I haven't seen the new Special Edition DVD of John Ford's 1956 Western The Searchers, which is just out today, and I suppose I really should, for the upgraded picture and sound alone. But I doubt that anything will change my opinion that this is one of the most overrated movies ever made.
The Searchers is much beloved by film critics and filmmakers alike. Sergio Leone patterned a scene in Once Upon A Time In The West (which is a masterpiece) after a famous scene from this, Martin Scorsese claimed Taxi Driver (again, one of my favorites) is a partial remake, and directors as varied as John Carpenter, George Lucas and Paul Schrader have cited it as a major influence.
It's easy enough to see what impressed them. Certainly individual sequences are astonishing, thrillingly realized by Ford, and John Wayne's deeply felt performance as man haunted by a past we only learn of in fragments is a thing of real beauty. The movie's supporters claim Wayne's troubled character, and Ford's somewhat ambiguous treatment of him, make The Searchers a movie about the nature of racism.
I say it's just a racist movie. The story involves outsider Wayne's attempts to reconnect with his family, and how the reconciliation is shattered when a group of rogue Commanches attack the homestead, killing many and kidnapping the two youngest daughters. A posse is formed, time drags on, and most of the men turn back. Eventually it's only Wayne and one companion, played stiffly by pretty boy Jeffrey Hunter, still on the trail.
Already we're on shaky ground here. Wayne's sociopathic hatred of Native Americans is, admittedly, presented as a disturbing character trait. But the movie takes the Commanche's bloodlust as a given. They kill because, well, they're Indians. Many critics have claimed Ford gives proper due to the Indians, but this is pure hogwash.
The lowpoint comes when Hunter's character somehow acquires an Apache bride. (Don't ask.) This woman's pathetic pleadings for affection from her new husband are played for laughs, and in one of the ugliest scenes I know of in any movie, Hunter finally responds by kicking her. Hard. Down a hill.
And it's supposed to be funny.
There's a lot to find fault with in The Searchers. There is sloppy direction of extras, a lot of mismatched shots, and some painfully unconvincing sets. There's an overly sentimental score and an overly-glossy Hollywood look. These are flaws, yes, but maybe, maybe I could overlook them.
But when a movie asks you to laugh at a minority woman being brutalized, it's pretty much crossed a line. Ford means for us to find this hilarious because, hey, who could take her feelings seriously, anyway? She's subhuman, right?
At that point any claims of the true believers that The Searchers is an indictment of racism just vanish. And any objective opinion I may try to have about it vanishes, too.