushing push them to perfect visual and thematic nexus images—the church steps at the end of The Roaring Twenties, the battle on the electrical wires in Manpower, the exploding gas tank in White Heat—and The Big Trail builds to a spellbinding vignette high in a snowy forest where Lopez collapses and freezes to death whilst Flack forges on, only for Breck to catch up with him with the two men oblivious to each other on either side of a colossal, toppled redwood stem. Snow billows, light shafts, the flash of Breck’s knife blade, a gunshot, and death, Flack’s huge body collapsing by the fallen tree, another titan of an age about to meet civilisation’s at once revolutionary and withering touch. When Breck and Ruth are reunited, Walsh returns to the midst of the colossal redwoods, like organ pipes for a colossal cathedral of nature, climaxing in a final shot tilting up along another giant redwood, this one growing and titanic, to the sun far above. The images here haunted me for months after first watching the film, as if Walsh had captured the essence of a time and place that never quite existed, the fantastic world every dreamer reaches for. The Big Trail might not have found the stature it deserved in its time, but it testifies to the great power the medium could wield even as its very nature changed.

Standard
1970s, 2010s, Action-Adventure, Drama, Historical

Man in the Wilderness (1971) / The Revenant (2015)

Directors: Richard C. Sarafian / Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu

Man in the WildernessClickHandler

By Roderick Heath

The story of Hugh Glass contains the essence of American frontier mythology—the cruelty of nature met with the indomitable grit and resolve of the frontiersman. It’s the sort of story breathlessly reported in pulp novellas and pseudohistories, and more recently, of course, movies. Glass, born in Pennsylvania in 1780, found his place in legend as a member of a fur-trading expedition led by General William Henry Ashley, setting out in 1822 with a force of about a hundred men, including other figures that would become vital in pioneering annals, like Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, and John Fitzgerald. The expedition had a rough time over the course of the following year, often battling warriors from the Arikara nation. Near the forks of the Grand River in what is today South Dakota, Glass was attacked by a bear and terribly mauled, and his party on the expedition believed his death was inevitable. Fitzgerald and some other men, perhaps including Bridger, were left behind to watch over Glass. For whatever reason, they departed before Glass had actually expired, taking his rifle with them. But far from dying conveniently, Glass, alone in an inhospitable wilderness, instead began to recover. Living off the land and at first literally crawling his way cross country, Glass headed for the nearest sure outpost of western civilisation, Fort Kiowa, about 200 miles away. He was helped by friendlier Native-Americans tribes and eventually made it to the Cheyenne River, where he built a raft and floated downstream to the fort. He later confronted and recovered his rifle from Fitzgerald.

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Glass found only temporary reprieve from the violent death that would eventually come 10 years later, when his luck ran out and the Arikara caught up. But the account of his ordeal has been told and retold, lending him a kind of immortality. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s latest work, The Revenant, takes on Glass’s story via the highly fictionalised novel by Michael Punke, and Iñárritu and coscreenwriter Mark L. Smith embellished the tale further to illustrate not merely a great vignette of trial and suffering, but also a panoramic experience of a time and place that’s less than two centuries in the past and yet seems near-fantastical. It’s not the first film to take direct inspiration from Glass. Man in the Wilderness was the second of two films Richard C. Sarafian released in 1971, the other being his most famous work, Vanishing Point. Man in the Wilderness fell into obscurity by comparison, perhaps because it was overshadowed by a host of similar films at the time, including A Man Called Horse (1970) and Jeremiah Johnson (1972). Man in the Wilderness is, after a fashion, also a product of a legendary time of pioneers and radicals impossible to recapture in an age of more insipid labours, except this time the disparity is merely one of artistic modes. Sarafian’s film is a totem for the fresh, sun-dappled, smoky-grainy stylistics of American New Wave cinema, whilst Iñárritu’s comes with a hefty, technically demanding contemporary production with a massive budget trying to recapture the same feeling of extreme experience and offer that peculiarly contemporary aesthetic, high-powered moodiness. Both films are nonetheless fascinatingly unified, and divided, by their approaches to Glass’s tale, and by their stature as products of filmmakers at the height of their respective powers.

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Man in the Wilderness imposes pseudonyms on its characters for the sake of independence and portrays its main character, redubbed Zachary Bass (Richard Harris), as an Englishman, whilst also introducing an element of loping surrealism in Sarafian’s vision right at the outset: his “Captain Henry” (John Huston) commands from the deck of a boat that has been repurposed as a huge cart dragged overland by a team of horses, allowing his expedition to tackle both water and land as he aims his team toward the nearest big river to catch the spring melt. Immediately, Man in the Wilderness recasts Glass’s narrative as a variation on a theme by Melville, a tale of hubris on land rather than sea: Huston, who adapted Moby Dick into a film in 1956, here takes on the Ahab-esque master role, one which also fits neatly into the run of such corrupt overlord figures Huston would play in this period, most famously in Chinatown (1974). Iñárritu is less fanciful if not less referential or less preoccupied with symbolic dimensions, as his version of Ashley, also called Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), is forced to leave behind his river barge as well as all the furs the team has obtained after a devastating attack by the Arikara that leaves most of the party dead. Iñárritu quickly reveals his own points of adherence as his camera drifts through eerie, sunray-speared forests straight out of some imagined cinematic handbook of Terrence Malick’s (suggested title: “How to Be a Transcendentalist Filmmaker in 2,346 Easy Lessons”), with a strong dash of Herzog as Iñárritu’s camera roams restlessly around his characters on their small raft. Iñárritu creates a jittery, incessantly neurotic mood that suggests that, far from finding limitless freedom and romantic self-reliance in the wilderness, these pioneers are lurching into a bleeding sore in the Earth partly of their own making. Iñárritu and cowriter Mark L. Smith also quickly introduce fictional aspects of Glass’s story, as they portray Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) as accompanied by Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), his teenage son by his native wife.

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Glass’s life before he joined the Henry expedition was by all reports already amazing. His adventures included a stint of piracy under Jean Lafitte and a spell living with a Pawnee tribe. He married a woman of the tribe and helped represent them in a delegation to the U.S. government. So Hawk isn’t at all an improbable invention, underlining both Glass’s attachment to and affinity for the land and its inhabitants, an affinity too few of his fellows share, as well as lending grim consequence to his character’s preoccupations and the odyssey ahead of him. Iñárritu’s Glass is haunted by the memory of Hawk’s mother, killed in an army raid on their camp, and Glass is marked with enigmatic infamy by his fellows for having killed one of the army soldiers who threatened his son. Fitzgerald, called Fogarty in Sarafian’s film (played there by Percy Herbert, whilst Tom Hardy takes the role in Iñárritu’s), is portrayed in both films as an antsy, truculent, paranoid exemplar of the white pioneer, with a side order of racism and a dose of fear-and-trembling religiosity in The Revenant. Iñárritu makes sure we know whose side to take when his Fitzgerald keeps insistently calling local Indians “tree-niggers.” To a certain extent, Sarafian’s Bass combines aspects of Iñárritu’s Glass and Fitzgerald, presenting a man stripped out of his world and adapted to a new one, solitary and haunted, motivated by almost inchoate need and sometimes seeing the mother of the child he left in Britain, Grace (Prunella Ransome), in foggy memory. Sarafian’s film is a sprawl of hazy browns, yellows, and pale greys, whereas Iñárritu paints with blue filters just occasionally relieved by the touch of the sun.

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Early in The Revenant, Fitzgerald tries to spark a fight with Glass and Hawk in his anxiety and boiling anger following their battle with the Arikara and their looming cross-country hike, a gruelling journey made all the more bitter by their lost fortune. Fitzgerald takes out his resentment on Glass as the man who knows the land and has the cool mastery over it and himself that Fitzgerald lacks. Fate puts Glass at Fitzgerald’s mercy, although Fitzgerald only accepts the sorry and dangerous task because Henry offers him a bonus. He, Bridger, and Hawk remain to keep vigil, but Fitzgerald, who once survived a scalping by Indians—he has the semibald patch on his pate to prove it—is so afraid of being caught again by the war party on their trail that he knifes the protesting Hawk to death, dumps Glass in a shallow grave, and lies to Bridger about an imminent native attack to get him to flee with him. In Man in the Wilderness, Fogarty and the avatar for Bridger, Lowrie (Dennis Waterman), flee when they really do when seeing Indians close by, and, when they meet up with Henry, the commander acquiesces to their decision with a pep talk: “Man is expendable. We’re exploring new frontier – we must always push on and give our lives if need be.” Henry all but invites becoming Bass’s nemesis, not just by not going back for him, but also by anointing himself as representative of all the forces and powers by which Bass has felt persecuted. As the film unfolds, the two men fight long-range psychic warfare, Bass making a spear and aiming it with gritted teeth at the distant mountains Henry is trying to cross, Henry firing his guns into the whirling snow behind his wagon train at the invisible opponent. But Henry has his own bewildered feeling for Bass, as he gave the runaway a place on his ship when he was a youth and wanted to be his father figure; instead, he remained locked out by the coldly self-reliant exile.

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The Revenant’s title comes from a nickname attached to Glass, a French word meaning to come back or be reborn, and both Sarafian and Iñárritu emphasise Glass/Bass’s story as one of both literal and mystical resurgence. Sarafian’s Bass emerges from his rough grave with some piece of his spirit now infused with the land, and his former fellows begin to see the landscape as charged with portents of his survival. Visions of the stalking revenger torment Captain Henry and Fogarty, to the point where Fogarty accidentally guns down Lowrie, thinking he’s Bass back from the dead. The meaning and import of Bass’s experience isn’t discussed or turned into images as literal as The Revenant’s, but rather diffused throughout the textures of the film. Both Man in the Wilderness and The Revenant wrestle with Glass/Bass’s journey as a tale replete with religious, or at least spiritual, overtones, but also present the hero himself in a state of deep crisis about his belief systems, an insistence that suggests just why Glass’s story fascinates them, as Glass travels as far, physically and in terms of life force, from other men as it’s possible to get and then begins his return. Iñárritu loads his take with images of both shamanic and Catholic concepts of rebirth, as Glass crawls out of the grave, emerges from a ritual hut after surviving a bout of sickness, and later is disgorged from the belly of a horse he climbed into to keep warm. He also enters the (possibly imagined) ruins of an abandoned frontier church replete with faded murals depicting devils and angels. “God made the world!” a hand-lashing, Bible-bashing teacher instructs bewildered and smouldering young Bass, and Sarafian’s film studies the divergent tug between the call of the sublime hidden somewhere in the landscape and his hatred of abusive powers claiming to work in the name of an almighty.

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By contrast, Iñárritu’s take on Glass, whilst offering a similarly ecumenical view of spiritual impulses, nonetheless offers what is essentially a passion play, a Catholicised fetish tale of suffering as the way to truth. Both films also depict Glass/Bass’s revenge-seeking journey with a sense of anticipation over whether he’ll actually carry it through. The question of whether to take revenge is couched in terms of maintaining something like an ethical system in the face of a nihilistically indifferent land and a focal point for Bass’s already deep-set sense of alienation and aggrieved fury in the face of humanity’s contemptible side. Iñárritu’s Glass, on the other hand, has a more obvious spur to chase down and confront his enemy—the murderer of his son. Hikuc strikes up a woozy amity with Glass in part because they’re both bereft wanderers, but it’s Hikuc who conveniently spells out the message that vengeance is God’s province, not man’s, and the question becomes whether Glass will heed the credo of vengeance belonging to the Lord and bring mercy to the terrible reaches of the Earth. Meanwhile, authority as represented by Henry is, in very 1971 fashion, posturing, despotic, and grave in Man in the Wilderness; authority, in very 2015 fashion, is callow, well-meaning, and barely competent in The Revenant. “Zach fought against life all his life,” Captain Henry says of Bass, who is presented as a classic prickly antihero of the late ’60s and early ’70s, a self-reliant misfit who can’t handle domesticity, has contempt for standard religion as plied by figures like Henry as representative of the self-righteous, hierarchical world, and who only finally begins to regain a reason to engage with humanity, ironically, because of his betrayal and abandonment. Shortly after he’s left to die, Bass is found by a band of Arikara on the warpath, whose chief (veteran actor Henry Wilcoxon) gives him a blessing, an act that arms him spiritually on the way to recovery.

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Sarafian’s world is happenstance, gritty and eerie. Iñárritu’s is enormous, but also reaches incessantly through the nightmarish for the ethereal. Iñárritu, although not universally admired, comes to the material right off the Oscar-garlanded success of Birdman, or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014), and he’s been lauded as a major talent since the release of Amores Perros in 2000. By comparison, Sarafian’s vision didn’t get much time to mature: a former TV director, he seemed poised for a major career with Vanishing Point and Man in the Wilderness and produced a handful of other cultish films, including Lolly-Madonna XXX and The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (both 1973), few of which were successes at the time, forcing him back into TV and very occasional features. Nonetheless, Vanishing Point and Man in the Wilderness stand as one of the most coherent units of filmmaking of the ’70s, complimentary mythical takes on the death and resurrection of the American spirit in that age of great national questioning. Vanishing Point’s hero, Kowalski, is contemporary man, riding his chrome horse across the landscape towards his inevitable date with death; Bass is both his ancestor and spiritual counterpart, clawing out of the Earth and relearning how to live in an Ouroboros-like chain. Man in the Wilderness is as shaggy, earthy, and fecund as Vanishing Point is shiny, modern, and solipsistic. Both films start in the present but explore their heroes’ lives via interpolated flashbacks: we see Grace, who had to contend with his restless incapacity to live a normal life and his decision to leave their son in her mother’s care after Grace died, whilst moments of dreamy, proto-Malickian beauty drift by, including Bass, lying tattered and agonised, staring up at autumnal trees dropping their leaves on him in languorous slow-motion, his lost lover’s face fading in and out of focus over maps of autumn detritus.

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Vanishing Point was written by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, whose script referenced a peculiarly Latin-American brand of symbolic journey also reflected in Iñárritu’s comprehension of his material, which amplifies to the point of overloudness many of the ideas already present in Man in the Wilderness. Iñárritu has plainly long been fascinated by characters on the edge of the mortal precipice, whether explored in personal experiences fending off death or desperation in the likes of 21 Grams (2004) and Biutiful (2009), and caught between worlds, as evinced in Babel (2006). Iñárritu’s Glass is equally at odds with his nominal civilisation but has his place in a new one, again in a manner familiar from a lot of post-Dances With Wolves (1990) westerns. Iñárritu’s visual approach to The Revenant varies the one he proffered in Birdman, often punctuating the film with virtuoso linked camera movements, at once drifting and propulsive, and including staging several violent action sequences in seemingly unblinking single takes. In Birdman, the visual scheme emphasised both theatrical unity and the transformative power of its protagonist’s vision, as well as the impelling intensity of his neurosis. In The Revenant, Iñárritu regards the landscape as a sprawling system and a much larger stage through which his characters wander, apparently both free, but also locked in by the scale and indifference of the land and, even more unavoidably, the brutality of other humans and the wilderness of one’s own mind. But dreams and reveries have just as much import for Iñárritu as Sarafian, interpolating throughout Glass’s visions of his dead wife and other awesome, terrible sights around the west, like a mountain of buffalo bones and the smoking ruins of his village.

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Iñárritu’s narrative incorporates a motif that suggests a tribute-cum-inversion of John Ford’s canonical western, The Searchers (1956), as he weaves in a rival storyline with Glass’s. The Arikara band’s leader, Elk Dog (Duane Howard), scours the landscape because his daughter, Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o), has been kidnapped, and his belief that Henry’s party took her sparked the initial assault on them. At one point, he trades Henry’s recovered furs to a band of French trappers led by Toussaint (Fabrice Adde) in exchange for some horses, unaware that this party is the one holding Powaqa captive as a sex slave. Glass finds succour when he encounters a Pawnee loner, Hikuc (Arthur RedCloud), who shares offal from a felled bison with him, and later, recognising Glass is in danger of dying from infection, seals him up in a hut and plants maggots on his wounds to clean them. Glass emerges from this ordeal greatly recovered, but finds in the meantime that the French trappers have murdered Hikuc. He comes across them as Toussaint is raping Powaqa, intervenes, and lets Powaqa kill Toussaint before distracting his fellows whilst she runs away. Glass now has two gangs of incensed enemies on his trail. By contrast, Sarafian’s Bass remains much more of an onlooker, witness to the often surreal on the wilderness. He watches helpless as a small party comprising a white mountain man and his Indian family and companions are assaulted and wiped out by others on the warpath, but the funerary pyres the war party light near the dead bodies gives Bass the gift of warmth for the first time in weeks; he is also able to salvage spearheads and other tools from the attack. Later, he watches as a native woman gives birth in the midst of the woods whilst her man waits beyond a cordon of taboo, a spectacle of pain and exposure that nonetheless communicates an overwhelming charge of life’s unruly beginning and power, forcing Bass to think at last about the son he left behind and marking his own, genuine moment of spiritual rebirth.

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The Revenant comes pouncing out of the underbrush, a careening, unstoppable beast of a film, much like the bear that gives its hero a very hard time. Iñárritu’s film is a visual experience of great verve and occasionally astonishing invention, utilising cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s incredible talent and turning his eye on terrains of grand mountains, snows, rivers, blood, filth, fire, night and day and, most zealously, the sepulchral beauty of magic hour. Iñárritu unveils a vision of nature as hell and cathedral, forge and fire. The director’s new obsession with plying his tricky extended shots and wowing the audience with how’d-they-do-that-isms conjures at least one great sequence, when Glass is awakened by the arrival of the Arikara war party and forced to flee on his horse only to ride over the edge of a cliff, pitching himself and his mount into an abyss. Lubezki’s recent shooting style, which he pioneered to mighty effect on The Tree of Life (2011), has brought to modern cinema something of a panoramic effect, utilising extreme wide-angle lenses, but with looming, lunging actions in the foreground, imbuing even simple actions with epic stature and lucid beauty. Iñárritu leans on this effect like a crutch throughout, when the camera is roaming. Unlike on Birdman, though, this incessant movement here seems to foil the energy and effects of his actors, who are often reduced to filling in unnecessary spaces. The more sophisticated Iñárritu becomes in terms of his filmmaking, the more scanty and heavy-handed his and Smith’s screenplay seems, the more repetitive in its action and straining in its search for significance the film becomes. The second hour of the two-and-a-half-hour film concentrates on Glass’s recovery and agonised journey, but ultimately gives less convincing a sense of his method than Man in the Wilderness. It’s not enough for Iñárritu to have his motif of death and rebirth or stage one sweeping chase sequence—he gives variations on both several times.

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DiCaprio’s genuinely good performance does far more to put flesh on Glass than the script ever does, presenting a man who’s in deep, soul-twisting pain long before the bear gets him, a being used to the laws by which frontier life is lived: it’s there in his eyes as he polishes his gun and keeps a firm lid on his son’s mouth. By the end, he’s suffered so much he enters a kind of rhapsody, and the thirst for revenge cannot be sated; it can only be transmuted into a different kind of rhapsody. But Hardy, who stops just this side of broad, has the juicier part as the half-mad Fitzgerald. The film desperately needs more of the eccentric character power of the scene where Fitzgerald tells Bridger about a revelation that a duck he came across was God and had a vision of the interconnectedness of things, just before he shot and killed it. Even this scene, though, doesn’t seem to have a point to make other than to underline Fitzgerald’s already underlined mixture of weird conviction and cynicism. Dialogue in early scenes is so awkward-sounding like it might well have been translated from Spanish. But to be fair, Iñárritu is making his first true epic film, perhaps the first since Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002) that tries to mate the worship of expanse and macrocosmic survey that defines the epic with a volatile, near-experimental aesthetic. At the core is an appropriately epic purpose, an attempt to invoke the breadth of the American historical experience as crucible of trial, suffering, and violence, of contention with nature as an alternately brutal and sublime passage of arms, and with human nature, the bitterest of wildernesses. A point of reference here could well be D.H. Lawrence’s diagnosis of the death worship at the heart of so much formative American mythology and an attempt to move beyond it, to explore the emergence of new faiths, binding ideas, and crossbreeds of culture created in such a time and place. But Iñárritu doesn’t give enough of that, and it’s also hard to shake the feeling after a while that he just adores all the handsome gore and portent as some kind of art. Sarafian includes the birth scene to give a pungent, urgent image of life counterbalancing death, down to the mother biting through her babe’s umbilical cord. Iñárritu, on the other hand, can handle manly suffering by the bushel, but can’t handle its opposite. His art only exists in a hysterical flux.

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Sarafian’s film is far more becalmed and classical, though in many ways, its approach is not only similar but, in its early ’70s manner, more sensible, balladlike in moments of wistfulness and muscular in action. It’s also much shorter, but still manages to conjure a mythic tone through the force of its images and the surging drama of Johnny Harris’ score, whose old-fashioned romanticism directly contrasts The Revenant’s surging atonal drones and thuds from a battery of composers. Wielding a sense of nature untouched both by human hands and CGI tweaking, Sarafian actually explores his hero’s mindset via flashbacks and the utilisation of the landscape as mimetic space, where Iñárritu rather merely states it: we know what the world means to Bass in a way that’s much richer, and less sentimental, than Glass’s pining for his wife. Indeed, Sarafian’s structure is more successful here than in Vanishing Point, where some of the flashback vignettes laid on formative crises a bit thickly. Richard Harris, an actor who could be sublime or a colossal hambone depending on his mood, was at his best for Sarafian as DiCaprio is for Iñárritu: both actors seem to revel in simply inhabiting their roles with a minimum of dialogue, their reactions to the shock of cold water, the feel of the earth, and the texture of blood entirely real. It could also be said that Sarafian does a slyer job inverting the audience’s viewpoints, as he offers a vignette depicting the Indians recording the sight of Henry’s land-boat in a painting, a glimpse of the strangeness of western enterprise through native eyes. Sarafian presents his Native Americans in their tribal contexts, in their fully formed social life, so starkly contrasting the bizarre, lumbering, unnatural expedition they make several attempts to wipe out.

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Sarafian’s film could well have had significant influence, or at least psychic anticipation, of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982), which revolve around similarly absurdist adventures of western world-builders seen in stark remove. By contrast, in spite of the powerful technical accomplishment of The Revenant and the often extraordinary beauty of its images, its aesthetic seems mostly second-hand, marrying long-take machinations in competition with Alfonso Cuaron to Malick and Herzog’s visual habits, with hints of a dark, wilfully odd brand of historical filmmaking that bobbed to the surface now and then in the ’70s and ’80s, like Avery Crounse’s Eyes of Fire (1984) and Geoff Murphy’s Utu (1983), and a rather large dab of Chuck Norris. Both Sarafian and Iñárritu build to action climaxes that underline the hero’s development of a new sense of moral compulsion, albeit here, at last, in notably different ways. In Man in the Wilderness, Captain Henry and his compatriots find the river they’ve been making for has dropped and the cart-ship literally finishes up stuck in the mud, forcing the party to stand and fight off a massed Indian attack. The Indian chief, seeing Bass approaching, clearly believes he’s been spared by cosmic forces to gain his righteous reward, and gives him the opportunity of taking his revenge with the trapping party entirely at his mercy. In The Revenant, catching wind that Glass might be alive, Henry leads men out to find him, and they bring him back to Fort Kiowa, whilst Fitzgerald tries to rob Henry’s safe and runs off, ahead of approaching justice. Henry and Glass ride after him.

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Man in the Wilderness ends stirringly with Bass finally refusing to take revenge, instead simply vowing to return home to his son with a look of weary gratitude and uninterest in Henry and then tramping on. The rest of Henry’s party start trailing after Bass, abandoning their quest and likewise starting off, humbled and delivered from their own baggage, physical and mental. By contrast, the addition of Hawk and his murder to Iñárritu’s narrative has created a more immediate melodramatic spur that Iñárritu feels bound to satisfy at least partway, and so we get Glass and Fitzgerald fighting it out in a savage death match in the snowy wilds, knifing each other and biting off body parts with hateful gusto before Glass has a last-minute attack of morality and instead kindly sends Fitzgerald floating off to be scalped by Elk Dog, who happens along with the recovered Powaqa and the war party and are watching the fight with bewildered interest. Glass’s act of mercy towards Powaqa saves his life here, but the mechanics of this sequence are so clumsy and thudding that Iñárritu fails to deliver the moral lesson he wants to. Sarafian’s finale is the consummation of his work; Iñárritu’s is a bridge too far, an underlining of the director’s habits of unsubtlety and fondness for chasing down the obvious. Finally, the two films stand as ironic avatars of their filmmaking periods. If Man in the Wilderness is an underrated classic that was virtually ignored because of the wealth of such works in its time, The Revenant is a failed attempt to make a masterpiece in a time when Iñárritu will be praised for his ambition to drive cinema into new territory.

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