Originally published in Sydney University Film Group Bulletin vol. 4, no. 3, Second Term 1966, pp. 61-63. Republished with the permission of the author.
For most film commentators the only “respectable” varieties of the Western are the intellectually stimulating problem type (High Noon, Broken Arrow, The Fastest Gun Alive, The Tin Star), perhaps the occasional pretentious fantasy (The Big Country, The Magnificent Seven, One-Eyed Jacks), and John Ford’s visually splendid, sentimentally indulgent “pastorals” (For Apache, Wagon Master, Rio Grande, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, etc.).
Not as mellow as some, but as handsome as any, is The Searchers. Filmed in Ford country, it had most of the Ford team – Hoch, Basevi, Murray, Nugent, Cooper – working on it, and many of the Ford company of players. Ford’s characteristic preoccupation with certain attitudes is again evident: paternal hero supremacy – embodied in the John Wayne juggernaut of ruthless determination and persistence, turning the world to his will: the assurance and authority assumed by right of mastering a hostile country: and the celebration of these qualities in the splendid stirring vistas of the country itself (and the thumping music). These shots function not only as information about the people and their milieu, but as affirmations of formal beauty, and – by association – of the challenge and participation they evoke in the characters.
The action of The Searchers covers many years in the search of a monumental Westerner, his nephew and companion, for his niece taken as a child by Indians. The country they traverse is as much a participant in Ford’s film as any of the characters. The old master attunes the aesthetic properties of his images to this uncomplicated but diffuse chronicle of dedication and persistence. His images, their design, portent and kinetic variation, are the stuff of his art. John Wayne is limned against the lines of mighty tors, a leathery indomitable driving giant, his implacable personality itself an expression of the search.
Seen this way, it is not just one more look at Big John showing what he can do, but Big John being used as a means of expression, as a vision, not a drama. The events themselves – all 120 minutes of them – need to be seen this way, as non-literary elements. (We could get nearer the stuff of this cinema if we compared his performance with Nureyev rather than Olivier). The Searchers has only rudimentary dramatic development.
For those who partake only of its visuals, the harsh country has beauty and symbolic emotion, with only a conceptual appreciation of its other realities. This sets the key for Ford’s “pastorals”. The appeal which this country has, which Ford’s sensitivity responds to and finds such strength of expression in, gives the clue to his great limitation.
Ford’s simpatico society has its warriors – the driving heroes who project so well against the background which challenges their will to dominate. It has also its civilians – the domesticated fallers by the wayside whose suffering is viewed with a harsh human eye, but whose joys are grossly sentimentalised. Calmness comes naturally in facing danger, in the terse girding for action, but tenderness comes rarely, and by chance. It is lost in nostalgic cliché or boisterous sublimation (beatings, carousings, etc.).
It may not be shown as what it is; Ford’s way must have its formal embellishment – a majestic silhouette, a stylish mannerism, a heavy prettiness. And when the sentiments conveyed are not especially touching to begin with, the result can be characteristically overplayed by all involved.
It is important to see this for its part in the whole. On the grand comprehensive humanist view, it’s a failing of sympathy or insight. But it’s not a failing of imagination – a limitation, it is. There remains a constant aesthetic relationship between Ford’s range of sensitivity and his powers of observation. The resultant troughs in the story progression between intervals and resumptions of the search correspond reasonably well to a subjective impression of the passing of the years. The image of the final return (obvious in design though it is), and the words with which the end of the search is announced, are marvellous achievements of composition and timing.
Buchanan Rides Alone
Although the myth figure projected by John Wayne is more dramatically robust and flexible, Randolph Scott is far more an “aesthetic object”. The craggy, weathered contours of the mature Scott visage and the straight, effortless carriage constitute a fine objective correlative of endurance and composure.
The implication of the differences between the myth figure is significant. Where the Wayne figure stands above, the Scott figure stands apart. Where Wayne smashes and bestrides, Scott neutralises and stands firm. The qualities embodied in the mature Scott were sufficient to accommodate humourless cavalry officers and dedicated lawmen, and he appeared in some of the earliest problem Westerns (The Bounty Hunter, Riding Shotgun).
But it was in some of his own productions in the fifties, especially those directed by Budd Boetticher and scripted by Burt Kennedy, that there was achieved a remarkable unity of tone and subtlety of variation on the themes of the romantic wanderer, dominant and inadequate types of delinquent personality, and their affinities and inter-dependence.
Seven Men From Now, Decision at Sundown, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station. These are, for me, the most satisfactory body of films produced in the Western genre; yet they are almost totally ignored by critics, and what comments are made are hopelessly unperceptive.
The themes were there, and the framework of conventional limitations, and the values were given recurring expression in an austere, distinctive style.
It is a distinctive style, not without its lapses and exceptions, but notably sparing of violence and splendour, of the sympathy of place and custom, and of the supremacy complex – on one hand (i.e., all the pictorial, dynamic and sentimental qualities which constitute the vintage Ford’s appeal), and on the other hand, the spelled-out problem (the intellectual appeal of the “serious” Western – with issues).
An enveloping situation sets personalities in gradual confrontation; moral values are lived out, never argued out; strength entails obligation rather than gratification; and a tarnished mirror is held up to the traditional identification figure of the self-as-stranger, allowing only fitful gleams of the old romanticised image.
By the mythical theme, the hero, self-sufficient, uncommitted, acts as a social catalyst. He rides into some symptomatic closed society of naked power struggles, is drawn into conflict with the forces of corruption and oppression, stands firm, prevails, and rides out, himself unchanged but leaving society transformed, if not wholly cleansed.
In Buchanan Rides Alone an allegorical view of society’s power struggles is presented with an ideal individualist solution. Charles Lang’s screenplay is not completely successful in knitting together the mythical theme and the allegorical model. Absent are the firmly controlled harmonics of personal and moral tensions which characterise the Kennedy scripts.
In the opening passages all the essential elements are introduced and their respective powers asserted. Interposed between this and the richly satisfying climax is some routine B-class fiddling which muddles development and slackens interest. (Still, without it the film wouldn’t be an hour long, and if there’s one thing the trade and the critics agree on its the negligible status of films of less than feature length).
The adventurer from Texas (as he is titled in the French version) encounters in the sympathetic town of Agry the three progressive levels of law-abiding corruption, personified by the Agry brothers. First Amos, who has a monopoly on goods and services and brazenly overcharges: a slightly ridiculous petty crook, he represents commercial meanness and cheating.
Then, in increasing degrees of sophistication and efficiency in corruption: Lew, bully and extortionist, who is the official law enforcer; and Simon, the legislator, radiant figure of prestige, mouthing public morality and never getting his hands dirty. By his side (at the risk of pushing the allegory too far) stalks the figure of the incipient bureaucrat, the soberly garbed and thorough lieutenant, Carbo, incalculably poised between loyalty and opportunism, quietly confident in his stored power – as yet unacknowledged.
The whole underplayed, unadorned tone of the film is nicely balanced by the grotesque blundering comical-would-be-vicious figure of Amos (Peter Whitney in a marvellous performance). The more immediate rewards of satire are not attempted, and the respective brutality and deviousness of Lew and Simon recede more appropriately into the flattened perspectives of allegory. (This stylistic consideration should answer unfavourable comparison of the barroom court with that in Wyler’s neglected masterpiece, The Westerner, in which a relaxed, indulgent style permitted more latitude.) Craig Stevens’ Carbo is – again fittingly – little more than a controlled stylistic abstraction. Regrettably, some of the supporting performances and appearances are not very substantial.
Buchanan engages with the three brothers in quick succession. No demigod (only the tiredly amused nonchalance is assuring of heroic invincibility), he manipulates rather than dominates.
In a foreshortened, accelerating climax, all the contending elements are compacted into multiple collision. In a rightly satisfying final set piece, the allegorical factors are complemented in the physical development of the characters, with loot and bodies scattered across the town entrance. Buchanan, having achieved as much as historical development will allow determined individuals in vanquishing the traditional forces of oppression, hands over the captive society to the erstwhile servant who stood by at the mutual destruction of his former masters. “It’s your town now, Mr. Carbo, and you’re welcome to it”.
The adventurer rides off toward Texas, the bumbling petty crook hovers about the scene of carnage. As the film ends, the new master, surveying the wreckage of the old order, sounds a fitting note of conclusion: “Don’t just stand there, Amos – get a shovel”.