film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Searchers (1956)

5 Reasons Why “The Searchers” is the Best American Western Movie of All  Time | Taste Of Cinema - Movie Reviews and Classic Movie Lists

I grew up in the 1970s, when a lot of the stars from Hollywood’s mid-20th Century Golden Era were fading gently into retirement or has-been status. What this meant, though, is that they were often guests on late-night talk shows or sometimes the butt of stand-up comics. And what that means is that even though I’ve never seen a John Wayne movie before this project, I’ve still had a lifelong impression of “John Wayne” in my head; it’s just that I get it from seeing Rich Little and Robin Williams’ John Wayne impressions instead of actually seeing John Wayne. Wayne is definitely not alone in this – but he is turning out to be the one whose preconception has been hardest for me to shake.

At least, I wasn’t able to shake it with The Searchers. But in my defense, John Wayne seems to be at his John-Wayniest here – the gruff, grouchy cowboy on a mission, speaking in a drawl and more prone to shooting first and asking questions later. In The Searchers, he’s also just plain mean – a former Confederate soldier named Ethan Edwards, now living as somewhat of a drifter and turning up at his brother’s place in West Texas for a rare visit. He slips his brother some gold coins in both Union and Confederate origin, urging secrecy and implying they’re probably stolen. His favorite niece, 8-year-old Debbie, gets a fancy medal from a Mexican military campaign. Debbie’s adopted brother Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) gets contempt, however – Martin was a foundling Ethan’s brother took in, but there was a strong possibility that Martin was part Comanche. And if there’s anything Ethan doesn’t like, it’s Comanches. (….After watching a couple early scenes of Ethan dismissively calling Martin “Half-Breed”, I turned to Roommate Russ – who’s seen the film before – and asked “…so he’s a douche, right?”)

12 The Searchers (1956)

Ethan’s grudge against the Comanche is heightened when a Comanche war party draws the men in his brother’s community out of town long enough that they can raid their unprotected homes. The men realize what’s going on and race back – but it’s too late for Ethan’s family, and he and Martin discover the entire house has been burned and everyone killed. ….Well, almost everyone – there’s evidence Debbie has been kidnapped instead. Ethan sets out in pursuit – reluctantly allowing Martin to come along and help. Martin bids a quick farewell first to his girlfriend Laurie (Vera Miles), the daughter of a neighbor, telling her he won’t be gone long. But Martin’s wrong – the search takes them five years, making it far more likely that by the time they find her, Debbie will have effectively been raised Comanche and may not want to come home. But that just makes Ethan all the more determined to find her – so he can kill her, since “livin’ with Comanches ain’t being alive”. And that makes Martin all the more determined to tag along so he can save Debbie from Ethan at the last minute.

The Searchers: my most overrated film | Film | The Guardian

This search and its various twists and turns, and the test of wills between Martin and Ethan, are the bulk of the action. Ethan and Martin roam across what feels like much of the Southwest (although it all looks like Monument Valley) tracking down each and every last lead – a reported sighting from a duplicitous trader to the north, reports of a group of rescued teenagers at a fort in the south, even a side trip into New Mexico where they get their first glimpse of a teenage Debbie (Natalie Wood) now living as one of her captor’s wives. Ethan’s grudge against the Comanche gets uglier every day – in one scene, after the pair stock up on their food by shooting a buffalo, Ethan reloads his gun and shoots down more and more buffalo from the herd, snarling that “now they won’t feed any Comanche this winter.”

013-Debbie-Cowering-In-Cave-The-Searchers-1956

While there’s a bit of a redemption for Ethan at the end, he was just pretty darn unlikeable, and I never really warmed to him enough to get over that John-Wayne template I had in my head and see Ethan as anything other than a caricature. I was far more drawn to the smaller peripheral characters – Martin, determined to stick around as the angel on Ethan’s shoulder, or the feisty Laurie, frustrated at Martin’s long absence (especially when he only writes her one letter in five years). Or Mose (Hank Warden), a somewhat addled older man who can tell the pair where Debbie is – but insists to Ethan that “I don’t wanna tell you!” before blowing a raspberry (I think Ethan deserved that). Even Lt. Greenhill, an ineffectual U.S. Cavalry leader who turns up to “help” towards the end, was an engaging character despite obviously being intended as comic relief.

On John Wayne, Cancel Culture, and the Art of Problematic Artists |  Literary Hub

It was these other characters who saved the film for me, along with the traditionally-gorgeous John Ford cinematography and a script with more nuance than my John-Wayne-caricature dread was expecting. Or perhaps it’s the flip side, and John Wayne was the only bit I didn’t like; his performance was fine, it just included all of the elements that fed those caricatures I saw as a child. It’s a shame – there are many who consider this to be Wayne’s finest role. But I may simply have been born too late to see it for what it was.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Forbidden Planet (1956)

DISTANT FUTURE MONTH #6: Forbidden Planet, by Fred M. Wilcox (1956) —  SEVENCUT

I have a bit of a soft spot for the so-bad-it’s-good kind of B films that started coming out in the 1950s. Most of them were sci-fi films, with cheesy special effects, square-jawed leading men, mini-skirted women, rubber-suited monsters and a sinister robot or two, usually scored by a theramin- or moog-synthesizer-laced soundtrack. Forbidden Planet gave me all those trappings, but also a bit more of a meaty script than I was expecting.

There’s a theory that this script was actually inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but I think the plot similarities are more coincidental than intentional. A very young Leslie Nielson is Commander Adams of the starship C-57D, sent to the distant planet of Altair IV to investigate what happened to an earlier expedition. Adams and his crew are expecting to find only wreckage – Earth has heard nothing from them in 20 years – but as they orbit, they receive a surprising message from a survivor, Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), who warns them not to land. Commander Adams has his orders, though, and lands anyway.

Forbidden Planet - Film | Park Circus

At first, Morbius’ warning seems unnecessary. He’s not dangerous, just a recluse; he’s made a mighty nice life for himself, living in a tastefully decorated mid-Century home on Altair IV with his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) and waited on by a faithful robot, Robbie (Frankie Darro, voiced by Marvin Miller). Over a civilized lunch (prepared by Robbie, with an early form of the Star Trek replicator) Morbius gives Adams a bit more of the backstory; the rest of his shipmates all died mysteriously, half attacked by some unknown assailant and the rest dying when their ship blew up during an escape attempt. Morbius had stayed behind with his wife and young daughter, and was the sole survivor. The assailant left his family alone after that, he says, and aside from his wife dying of natural causes some years back he and Altaira had lived peacefully ever since; but the beastie might come back, so Commander Adams really ought to be leaving soon, please. He and Altaira were fine where they were.

Another One of Them New Worlds: Revisiting Forbidden Planet | Tor.com

Commander Adams is still a little dubious, and says he just needs to radio Earth to explain the situation and get updated orders; a process that would take a few days while his crew hacks together a radio strong enough. This gives a couple others in the crew time to put the moves on the nubile and naive Altaira, the ship’s cook time to discover Robbie can whip him up 60 gallons of Jack Daniels, and Adams time to discover what Morbius has been doing for 20 years – excavating and researching the relics of a long-vanished, staggeringly advanced civilization of beings called the Krell. It’s also enough time for that same mysterious attacker to come back – first attacking the radio, then some members of Adams’ crew. At first Adams suspects the Krell technology is somehow responsible – but soon discovers that Morbius has more to do with the assailant than even he himself is aware.

TCM 31 Days of Oscar – Forbidden Planet – Michelle, Books and Movies Addict

There are bits of this film that are very much of their time. At one point, when Adams discovers one of his crewmen making out with Altaira, he sends the man away – and then lectures Altaira on how she’s dressed, saying it would have “served her right” if she’d been….well, it was the Hays code so he leaves that unfinished. Altaira has no idea what he’s talking about, but still has Robbie fashion her a more modest gown so she can please Adams (on whom she has a crush because….well, because it’s in the script I guess).

On the other hand, the ultimate reveal about the mysterious monster is pretty clever, and even a little thought-provoking. The reveal of the monster is a tiny bit hokey – we do finally see something, briefly depicted using some modest animation during a fight scene – but there’s more to it than its looks. The film also set me up to have either Robbie go rogue or Morbius go evil – there’s a lengthy sequence when he is leading Adams and a shipmate further and further into a Krell fortress, and each time he showed them into another room I expected him to shut the door on them and trap them, or shoot them into space or zap them with something. But Morbius isn’t a mad scientist – he’s just a scientist.

Forbidden Planet Movie Review

In essence, then, I went into this thinking I was getting an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and ended up with The Twilight Zone instead.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Ten Commandments (1956)

What Cecil B. DeMille's “The Ten Commandments” taught my family on Movie  Night

There is another 1001-movies blogger I’m an occasional pen-pal with, down in Miami. He’s about 15-20 films ahead of me, and has reviewed Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments already; I reread it in advance of my own review here, and there’s a phrase he uses that sums up my perspective on this film going in: “this movie has played its role in history and I’m only here to look at it.”

It’s rather a meal of a film, let’s be honest. It’s nearly four hours long, it’s enormously ambitious in its look and approach, it’s got some of the most iconic images in film history, and it’s an interpretation of one of the major founding stories for one of the major world religions. (Speaking of which: I think we can dispense with my usual bare-bones plot sum-up.) Personally, it’s also something that remember growing up and seeing on TV as a special broadcast every Easter. There are some bits I remembered from when I casually watched as a child (and had much the same reaction), but this is the first time I consciously remember watching the whole thing all the way through. I was bracing myself, wondering whether I’d have more of an appreciation for it or if it would feel like a bit of a slog.

The Ten Commandments – 1956 DeMille - The Cinema Archives

And….I feel much as I did as a kid. There are some bits that were creatively impressive, some special effects that I could tell were quite advanced, and some moments from some performances that were cute and clever. But most of it had an air of red-blooded, corn-fed American earnestness, this…50’s-ness which, then as now, repelled me. The most vivid memory I have of any of those early viewings was a moment when Moses (Charlton Heston) has been initially exiled from Egypt and is first taken in by the Bedouin shepherd Jethro (Edouard Franz) and his daughters, and is being tended to by Jethro and eldest daughter Sephora (Yvonne De Carlo). After a bit of talk about where Moses has come from, who Jethro is and what the land is like, and who Sephora is, Moses takes it all in for a moment, and then gazes into the middle distance and intones, “I shall dwell in this land.” On the screen, Jethro and Sephora give each other a significant look – but ten-year-old me in front of the TV just scrunched up her face and thought, “who the heck talks like that?”

When Priests and Prelates Dance Around the Golden Calf - Crisis Magazine

There are a handful of other moments like that, which I completely understand DeMille couldn’t resist throwing in – but which ring corny and staged with me. The dippy sight gag of a bunch of kids trying to coax a stubborn mule into moving during the big Exit From Egypt scene. Or Moses’ mother Bithiah (Nina Foch), who’s thrown her lot in with the Hebrews, stopping to offer a ride to an elderly man during the Exodus – and the whole scene grinding to a halt so he can whisper out some vaguely Biblical quote about how he’s been “poured out into the ground like water”. Or how the carousing the Israelites do around the golden calf was just this shy of vaguely naughty – lots of waving-arms dancing done by women in artfully draped tunics, laughing men cheerfully raising goblets, maybe a man catching a woman around the waist before she playfully scoots away – a lot of movement, but nothing really happening that would offend anyone.

MOSES & THE BURNING BUSH SCENE | GRACE PARADISE

I grant that this is very much a personal reaction, though, and empirically I can respect the skill involved here. I’m actually surprised not to remember the burning-bush sequence, because the look of that struck me most this time; DeMille chose not to somehow recreate a bush that was literally “burning”, so there are no super-imposed flames or strategically-located fires around the bush. Instead, it’s depicted as being surrounded by a kaleidoscopic orb of rippling light – something that a prehistoric Bedouin would absolutely interpret as “burning”, but different enough that you know that something altogether different is going on. The carving of the Ten Commandments is a bit more conventionally dramatic, with curling shafts of lighting engraving the writing into the side of a cliff; other special-effects marvels, like the Parting of the Red Sea or the Plagues (we only see about four) are also more literal-minded (albeit still special-effects marvels). The Burning Bush was something that surprised me both on a technical and emotional level.

The epic movie "The Ten Commandments", directed by Cecil B. DeMille....  News Photo - Getty Images

And, I mean, the performances are fine. I really liked the relationship between the Pharaoh Seti (Ian Keith), Moses’ adoptive sort-of-father, and Nefretiri (Anne Baxter), the princess who’s hot for Moses but has been promised to whoever will be the next pharaoh. While Moses and his adoptive brother Rameses (Yul Brynner) keep trying to outdo each other and impress Seti, that leaves Nefretiri and Seti to bond; there’s a whole little thing going on with them, with shared in-jokes, quips and asides, and even an ongoing board game rivalry. It’s relaxed alongside Moses’ pompous intonations or Rameses’ posturing. I missed Seti when he died – partly because he seemed more fleshed-out, but also partly because this meant more of Moses and Rameses and I wasn’t interested in that.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956). ⋆ Historian Alan Royle

Surprisingly, this wasn’t DeMille’s first outing with the Ten Commandments. He also made a silent adaptation nearly 30 years earlier; that version pairs a much shorter retelling of Moses’ story with a contemporary tale, depicting four different peoples’ attempts to follow God’s law. DeMille seemed determined to connect the dots for audiences, driving home the relevance of the story to the present – and did so with this version as well. There is a prologue address by Cecil B. DeMille himself, during which he speaks of some of the source material used for the script – but also implies the tale has some contemporary parallels. “Are men the property of the state,” he asks, “or are they free souls under God?….This same battle continues in the world today.” No doubt DeMille is referring to the then-new rivalry between the United States and Communist-controlled USSR, suggesting that the Soviets are no better than the cruel Rameses and that us God-fearing Americans are in the right.

Ultimately, I think that this is what I was picking up on as a child – DeMille was so determined to Seem Relevant that his tale verged into preaching, and I’ve always been able to pick up on that. It’s gorgeous and technically innovative, but it’s still preaching instead of simply storytelling.