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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.
I recently commented on my seemingly non-stop run of good luck with American Westerns, but I've just come across two-in-a-row that I'd say were of the "good-but-not-great" variety: "The Magnificent Seven" and "Firecreek," and this makes me wonder - have I been good at selecting Westerns, or have I simply been selecting movies involving John Ford and Clint Eastwood? One problem I see in "Firecreek" is that there's no strongman (yes, the same can be said about "Shane," but I also didn't like Shane). The lead protagonist is a 70-year-old Jimmy Stewart, and the lead antagonist is a 73-year-old Henry Fonda, neither of whom - even in their physical primes - were particularly imposing. I love both of these actors, but this does conjure up notions of two elderly men shaking their canes at each other in the nursing home. Their age doesn't bother me per se (hell, I'm getting there myself), but we have people being beaten, killed, etc., and there isn't going to be any John Wayne riding into town to save the day. Still, the mere thought of Stewart and Fonda being together in the same picture is enough to give me optimism. Two out of the five bad guys played important roles on "Star Trek" episodes, and it's hard to get their Trek portrayals out of my head: Gary Lockwood ("Where No Man Has Gone Before") and Morgan Woodward ("Dagger of the Mind"): Halfway into the movie, I retract what I said about Stewart and Fonda - the primary antagonist has been Gary Lockwood (by a long-shot), and Henry Fonda has been wounded, and barely even noticeable in the film - so far, this is a classic "Wild One"- or "Born Losers"-type film about a gang coming into town (sometimes on motorcycles, sometimes on horses), and making trouble for otherwise-peaceful people who did nothing to ask for it. I'm pretty sure there's going to be something bad that happens, since there's so much movie left, and Jimmy Stewart seems like the one who may rise to the occasion, overcoming his normally gentle nature (refer to "Straw Dogs"). I'm liking "Firecreek" more than I thought I might - it's not a great film, but it does follow a classic model, and so far, is doing it pretty well. *** SPOILERS ALERT *** Uh, yeah ... something bad happened: Bad guys and whisky don't mix, and they were hammered when I wrote that last paragraph. Man, this "wake" the antagonists have is like something out of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (and I'm talking about the "family dinner" scene) - this is pretty creepy stuff while not completely going over the top. In many ways, this is what I would term a "small film" - a movie that deals with relatively minor issues on a less-than-grand scale. Not a boring, period piece, but just relatively compact in overall size. With that said, the music - scored by the well-known Alfred Newman - is arguably more ambitious than the movie. There are times when you notice the music, but shouldn't, and I'll go far enough to say that in a couple of spots, it's a bit maudlin - when a film's music is in balance, you don't really notice it, but there are a couple of times in Firecreek when you do, and I wish Newman had toned it down maybe just ten percent. The music is good, mind you, but it can be just a touch too amped up for the situation. One example is when Stewart leaves his wife (who is in false labor) and rides back into town - that whole scene is a little too dramatized, aurally, and would be better served by a more pensive score. (Of course, that dramatic music could indicate that something is about to, ahem, happen.) Oh my goodness, my "Straw Dogs" comment isn't all that far off. I don't read critics' reviews until after I finish watching films. I don't care what anyone says - of the previous two Westerns I've seen, neither "The Magnificent Seven" nor "Firecreek" are great, but both are good, and "Firecreek" is the better of the two. [I've now read what scant reviews are out there.] "The Magnificent Seven" is wildly overrated; "Firecreek" is slightly underrated.
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: :