1960s, Comedy, Drama, Religious, Spanish cinema

Viridiana (1961)

Director: Luis Buñuel
Screenwriters: Julio Alejandro, Luis Buñuel

By Roderick Heath

Few names resonate in cinema history like that of Luis Buñuel. For the quality and radical vision of his work, of course, and also because the legend of Buñuel connected far-flung zones in that history, zigzagging from the heady bohemian climes and provocations of 1920s Paris and the violent, reactionary forces that consumed his native Spain in the age of Fascism, to the shoals of Hollywood and the fecund delights of Mexico’s cinema golden age, before a triumphant return to the eye of European film to collect Oscars and Palmes d’Or when he was over sixty without dulling the glint of his wild imagination. Buñuel, born in the Aragon town of Calanda in 1900, was the son of a hardware retailer who had made a fortune in Cuba, and his teenage bride. Buñuel would later succinctly note that Calanda remained in the Middle Ages until World War I. Proving a disorderly youth during his Jesuit education, Buñuel became accomplished at entertaining friends with magic lantern and shadow plays, and was obsessively religious until he broke with the Catholic Church at 16 and declared himself an atheist. Whilst attending university in Zaragoza he became close friends with the quick-blooming artist and gadfly Salvador Dali and the future playwright Federico Garcia Lorca. Excited by the possibilities of film after watching Fritz Lang’s The Weary Death (1921), Buñuel moved to Paris and, whilst also dabbling in theatre, started working for French director Jean Epstein. Buñuel served as assistant director on Epstein’s 1926 adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, a work which prefigured much of Buñuel’s cinema.

After breaking with Epstein Buñuel reunited with Dali, and, borrowing money from Buñuel’s mother, the duo made the short film Un Chien Andalou, first screened in 1929. Emblazoned with the helpful caption “Nothing means anything,” Un Chien Andalou, with its signature image of a woman’s eyeball being sliced with a razor and other incendiary, delirious vignettes, immediately exemplified the phrase “succès de scandale” and allowed the emerging art mode of surrealism to annex cinema as an expressive realm. Buñuel was annoyed when his aesthetic hand grenade proved a hit with exactly the kind of intellectual in-crowd he meant to piss off, so he might have experienced a more ambivalent sense of achievement when his and Dali’s follow-up, the feature-length L’Age d’Or (1930), attracted furious protests for its anti-Catholic satire. By that time Buñuel and Dali had ended their association over political differences. Once the stones, literal and metaphorical, stopped flying over L’Age d’Or Buñuel, after a brief and wilfully unproductive first sojourn to Hollywood, became deeply involved with leftist Spanish politics. His pseudo-documentary of life in Extremadura, Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (1933), was to prove his last significant directorial work for over a decade, and was equally infuriating to both the Republican government and the Franco regime for its harsh, ironic portrayal of the country’s most degraded communities.

Buñuel retreated for a time into producing commercial Spanish cinema. When the Civil War broke out he participated in the Republican government’s propaganda efforts, in the cause of which he travelled to the US in 1938 only to find himself stuck there when the war ended. Buñuel had a rough time trying to fit in with the American film world through World War II as his L’Age d’Or infamy was still dogging him, but his work in making and dubbing films for the Latin American market helped pave the way for a move into the Mexican film industry, which was at the height of a boom in the mid-1940s. There, after making a few well-received melodramas, he regained international profile with Los Olvidados (1950), a vivid blend of his surrealist and socially concerned sides. Buñuel’s work through the late ‘40s and ‘50s, chiefly in Mexico but also encompassing the English-language The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1954), which gained a Best Actor Oscar nomination for star Dan O’Herlihy, was defined by a creative tension between commercial assignment and the director’s transformative talent, and in many ways is his most interesting and diverse period.

Viridiana represented the third great pivotal moment of Buñuel’s career, signalling tentative reconciliation with his homeland and a new stature as a major art-house auteur. He was lobbied to return to Spain and make a movie by the young directors Carlos Saura and Juan-Antonio Bardem, and his project was given vaguely official assent. To the surprise of everyone, the script for Viridiana was approved with only to some requests for alteration by censors, including of the suggestive ending, which Buñuel and his co-screenwriter Julio Alejandro revised to somehow make, whilst seeming relatively innocuous on paper, even filthier in its implications. Buñuel, no fool, still knew what he was courting, and had the film’s negative smuggled to Paris to edit it for its premiere at Cannes. The Spanish government’s film overlord unwittingly introduced it there, and was promptly sacked, the film banned not just from screening in Spain but from all mention in the press until well after Franco’s death. But elsewhere, despite being vehemently decried by the Catholic Church, Viridiana managed to hit the cinema scene at the right time: it only took thirty years, but cognoscenti tastes were ready for Buñuel’s outrageous outlook at its most unrefined and potent. Viridiana was Buñuel’s second, if very loose, adaptation of a novel by the great Spanish novelist Benito Pérez Galdós, preceded by Nazarin (1958), and he would film Galdós a third time with 1970’s Tristana.

In abstract Viridiana reads as exactly what the Franco regime took it to be, a blatantly impudent and iconoclastic jab at the official structures underpinning the type of conservative society they had been brutally enforcing for the previous twenty years. And it’s certainly biting in its portrayal of a rotting aristocracy and the detached pretences of organised religion, both eventually collapsing before the proclivities of an energetic, pragmatic, hedonistically seductive modernity. Buñuel’s art was however more refined than offering mere adolescent iconoclasm. Viridiana is a fable depicting the creation of modern Spain and the world beyond it, a fable laced with ambivalence, sarcasm, horror, and flashes of delirious beauty and weirdness. It also recapitulates the basic concern of Nazarin, which portrayed the remorseless defeat of a saintly priest in the face of a brutish society, whilst swapping the gender of the central character, a move that immediately introduces a different frisson. Galdós’ novel was a direct sequel to his Nazarin, in fact, whereas Buñuel’s extrapolation follows his own bent beyond the book’s premise of an aristocratic woman founding a charitable collective.

Where Nazarin’s hero was tragically noble and genuine despite his luckless passivity, Viridiana’s title character is duly pretentious in her buffeted idealism. Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) is a mendicant approaching the time when she’s to take her vows as a nun after a long, insulated religious schooling and upbringing. The Mother Superior of the convent (Rosita Yarza) tells her that her uncle, Don Jaime, who’s paid for her upbringing and her dowry, has written to say he won’t be able to attend the ceremony. Viridiana is unconcerned, as she had only ever met Don Jaime briefly, but the Mother Superior encourages her to accept his offer of a visit to his home as a show of respect and gratitude before returning permanently to convent life.  Don Jaime (Fernando Rey) himself resides in a large, decaying mansion in a Spanish backwater: his former wife, Viridiana’s aunt, Don Jaime later recounts, “died in my arms on our wedding night,” still clad in her white dress. Upon their reunion Viridiana clinically admits that she feels no emotional connection to Don Jaime after too long apart. She insists on sleeping on the floor of her bedroom, and has brought with her an array of religious objects including her own personal crown of thorns and crucifixion nails.

Meanwhile Don Jaime gets his jollies paying Rita (Teresa Rabal), the young daughter of his housekeeper Ramona, (Margarita Lozano) to jump rope so he can stare in fascination at her young, flicking legs, and taking out his wife’s wedding attire and fetishistic communing with it, fitting her gleaming white high heels on his own feet and tenderly fitting her corset to his belly. As he does so one night during Viridiana’s stay, he’s bewildered by the sight of her sleepwalking around the house, engaged in some inchoate form of ritual, obliviously burning the contents of a knitting basket and collecting the ashes to dump on Don Jaime’s bed. Don Jaime becomes preoccupied with convincing Viridiana to stay and marry him, eventually proposing this after he’s talked her into donning his wife’s wedding array. When the appalled Viridiana refuses, Don Jaime, with the aid of his slavishly devoted housekeeper Ramona, drugs her and her spirits her to her bedroom.

Viridiana’s slyly accumulating power lies in the way Buñuel dryly presents its increasingly deviant concerns and storyline with a limpid, becalmed, studious gaze. One quality that always distinguished Buñuel as a director was, for all his reputation as one of cinema’s most committed and peculiar artists, so ingenious at communicating unreal imagery, he had little time for showy filmmaking, preferring instead tightly choreographed camerawork, worked out in advance, and so like Alfred Hitchcock found the actual shooting rather dull. The material here grazes territory often staked out by gothic melodrama, as the young woman comes to the big old house where a troubled male elder resides brooding on ancient losses, and the motif of the eerily glaring portrait of Viridiana’s long-dead aunt and Don Jaime’s desire to transform his niece into the lost lover echoes Edgar Allan Poe stories of fetid and displaced sexuality (“Your aunt died on my arms on our wedding night, wearing that dress”). And yet Buñuel instead plays it not for thrills but as a deadpan tragicomedy. The motifs of the storyline also evoke basic clichés of erotica, with the classic figure of the beautiful, chaste, unworldly young woman placed at the mercy of her decadent uncle who embodies all the threat of a worldly male. Buñuel, who had referenced the Marquis De Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom in L’Age d’Or, here offered his own derivation on a Sadean narrative in portraying a young woman at the mercy of the world’s corruption and who eventually embraces it.

Except that Buñuel plays games with such figurations, disassembling their presumptions, as he finds the absurd pathos in both his central characters. Don Jaime, introduced as a figure reminiscent of Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, is eventually revealed to be a figure of dank pathos as he’s driven to find some form of catharsis for his long-thwarted desire for his late wife, ambiguously finding both deliverance from adulthood and proto-erotic thrills in watching Rita skipping, and obtaining the ideal body onto which to transfer his fetishist passion in the form of Viridiana himself. Sexuality infuses every gesture and yet is constantly displaced into other, bizarre, often functionally sado-masochistic forms. Don Jaime is affected by the sight of Viridiana’s bare legs in her nightgown – Buñuel films her taking off her stockings as if unknowingly loading weapons for a campaign not yet begun – as she engages in her somnambulist ritual, a display which seems to signal her as another person driven to enact a nocturnal demi-life. Albeit whilst Don Jaime is at least conscious of his yearnings, Viridiana, casting ashes on the marriage bed her waking self has resolved never to inhabit, can only explore her own ambivalence in dreams. In this she becomes the active avatar of the surrealist creed. Ramona has an evident, unnoticed crush on Don Jaime, one she later, speedily transfers onto his son.

Meanwhile Buñuel sets up chains of imagery couched with unsubtle humour but also amassing thorny meaning. He cuts from a shot of Viridiana removing her stockings, revealing her white, gleaming legs, to a shot rising up from behind the organ Don Jaime is playing, her body and his fused, her body dancing to his tune, his own later donning of his wife’s white shoes and Viridiana wearing them both anticipated. Eroticism involves its own mysterious transubstantiation, and the seemingly opposed reflexes of sex and faith, the impulse of the flesh and the ethic of its rejection, are nonetheless conjoined in the desire to become one with the worshipped figure, to experience on levels carnal and sublime. Biblical humour surfaces as Viridiana unthinkingly bites into a piece of apple Don Jaime hands her as he begins to talk her into wearing the wedding dress. Viridiana soon appears in that regalia, complete with veil and candelabra in hand, a puckish anticipation of her becoming a bride, whether it be to Jesus or someone more mortal, her absent intended mirrored by Don Jaime’s absent wife.

Since his debut Buñuel had compiled a catalogue of fanatically fixated themes and images, including the true surrealist’s fascination with “amour fou,” mad and boundless love that persists beyond the grave – not for nothing had Buñuel made an adaptation of Wuthering Heights, Abismos de Pasion (1954) – and his delight in using insect life as strange and unstable symbol for the infesting and eruptive nature of such passion, a motif that flecks Viridiana – a bee drowning in water, the description of a great old house with a floor infested by spiders – amidst an expanded array of animal imagery that maintains its own peculiar, self-justifying context. Viridiana praying over her collection of religious-masochist paraphernalia gives way to the sight of Don Jaime’s farmhand Moncho (Francisco René) briskly milking a cow, a commonplace act suddenly laced with phallic overtones as Viridiana cannot bring herself to handle the stiff, squirting teat, whilst Rita, gulping milk down hungrily, pauses to teasingly pours some on the cow’s nose. Rita also experiences a disturbing premonition of the sexual furore stirring in the house as she complains of being awoken by a “black bull” coming into her room. As he discusses his illegitimate son Jorge with his niece, Don Jaime assures her he intends to make sure his progeny will be taken care of as he plucks that drowning bee out of a barrel of rainwater. This encapsulates both Don Jaime’s humane side but also his incidental resolve to do as little as possible to service it.

It also prefigures a later, famous vignette of Jorge himself (Francisco Rabal) buying a dog when he’s distressed by the sight of it being forced to walk briskly behind a peasant’s cart to which it’s tied. He walks off with his new pet, oblivious to another dog being dragged along in exactly the same way behind another cart. This vignette says much of Jorge’s counterpoint experience to Don Jaime’s, as a man who knows what it feels like to be the bastard castaway and knows empathy for the literal underdog, and puts his decent streak to immediate, effective employ, but only, again, within a certain limit. This vignette is almost endlessly dissectible, seeming on the face of things to make fun of the charitable impulse, but on closer examination noting that, whilst indeed there’s an aspect of random luck often in who benefits from such humanitarian reflexes, that can have a crisscrossing effect with other gestures, but the eternal problem of social organisation is how to make that effect perpetual and mutual. These seemingly blithe, ironic jokes about the nature of charity see it as inevitably discreet and perhaps only effective when wisely limited in the face of all the world’s pain and suffering. But this eventually plugs into a deeper thesis of Viridiana, when the heroine tries to become a river to the poor and desperate of the district, seeing them not as people but as extensions of her own self-image as a Christ-like fount.

Guilt partly underpins this effort from Viridiana, who, after rejecting Don Jaime, is confronted with the awful consequence in the sight of him dead, having hung himself from a tree near his house with Rita’s jump-rope. This comes after Don Jaime makes a last, feverish play to possess his fantasy by drugging Viridiana after he’s talked her into donning the wedding dress. If it seemed Hitchcock had paid homage to Buñuel’s El (1953) with Vertigo (1958), Buñuel seems to return the favour here, nodding to Rebecca’s (1940) basic plot, offering his own twist on Vertigo’s portrait of a maniacal man trying to reconstruct a lost lover, and quoting Notorious (1946) in the laced cup of coffee that places Viridiana at Don Jaime’s mercy. Don Jaime take her to the marriage bed, laying his face against her revealed, bobbing bosom and kissing her prone form, but ultimately wins the battle against the temptation to rape her. This retreat in proves however self-defeating. Don Jaime first tells Viridiana the next day when she awakens from her induced sleep that he did take her virginity, hoping this will compel her to remain with him, but her distraught reaction causes him to confess to Ramona that he didn’t do it.

Ramona checks his bed for any sign of blood on the sheets to reassure herself he’s told the truth. Viridiana remains understandably determined to leave, but she’s brought back to the house by police to behold the awful spectacle of Don Jaime’s death. The complexity of the aftermath of Viridiana’s drugging suggests possible censor impact on Buñuel’s storyline, but it also undoubtedly helps deepen psychological meaning. Don Jaime’s story, which only occupies about a third of the film, is that of a man trying with all his might not to become a monster, despite being consumed by overpowering impulses that go to a rotten stem of the human being – love, lust, the urge for control, the ever-taunting mixture of the specific and interchangeable in people we as the centres of our own universes encounter. Whilst Viridiana plays the martyr, Don Jaime comes far closer to actually being one, even as he is at the same time just a dirty and pathetic old man. This connects to a credo Buñuel once stated outright, that nothing in the imagination is wrong, only misbegotten attempts to actualise them. Don Jaime’s own, bitter sense of humour manifests in killing himself with the totem of sublimated longings and childhood obliviousness. After Don Jaime is brought down the jump-rope is restored to Rita who resumes skipping with it, despite the angry admonitions of Moncho: youth is as heedless of the pain of age as age often is of youth’s autonomy, and those are two of the forces that wrestle in a traditionalist society.

Don Jaime’s death becomes Viridiana’s load, as she is named as co-inheritor of the house along with Jorge, who arrives with his lover Lucia (Victoria Zinny). Viridiana, after telling the Mother Superior she feels different and won’t be returning to the convent, heads into the nearby town and begins gathering up local paupers, intending to create a kind of religious commune where everyone can do a bit of work to earn their meal and bed for the night. Meanwhile Jorge seems to provide a breath of cleansing air as he lays claim to his legacy. Jorge enters the scene with self-assured masculine swagger, imbued rather than quelled by not having had the easiest time in life, because he knows very well that he is the future. He does note with some resentment that he might, with Jaime’s support, have become a qualified and successful architect by now rather than have merely been working in the office of one, but otherwise isn’t particularly aggrieved by his father (“Anyone can have a fling and then walk away.”). He does quietly admit to Lucia that Viridiana gets on his nerves because she’s “rotten with piety.” Lucia suggests he’s really irritated because she pays no attention to him.

Contrasting Viridiana’s choice of mission, Jorge sets to work repairing, cleansing, and modernising the house, including getting electricity connected and making the estate’s farmland productive again, and hiring labourers for the job. Buñuel builds one of his more elaborate cinematic jokes as Viridiana leads her collective of paupers in prayer in the estate’s blooming orchard – shades of Buñuel turning a wry salute to Robert Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis (1948) with its blend of earthy piety and beatific natural surrounds – whilst the labourers work around the house and grounds, bashing at crumbling brickwork, stirring cement, sawing lumber. Buñuel intercuts between prayers and working, forming them into a system of call and response, labour of the spirit and labour of the practical at once set in contention and locked in a sardonic harmony. The old Benedictine motto of “work and prayer,” realised as an elaborate fugue where focused labour contrasts Viridiana’s ambitious but vague attempt to build a mutually reliant religious commune with social dregs as her flock.

Viridiana’s harvested collective nonetheless quickly reveal themselves to be whatever the opposite is of the deserving poor. A gang of miscreants, petty thieves, sex fiends, and the pathetically penurious, the flock go along with Viridiana so long as she gives them a next-to-free ride. Only one, crippled man out of her initial selection refuses to go along with Viridiana and asks for some change instead, noting, superfluously, that he only accepts such charity because he’s destitute. “She has a heart of gold,” one pauper says of Viridiana, to another’s comment, “Yes, but she’s a little nutty.” Far from embracing an egalitarian ideal of collective labour, the paupers have their own caste and class systems. The blind, bearded Don Amalio (José Calvo) and his pregnant lover Enedina (Lola Gaos) become de facto leaders of their group for their amoral and deftly manipulative cleverness. The paupers forcibly eject José (Juan García Tiendra), a man with a bad case of varicose veins, from their ranks because they think he’s a leper and could infect them all, and toss stones his way whenever he hangs around, whilst taking pains not to let Viridiana see. Another pauper, a man with a bandaged foot known as ‘El Cojo’ or The Cripple (José Manuel Martín), appropriates Rita’s jump-rope as a belt for his pants. He also volunteers to paint religious pictures, which he does, roping in his fellows to pose for him: “I don’t like being the Virgin,” one woman complains. Moncho soon becomes so aggravated by the paupers’ presence that he quits working on the estate.

The official theme here is naiveté, with Viridiana doomed to learn she cannot apply abstract pieties to real life. She is confronted with the truth that the poor are not necessarily ennobled or sanctified by their condition, but remain essentially the same as other people, only more so – a free-floating mass of the greedy, cruel, perverse, and opportunistic. Indeed, the absence of social expectation on them frees them from fetters of behaviour beyond the most superficial and self-centred (Amalio, knowing when and how to grease the wheels, refers to Viridiana as “our blessed protectress”). Buñuel here confronts, with abyssal wit and cool candour, the intersection of two potent, long-antagonistic but fascinatingly similar faiths, Catholicism and Marxism, and one point of concern at which they converge, being what to do about people who fall to the bottom of a society, and provoking the eternal lament of adherents of both creeds as to why the masses will never do what’s good for them. The paupers become Buñuel’s impish projections of his most lawless, cynical, and profane impulses, whilst also evoking the hangover of a crazy medieval spirit that could have sprung off pages of Rabelais, embodying the tumult of the boiling mass of humanity in its natural, unelevated, tumultuous state. Meanwhile Jorge comes to represent industrious modernity, effective, efficient, in many way more genuinely helpful, but also casually imperious and immune to moral criticism. Jorge finds delight in finding, amongst Jaime’s possessions, a crucifix with a knife hidden within, a good, practical version of Cromwell’s advice to put trust in God and keep your powder dry.

That Jaime’s house can be taken as an emblem of the teetering, mouldering, pathetically repressed state of Spain circa 1961 is practically self-evident. More interesting is the way Buñuel sets his rival moral schemes in contention, forlorn and septic patriarchy and daffy virgin matriarchy both waning. Which goes a long way to pointing to the deepest cause for the offence Viridiana caused the Franco state. A little blasphemy and sin can be easily encompassed and suppressed, but not the film’s most galling statement, its confident augury that all the old reactionaries will fall before the seductive appeal of a neo-pagan spirit inherent in the encroaching modern world, of which Jorge is the messiah, casually barging through taboos long tended with jealous care, and the nuns and serviles of the past will become the new whore-priestesses. Where Ramona lingered in lovelorn attentiveness to Don Jaime, and transfers that fascination onto Jorge, he quickly and deftly seduces her as they explore the musty attic crammed with the detritus of a festering aristocracy. Buñuel saves one of his most mordant visual metaphors here as he cuts from the couple’s clinch to a cat springing on a mouse. This seems to indicate the ease of Jorge’s seductive ploys, although the cat could also be the long-frustrated and carnally eruptive Ramona: later when Buñuel films them together in a moment of strikingly happy intimacy, it’s Ramona who joyfully bites Jorge’s hand.

The film’s very end sees Jorge ascending to the status of a pagan priest-king settling down to be a fount of sexual beneficence, His coming inscribed in the strains of a new catechism – shake, shake, shake your cares away, declares the rock song coming from the radio. Buñuel doesn’t take this for necessarily a great good, either, in part because an age of happy, straightforward hedonism would rob him of the mine of his art, his delight in human perversity, in the tangled weeds of sad and sorry old repressed Europe and the creatures it births. The epic quality that touches Don Jaime’s fetishistic longings and Viridiana’s blinkered and self-mortifying piety springs from the same fount: the old world fashioned over centuries to provide psychic and physical bulwarks against the chaos of natural forces. Buñuel was driven again and again to study the failure of such social bulwarks, their collapse the one certain thing in his worldview. Buñuel’s constant preoccupying themes had surfaced in precursors to Viridiana like Susana (1951), which depicted with lacerating good-humour the progress of an ironically sanctified harlot through a good Mexican family, her pulchritude easily provoking the men to raptures, and El and The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955), with their portraits of maniacal men whose unstable machismo consumes them and others.

Buñuel’s previous film, the near-equally great but relatively neglected The Young One (1960), although set entirely amongst fringe dwellers, also directly anticipated Viridiana, although with its depiction of the forcible seduction of a girl by an older male guardian edging far closer to outright paedophilia, and the theme of schism amongst the underclass encompassing racial prejudice. Buñuel would also go on to restage Viridiana’s riotous climax from a different angle via the famous conceit employed in The Exterminating Angel (1962), as guests at a bourgeois dinner party find themselves unable to leave a dining room due to some invisible force, and degenerate into brutes, an idea that, despite its purposefully arbitrary fantasticality, laid down a template for post-apocalyptic angst in cinema. Buñuel would return to the basic theme of Viridiana, and some of its jokes, whilst flipping genders again, for Simon of the Desert (1965), this time casting Pinal as the taunting, tempting female devil trying to seduce the pillar-sitting saint, eventually spiriting him from detached pinnacle to raucous contemporary New York nightclub. Viridiana’s own eventual embrace of her carnal side opened the gate for Belle de Jour’s (1967) portrait of a transgressive heroine trying to actualise her erotic fantasies and the brutally ironic feminist revenge motif of Tristana, a film that plays very much as an uglier, sadder, more conflicted remake of Viridiana, essentially positing if Viridiana succumbed to Don Jaime and then became him. Buñuel’s influence would also soon echo through the emerging new European cinema, seen in variations like Jean-Luc Godard’s Week-End (1967) and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968).

Viridiana finally reaches it long, ecstatically profane climax as Viridiana and Jorge head off to deal with legal matters in town and Ramona takes Rita to the dentist, all expecting to be absent from the house until the next day. Viridiana leaves the snowy-haired, ineffectual Don Zequiel (Joaquin Roa) in nominal charge of the commune. Some of the paupers, seeing a chance for rest and relaxation, decide to kill a couple of the spring lambs on the estate for a roast dinner, and Enedina promises to make custard. The paupers soon sneak into the big house to gawk at its splendours. Surveying the portraits of Don Jaime and his wife, Zequiel comments, “Imagine hanging yourself with that kind of dough.” The paupers elect to hold their banquet in the dining hall and clean it up so their cheeky transgression won’t be noticed. There they merrily gobble up their food and raid the wine cellar too. They’re even so kind as to let José join them, sequestered at a separate table. Amalio regales them with legendary feats of begging in rich churches where the women smelt so good they gave tactile communion. For the paupers, guzzling custard in swank environs is the next best thing to heaven, and once everyone’s in the highest spirits Enedina proposes to take their photo with a camera “my parents gave me.” The beggars eagerly arrange themselves into a pose on one side of the dining table before Enedina, recreating Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” and Enedina does indeed per the old joke take their photograph, by raising her skirt and flashing her privates at them.

This famous vignette offers a pure crystallisation of Buñuel’s humour, at once larkish and vicious, seemingly casual but carefully prepared. The “Last Supper” pastiche provided subsequent directors with a ready-made icon of irreverence to pay homage to, ranging from Robert Altman on MASH (1970) to Mel Brooks on A History of the World, Part I (1981). Buñuel’s is the coldest and most merciless however: Amalio holds the place of Jesus, flanked by sleazy weirdoes. Handel’s “Messiah,” heard in the opening credits, is played by the beggars on the gramophone whilst several begin dancing to its strains with sprightly, satiric energy. Jose dons pieces of the wedding dress and swans about as a sickly drag act. Here the paupers rejoice in their freedom to casually disrespect every yardstick of the society whose fringes they persist on, all charged with childlike glee – Buñuel zeroes in on the dancers’ legs, which recalls Rita’s as she used her jump-rope. But other urges are stirring, at once more adult and more animalistic, as the party degenerates into squalid chaos. Enedina is grabbed by one of the men, Paco (Joaquin Mayol), dragged behind a couch, and raped. “Let ‘em scuffle,” Zequiel declares in his besotted state, and gets a face-full of custard tossed at him. Amalio, thinking Enedina is willingly screwing Paco, starts furiously smashing everything on the dining table with his cane, and Enedina, released, dismisses Amalio’s display: “If he were my husband he’d be entitled.” Some of the paupers flee the house as Viridiana, Jorge, Ramona, and Rita return unexpectedly by car, and the others shuffle out more pretentiously, facing up to the astounded Jorge with varying attitudes of proprietorial surprise, or, in Amalio’s case, a blessing for providing a blind man with sustenance.

Where other filmmakers might have felt licence to make their style frenetic to mimic the mounting craziness in such a sequence, or to have the paupers become theatrical in their destructiveness. Buñuel simply and methodically documents the mounting bedlam, only in the “Last Supper” tableaux delivering an arch cinematic joke. Otherwise he maintains deadpan observation, as with Enedina’s assault. Buñuel seems to be dramatizing the worst nightmare in the reactionary mindset: the filthy, ignorant scum erupting to despoil civilisation and take advantage of their benefactors. But their actions also, pointedly, recreate things already seen in the course of narrative – sexual assault, fetishism, transvestism, contempt for tradition, heritage, autonomy, and responsibility – only without any veil of pretence or obfuscation, simply embracing wild impulse. Don Jaime’s drugging and suborning of Viridiana, halted by whatever lingering ethic persists in his person, is soon reproduced in blunt and brutal fashion as El Cojo and Jose collaborate to knock out and tie up Jorge so they can rape Viridiana.

Buñuel dives in for a close-up noting Viridiana’s failing fight against El Cojo, noting her hand tugging desperately at his belt, which is of course Rita’s jump-rope. Buñuel deploys another of his wicked ironies, as Jorge deploys the oldest and most essential art of the capitalist to save the day – using the promise of reward to turn one member of the proletariat against another and forget his own interests, albeit in this case for an urgently righteous cause, as Jorge convinces José, who waits for his turn, to intervene in the rape by offering him money. José promptly and enthusiastically uses a fire shovel to bash El Cojo’s skull in. Calm is restored as the Guardia Civil arrive to round up the ratbags. A gentle inward dolly shot of Viridiana the next day, watching Jorge as he resumes his reordering, confirms the inevitable without words, that she’s fallen under Jorge’s spell, and in her room weeps as she casts off the last of her previous identity and, using a cracked fragment of a mirror, refashions her new one, unleashing her blonde hair.

Meanwhile her religious iconography burns up outside, Rita studying the blazing crown of thorns in bewilderment before tossing it on the flames. Viridiana appears at Jorge’s bedroom door, charged with sullen, silently communicated need, only to find him ensconced with Ramona. Jorge, immediately deciding how to handle the quandary as is his wont, proposes they settle down to play cards, noting “All cats are grey by night,” before commenting, as he suggestively takes her hand and uses it to cut the cards, “The first time I saw you I though, ‘Cousin Viridiana and I will finish up shuffling the deck together.’” Perhaps cinema’s greatest dirty joke and fade-out punchline, but again realised with Buñuel signature mixture of economy and attentiveness. Buñuel spares shots to note Ramona’s hesitant fear of rejection and competition and Viridiana’s blank gaze as she ponders the question as to whether this is who she actually is, before moving to a long shot, retreating slightly as if with a sense of decorum whilst peering through an open door, noting the emergent ménage-a-trois simply and calmly getting on with life in the new age.

Standard
1950s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Western

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 in his constant returns to the genre. 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.

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