Thursday, July 14, 2005

That'll Be the Day

The Siren has been unable to verify this story, but if it didn't happen, it should have. In the 1960s Martin Scorsese taught a film class at New York University. One week he told the class he would next screen Rear Window, which even then had been out of circulation for years. Imagine the reaction at the film geek Hogwarts that is NYU. Next class, not only was Scorsese's every student in attendance, but also people who had never gone to his class, never registered at the film school, never in fact been seen at NYU before. Scorsese switched off the lights, threatened to flunk anyone who left before the fadeout, and proceeded to show The Searchers, as his audience groaned. In those days, in New York, it was your artistic and political duty to loathe John Wayne. But as the film proceeded, hostility eased, then disappeared.

When the credits came, not a person had left, and they gave it a standing ovation.

The Searchers was my father's favorite movie. Today, Bastille Day 2005, would have been his 72nd birthday. He died in 1991. So the Siren offers a brief post about a masterpiece, because Dad loved every line of this film.

John Ford told Peter Bogdanovich his movie is "the tragedy of a loner." Its most famous sequence shows John Wayne's character of Ethan Edwards alone and apart, until finally a door closes and shuts him off forever from family, home, love. (I always have seen a deliberate echo of that shot in The Godfather Part II, when Al Pacino shuts the door on Diane Keaton as she holds out her arms to embrace her children.) That sense of space that exists in American literature, the hope that you can always "light out for the territories" like Huck Finn, becomes nothing but loneliness.

The Searchers is also one of cinema's most famous and effective parables about racism. Hatred isolates Ethan and drives him to continue his search for the niece captured by Indians. Seething bigotry fuels his worst acts, such as slaughtering buffalo to ensure the Indians spend the winter with empty bellies. It undermines his best impulses, such as when he tries to make Martin Pawley his heir--because his kidnapped niece lives with Comanches, and is therefore tainted.

That is why, for most of The Searchers, Ethan is impossible to truly like, Duke or no Duke. But that is also why his sudden, tender embrace of Natalie Wood has such impact. Francois Truffaut said that shot filled him with love for John Wayne (and Lord knows the Frenchman hated Wayne's politics).

It is a very funny movie at times (Ward Bond: "Boy! watch that knife!") and its laugh lines were the ones my father loved to repeat. But Dad grew up in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. In watching Ethan's hatred drive away the man he wanted for a surrogate son, I think my father saw the way prejudice poisoned Southern life. And in the embrace of a long-lost niece, there was a chance, not for a Hollywood ending--that door still closes at the end--but for some bit of progress. My father learned, Ethan Edwards learned; white Southerners and indeed the rest of the country could learn too. As Ethan would have said, "That'll be the day."


Annie said...

My father is very fond of the Duke and any spaghetti western he can find. He also loves Lee Marvin and war movies.
***a cyber toast to your dad's bday***

Anonymous said...

Gary, the Siren's father and my uncle, also held great affection for the character played by Ken Curtis. In the middle of the fight with Jeff Hunter's character, Curtis calls a halt...because someone's fiddle was about to be destroyed. The fiddle secured, the fight continued. Classic bit of Ford humor. Happy belated birthday, uncle. (-: Chris