Wednesday, July 9, 2014

SMOAT Double-Features #1!!! (The Searchers/The Hidden Fortress)

Summer is well underway and you know what that means: the return of SMOAT (Summer Movies on a Train), wherein I work my way through the blockbusters, exploitation flicks, and other cinematic brain candy that has been accumulating on my Netflix queue. When I looked at the movies I had tossed on the to-watch list I realized I had so many to choose from that I would barely make a dent if I limited myself to one movie per week. So, as is my wont, I started organizing the flicks as best I could into pairs, based on thematic similarities, general categories, release years (or at least release decades) &c., so I could watch them in back-to-back twosomes. If all goes according to plan I should be able to post a twofer review every week. So let the summer of double features begin!

My first installment actually came into its final form by accident. I decided that before I embarking on my annual catch-up on popcorn entertainment I would just cross off one more of the big canonical classics: John Ford's The Searchers. Not only is that movie on the 1001 Master List, it's on the Sight & Sound poll, and in the top ten of that elite ranking as well. Plus it's considered a masterpiece of the western genre, and given my recent far-ranging surveys of all things cowboy, from the archetypal to the unusual (my obsession with Stephen King's Gunslinger, and my enjoyment of this movie, and this one, and this one, not to mention my own contributions to How the West Was Weird, still available for Kindle!) I knew I'd have to get around to it sooner or later. So why not make that happen, and do my cinephile homework before blowing off the summer.

So I was watching The Searchers and (spoilers for a movie that came out in 1956 and really this is just part of the set-up everybody knows about who's even heard of the movie) get to the part where Ethan and Martin return to the Edwards homestead only to find the family's house and the outbuildings aflame, as the Comanche have already come and laid waste and gone. And the framing of the shot, and the streaming columns of black smoke, immediately triggered two words in my mind: STAR WARS.

Have you guys heard about the annotated Star Wars video that made the rounds on teh interwebs last month? I haven't gotten around to watching it myself, I confess (because I can't take two hours of streaming video on the train, mostly). But basically some guy took the entire running length of Star Wars and intercut it with clips from earlier movies which were heavy influences and inspirations for George Lucas. When I noticed the parallels between that moment in The Searchers and the scene in Star Wars where Luke gets back to the Lars moisture farm and finds it burning after the Stormtroopers have attacked, I wondered if the annotated Star Wars video included that particular homage. Which of course it did, and in fact when I went to check that one section of the video I discovered that the Searchers references actually start a scene or two earlier (The Searchers is cut into the Star Wars video at 43:44, if you're curious), where Obi-wan Kenobi's analysis of who attacked the jawas using what telltale methods and for what purpose is lifted from Ethan's almost identical recognition of a Comanche spear and deduction of where the Comanche will attack next.

OK, all well and good with the Star Wars connection, and unsurprising really since The Searchers has a reputation as one of the most widely influential films of all time. What was a little more surprising to me was the fact that The Searchers is a bit underwhelming if you go into it expecting a transcendent film. Parts of it are great, and parts of it are ... less so. One could go down just about every category of filmmaking and find one element in each category in The Searchers which was good, and another which fell short. John Wayne delivers an excellent performance as Ethan Edwards, as does Ward Bond as the Reverend Captain Samuel Johnson Clayton. The rest of the acting in the movie is middling at best, stiff and stilted. (I wonder sometimes if we as a modern culture have a sense of people who lived a hundred or more years ago as being overly formal and unexpressive because we watch period pieces made by old Hollywood studios and mistake the wooden-faced acting as historical authenticity.) Some of the cinematography is breathtaking, particularly the exteriors, mostly due to the inherent grandeur of Monument Valley.

But those shots only serve to make the soundstage-bound setpieces look all the more fake and cheesy. A major component of the overarching plot is Martin's love life, but Martin is pretty much written as a clueless doofus, so the impulse to care what happens to him is minimized. There are parts of the movie which are genuinely, intentionally funny, and other parts which are unintentionally funny, and still more that are intended to be funny but fall flat. Case in point, when Martin accidentally marries a young Native American girl when he thinks he's merely trading goods with her father. As culturally insensitive as that may be, the fact that it is revealed to be a minor mishap resolved by the young bride being killed shortly thereafter, clearing the way once again for Martin's major romantic subplot, is fairly horrifying.

Probably the aspect of The Searchers which has aged the worst is the racism. White European actors in redface playing Native Americans are always going to be problematic, as is casting an entire ethnic group as the villains with no nuance and no shades of gray. Ostensibly the story is about how one man hates the Comanche so much that he devotes years of his life to hunting for the niece (asterisk, see below) that was kidnapped by them, without ever denying that he is out for bloody revenge on the Comanche for slaughtering his niece's family just as much as he is seeking her safe return. It all culminates in Ethan being forced to decide if he will kill his own niece for having inevitably gone native with the tribe, or if he will "forgive" her and take her home regardless. There's something of an interesting story to tell there about vengeance and victimization and the lines a man will cross, but notice there's no third possibility of letting little Debbie stay with the Comanche, or any consideration of the Comanche as anything other than evil and wrong for defending their ancestral home from expansionist settlers. Only the white girl's life matters, as the Comanche kill like wild animals and are slaughtered the same way.

So, again, as a time capsule of the unenlightened attitudes of a (mostly) bygone era, The Searchers is worth preserving. And if you can swallow all the tropes of the western, including Native Americans being given no respect or definition beyond serving as wild antagonists along the lines of, say, the Tusken Raiders of Tatooine, then it's not a bad western, at that. Certainly it's a pretty one, at times a funny one, and particularly in the climax an emotionally driven one. But I'm not entirely convinced it's a top echelon all-time history-of-all-movies world-beater.

(Asterisk: so I found out via some research that there's a theory that Debbie is actually Ethan's daughter, not his niece, as the product of an illicit affair between Ethan and his brother's wife. I admit I find this subtext fits pretty well with the text of the movie as it plays out, with certain clues reinforcing it and nothing really contradicting it or needing to be handwaved away. It does make the kill-or-forgive conundrum that much more visceral. And I'm impressed that a director would include something like that in a movie in the mid-50's and not explicitly nod at it in any way, demonstrating a certain subtlety and restraint I don't really give many filmmakers from that era credit for.)

My original plan was to start my double features by watching Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, which every geek worth his Cheetos-dust knows is a big precursor to Star Wars, and then move on to the volume 1 dvd of Cartoon Network's Clone Wars ongoing series as the back half. (That dvd has been gathering dust on my shelf since my sister very thoughtfully got it for me for Christmas years ago, and I simply have never found time to start watching it. As per usual, mostly I blame Smallville.) However, once I tumbled to the fact that The Searchers was a Star Wars influence as well, The Hidden Fortress became the back half of my Star Wars Forerunners double feature.

As I say, it's fairly common knowledge that a lot of Star Wars comes from Hidden Fortress: two hapless peasant servants who don't really belong on an epic adventure (R2D2 and C3PO in the former; Tahei and Matashichi in the latter), a princess who simultaneously needs to eb rescued and also kicks a lot of ass on her own (Leia Organa; Yuki Akizuki), and a warrior general traveling incognito (Ben Kenobi; Makabe Rokurōta). But before we go any further down that road, can I just point out one other amazing connection to my childhood I was previously unaware of? OK, so in some later line-ups of the Superfriends cartoon there was a character called Samurai, only he didn't look anything like a samurai. A samurai has the big bulky armor and the crazy helmet, and the Samurai hanging around the Hall of Justice dressed like this:

I didn't get that at all as a kid, or even as an adult, until I watched The Hidden Fortress, where Rokurōta (played by the legendary Toshiro Mifune) is referred to as a famous samurai and basically looks exactly like Samurai from Superfriends. Mifune's a little swarthier, and the film's in black and white, but nonetheless: same hair, same beard, same outfit. (No whirlwind powers, though, alas.)

Anyway, back to the film itself. There are several Kurosawa films on the 1001 Master List, but Hidden Fortress is not one of them. And it's not that hard to see why. It's long, it's meandering, it comes across like a children's adventure story or fairy tale (not coincidentally, much like Star Wars, at that). It's a perfectly serviceable movie, and entertaining; I'm honestly not sure if Kurosawa was capable of making a truly bad movie. It's just not mandatory viewing.

Parts of it arguably rise to the compulsory level, though. Specifically, there's a scene where Rokurōta challenges the enemy commander to a duel. The commander agrees and allows Rokurōta to choose a spear from among all of the assembled soldiers in the garrison. This leads to a long wordless sequence wherein Rokurōta walks around the inside of a circle of men, taking a spear, testing it, finding it wanting, giving it back, over and over. The tension for the duel slowly builds. Ultimately there's an overhead shot of the ring of soldiers and Rokurōta in the middle. He starts taking bigger test swings with the spear. Every time he does, the entire ring of soldiers reacts as one, and backs up a little more, expanding the battlefield. This scene is phenomenal. Watching it I felt not unlike this adolescent Onion op-ed author, discovering Bruce Lee for the first time.

So for aficionados of badassdom, Hidden Fortress merits a strong recommendation. much the same way aficionados of westerns owe it to themselves to take in The Searchers. Everything in the arts and pop culture builds on everything before it, and those two are both large pillars in the firmament. Star Wars barely scratches the surface of testaments to that.

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