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With Hollywood westerns, a little bit of research goes a long way - in my lifetime, I've had more success with this genre of movie than perhaps any other, all because I do a little research before choosing what to watch. "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962) is the twelfth of fourteen collaborative westerns with John Ford and John Wayne (the first and ninth, respectively, being "Stagecoach" (1939) and "The Searchers" (1956)). It is perhaps the most beautiful western I've ever seen. Loaded with famous actors, every single major and minor star outperforms in this deceptively sad meditation upon grief, love, and any of a half-dozen other basic human traits, all attending a costume party in what is most likely mid-19th-century Colorado, and cloaked as a moral dilemma involving the death of another human being. Never have I seen John Wayne play a more important part with less screen time than in this film. Jimmy Stewart is clearly the star - he has to be - but it's Wayne who completes this movie, and who transcends himself in a role so touching that you may feel your eyes moisten in what is one of the most poignant endings of any film I've ever seen. A death itself cannot be considered tragic (everyone who has ever lived, has died), but certain deaths are inherently more tragic than others, and when a piece of history is buried alongside an anonymous hero, lost forever to the earth, and made known only to an audience who desperately wants to jump inside the screen and construct a proper memorial - that cannot be considered a romance, or an action film, or even a western; it can only be classified as a full-blown tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. The next time you and your date are hunting around, looking for a movie to watch, remember this thread: "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" is required viewing for everyone who cares about great film.
Let me address this first: There is overt racism in "The Searchers," manifesting itself the most in the lead character, Ethan Edwards, portrayed by John Wayne. If you can't look past Wayne's hatred of the Comanche nation, you will not enjoy this film - for you to watch "The Searchers," you *must* look at the Comanches as "a bear" (you can pick your own bear, but you absolutely must be able to think of them as, simply, "the bad guy"). If you are able to do that, then you're faced with one of the greatest Westerns I've ever seen in my life. You know, maybe I've gotten lucky, because the first Western I ever saw (which was also the first "M-rated" movie I ever saw), was "Two Mules for Sister Sara," in the movie theater, when it was released in 1970. Since that time, I've seen maybe a couple dozen, most of which have been really good, and the older ones I've seen have *also* been really good because I've gone back in time and cherry-picked. I keep hearing about the tremendous number of awful Westerns there are, and there must be, because there really were a slew of them (for example, one of the actors in The Searchers, William Steele, was in *seventeen* Westerns in the year 1917 alone! These must have been what's referred to as "Western Quickies.") Co-Starring with Wayne is none other than Captain Pike himself: Jeffrey Hunter, and boy does he look young! Keep in mind, this is fully ten years before "The Cage" showed as the pilot of "Star Trek." While Hunter clearly is the second-leading character, this film also co-stars Vera Miles ("Mrs. Bates? Is that you?"), Natalie Wood ("West Side Story" (1961)), and features several other famous-but-not-as-famous actors such as Ward Bond, Natalie's younger sister Lana Wood, Harry Carey, Jr., and Henry Brandon in a well-acted but undeniably cringe-worthy portrayal as Comanche Chief Cicatriz (it's almost as difficult for me to look at Caucasians made up to look like Native Americans as it is seeing Blackface). The plot of this film is leisurely, and makes the movie seem longer than its 119 minutes - it's a genuine epic, complete with hero, voyages, subplots, and adventures along the way. Wayne's character is extremely nuanced and complex - perhaps as much as any other Western lead I've seen, right up there with Clint Eastwood's William Munny in "Unforgiven." There's enough action to satisfy the circle-the-wagon fans, but it all takes a secondary role to moral tension and character development, just as it does in various other John Ford westerns. When people say, "They don't make 'em like they used to," or pine away for "the good ol' days," I believe they're talking directly about - as an example - The Searchers' portrayal of a brutal gang-rape and murder. There's no blood, there's no screaming, there's no woman, there's no rape to be seen, there's no mention of the word "rape," and everything is left up to the viewer's imagination and ability to perform some very basic extrapolation based on Wayne's reaction to what he witnessed. It was - and I can't believe I'm saying this about a gang rape - "beautiful," in that the entire thing is implied (albeit obvious), and to watch such finesse and restraint on the screen is a thing of beauty. Yes, the incident is staying with me, but there will be no graphic images to relive, no horror to lose sleep over, no gore to visualize - just an unspeakably sad event that happened in the film. And believe me, in this age of explicit, graphic violence, this scene stands out to me more than if there were bloody close-ups of a girl being violated - if you see it, you'll understand what I'm talking about. That is but one, five-minute moment in an extensive, complex, winding, two-hour, heroes' journey. The Searchers is a great movie, and has been lauded even more than I would personally laud it. For example, in 1963, the pioneer "Nouvelle Vague" French director, Jean-Luc Godard, went so far as to say the film was the 4th-greatest American talking picture in history. More accolades: Named "The Greatest American Western" by the "American Film Institute" in 2008. Ranked #12 on AFI's "100 Greatest American Movies of All-Time" in 2007. Named "The Best Western" by "Entertainment Weekly." The British Film Institute's "Sight & Sound" magazine ranked it the #7 Film of All-Time in 2012. In 2008, the Cahiers du Cinéma ranked it #10 in their list of the "100 Greatest Films Ever Made." That is some pretty high praise. I'll stop here and leave you with a recommendation to see "The Searchers," along with these postcards: :
Yes to Stagecoach! I love westerns too much to pick a top one, or five, or even ten, but Stagecoach is right up there for me, not Shane. I like elements of the Shane story better in Pale Rider with Clint Eastwood, Carrie Snodgrass, Michael Moriarty, and Sydney Penny. I like the supernatural element in Pale Rider.