(Part I: http://kingwenclas.blogspot.com/2013/07/geoffrey-obriens-canyon-leaps.html)
Note the photo accompanying the Geoffrey O'Brien New York Review of Books essay, "Implacable in Texas": http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/jul/11/searchers-implacable-texas/?pagination=false
Actress Natalie Wood is dolled up, Hollywood-style. Which undercuts the reality, just a trifle.
We're not in the real West in "The Searchers." We're inside a Hollywood dreamscape. A gorgeous dreamscape. While "The Searchers" is not the #1 Greatest Western in my new Ebook, ABOUT WESTERN MOVIES (Kindle or Nook), I much prefer it to more contemporary Westerns intent on portraying the West solely as a brutal and unattractive landscape.
The question here is: Why is "The Searchers" so highly ranked by liberal elite film critics?
Part of it is simple herd mentality. A consensus on the film has been reached. Students are told in the academy it's the greatest movie Western. The best academy students are nothing if not obedient. They rise through the educational system by eagerly raising their hands, always giving the expected answer.
Instinctive trend followers like Jonathan Lethem sniff out this consensus. They make their way by presenting what the herd wants to read: confirmations of indoctrinated herd conclusions and ideas. Lethem writes a long essay about his experiences viewing "The Searchers." No judgement given about the movie. None desired. Lethem's essays are about feelings, which invariably are feelings to which other well-placed herd members can relate.
But, there has to be more. "The Searchers" must genuinely touch something real and deep within many of these people. The sensitive Geoffrey O'Briens, if not the opportunistic Jonathan Lethems.
Contrary to what O'Brien claims, what touches them isn't aesthetic unity. "Shane," for instance, has aesthetic unity. It's better as a pure work of art. Even slightly lesser Westerns like Henry King's "The Bravados" and Anthony Mann's "The Far Country" have better artistic unity than does "The Searchers."
Is it then the depiction of racism in "The Searchers" which appeals strongly to the film's advocates? Yes and no. The 1946 Western, "Duel in the Sun," presents a more blatant image of white racism, beginning with the big opening saloon scene, on through the depictions of the characters played by Lionel Barrymore and grinning bad son Gregory Peck. Peck's exploitation of Jennifer Jones's half-breed Pearl, his love-hate feelings toward her-- a mix of contempt and attraction for her-- is melodramatic, yet intense and real. It's also a naked metaphor for larger exploitation.
In "The Searchers" we have white captive Natalie Wood exploited by Indian Chief Henry Brandon. As in "Duel," both actors are Hollywood attractive-- victimizer and victim-- and both are actually white. (Meaning, the actors are white.) What's different is the racial equation: the person victimized.
What notes does the story of "The Searchers" play on intellectuals? Why does this film move them, while "Duel in the Sun" fails?
I don't have an answer. I suspect "The Searchers" presents white liberals' own fears toward the Other. In John Wayne's character Ethan Edwards they're seeing replayed their own attitudes. Their own deeply-buried fear and racism suddenly bubbles up before them on a movie screen. I can see how for them it can be a shocking experience.
It's un-p.c. for me to say it, but didn't this same elite white liberal community project their own fears and racism onto hapless watchman George Zimmerman?
Zimmerman as overzealous cop-wannabe? Likely. Zimmerman as racist?
Zimmerman is a bi-racial man whose past shows anything but racism toward black people. We now know his history-- tutoring black kids; taking a black woman to his prom. Living in a mixed-race environment-- an environment that made him far more experienced, nuanced and real about race relations than the sheltered Ivy League-spawned white-guilt media commentators judging him. The media show we're subjected to is merely the working out of a media-elite psychodrama. The creation of another movie.
It would be much safer for America and race relations if they kept the psychodramas in art house revival movie theaters, via classic Western movies, rather than impose their psychic fears, guilts, and needs upon greater society.