The Searchers and the Myth of Perfection

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It’s been in vogue for critics to snipe at John Ford for a long time, from David Thomson to Quentin Tarantino.  I even took shots at him when I was studying film in high school and disbelieved in anything sentimental.  This all changed when I saw The Searchers for the first time, between my sophomore and junior year.  I was resisting it throughout much of its running time: the scenes with the Indian bride are in bad taste (and just not funny), Jeffrey Hunter isn’t much of an actor, the supporting characters can be cloying, etc.  I was ready to write the movie off until the final shot of John Wayne standing in the door, letting his niece Debbie and Martin “Blankethead” Pawley go into the house, realizing he can’t be with them, and walking away for the last time.  It’s the cinematic equivalent of Moses looking out at the Promised Land and realizing he can’t enter – and all of a sudden, all my criticisms of the film became insignificant.

The Searchers has long been regarded as John Ford’s masterpiece, but lately, it’s been taking its fair share of criticism.  Most of these have come from curmudgeons who live to tell you why that thing you like isn’t good.  Ford-basher-in-residence Jeff Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere loves to rerun an old column from time to time about how The Searchers drives him crazy.  More to the point, Joe Queenan recently leveled charges of mediocrity at not only The Searchers (for most of the reasons listed above) but also The Maltese Falcon, Breathless, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Animal House among others, arguing for the re-evaluation of movies that are called “great” but may not be anymore.  But Queenan’s piece is marred by his major flaw as a critic: he lacks the ability to dig deep into what he’s arguing about to convince you that he’s right.  Even when I agree with him on what films are still classic, I still think the tone of his article is wrong.  And I think the tone Jeff Wells takes when he attacks The Searchers (and other Ford movies) is also misguided.  The question that these people need to ask is: can a work of art have lots of things wrong with it and still be considered great?  And to that, my answer is a resounding yes.

Look, the quest for perfection is a mug’s game.  Even the works that we consider bastions of excellence have their flaws.  I think Moby-Dick is the greatest American novel of all time.  It’s probably my favorite novel after War and Peace.  This is not to say that Moby-Dick is always great, though.  Sometimes I want to throw it across the room.  There are many chapters that are just Ishmael/Melville talking about whaling, and since I’m never going to go whaling, I really don’t care at points.  But then Melville writes a chapter like “The Doubloon” or “The Symphony” or “The Candles” and all of a sudden, I’m in love with it all over again.  I remember reading an article in one of American Heritage’s overrated/underrated issues, where someone wrote that Moby-Dick was a book no one had ever finished, but Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny was outstanding.  Whoever wrote that obviously didn’t believe that Moby-Dick could be a great book in spite of its boring parts.  When it’s good, it’s better than almost any novel ever written, and you have to acknowledge that, even if you’re not going to read it more than once.

Now, as for the other part of Queenan’s question, does this mean that certain works of art that we once considered great are no longer great?  Yes – and then, no.  Some art doesn’t age well, and oftentimes, it’s the works that are considered daring and bold when they first debut.  Are those works of art great in spite of their flaws?  Maybe not, but they still have be reckoned with.  My friend Jon watched Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up for the first time last year, and was very disappointed by it.  I have to agree with his assessment: I watched Blow-Up for the first time in high school and thought that apart from the scene where the main character actually blows up the photo, thinking he sees a murder in the frame, it’s pretty boring.  It leads one to believe that the reason the movie caused such a sensation when it came out was because of the three-way scene.  But as much as I dislike Blow-Up, I’d be crazy to try to write it out of cinema history, the way Queenan wants to do with The Searchers and The Maltese FalconBlow-Up’s status has less to do with the movie itself and more to do with what came after it.  I can’t totally hate a movie that paved the way for Francis Coppola to make The Conversation, a personal favorite of mine.

Yes, re-evaluation comes with the territory.  And yes, sometimes the greatest films, books, albums, plays, are going to disappoint you for not being as good as historians and critics lead you to believe.  But rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, wrestle with it, fight it, and decide for yourself.  If you don’t like The Searchers, fine.  But don’t tell me that it hasn’t earned its place in cinema honestly, and don’t dismiss it for not living up to your standards of perfection.

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