Graham Reid | | 3 min read
For those who consider the Western as an art form there will always be debate on which films should be counted among the greatest in the genre: down to personal taste and protracted argument would be 3.10 To Yuma (1957, Van Heflin vs Glenn Ford in a story by Elmore Leonard); Posse ('75 Kirk Douglas vs Bruce Dern); The Gunfighter ('50, Gregory Peck vs every young punk), a few Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns (Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales and so on), Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves ('90) and Once Upon a Time in the West ('68, Sergio Leone). And many others.
There would be less argument about classics such as John Ford's Stagecoach ('39, with John Wayne), High Noon ('52, Gary Cooper vs bad guys and his wife's religion), The Good, The Bad and The Ugly ('66, Leone's classic spaghetti western with Eastwood) and Eastwood's grizzly Unforgiven ('92).
And of course John Ford's The Searchers of 1956.
An epic in every sense, The Searchers set not only a standard in metaphorical cinematography (doorways, framing, rivers crossed, weather) but also made John Wayne as massive as the landscape of Monument Valley in which some of the action took place.
Yet The Searchers is a film of internal action as much as gunplay, of which there is very little.
Wayne is a man with an unstated backstory (a Civil War veteran, Indian hater, loner with a grudge), the land is that of the frontier of society where mail doesn't come for months and there is a lawlessness which allows for a roaming band of Apaches (lead by one called Scar) to sweep down and steal a child (Natalie Wood as Wayne's niece).
The story of The Searchers is nominally the five year quest by Wayne and others to bring the girl back, but the outcome is far from certain: Wayne's character is so driven by hatred it is entirely possible his reason for finding her is to kill her because she has been tainted by the savages whom he loathes.
It is a multi-layered story and if it looks a little old fashioned today it still resonates on many levels. Wayne seldom had a better, more complex, role.
In the early years of the 21st century the seemingly tired idiom of the Western underwent a renaissance. Writers such as Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry had laid the ground with their neo-realistic writing, and actors such as Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall (in Open Range, '03) and Tommy Lee Jones found a natural home as loners or outsiders in the unforgiving frontiers (No Country For Old Men written by McCarthy, '07).
Jones' finest Western, The Missing, was -- like the Russell Crowe/Christian Bale '07 version of 3.10 to Yuma by James Mangold -- a relook at, and reinterpretation of familiar material, in this case The Searchers.
As with that Ford classic, The Missing is set on the periphery of the "civilised" (read colonised) world and Cate Blanchett is a healer/farmer in remote New Mexico with two children and a lover-cum-hired help. Into this lonely, devoutly Christian world comes Jones as the father who abandoned her and went to live as an Indian.
When one of her daughters is taken by a band of Indians (lead by a hideously scarred shaman) to be sold in Mexico, Blanchett is obliged to accept that her hated father is the man who can actually track them.
The quest begins.
As much as it refers to The Searchers, The Missing also goes its own path: it outlines the confict between Man and unforgiving/indifferent Nature; the worlds of natural magic and Christianity (Joseph Campbell vs Scripture); cultural belief and faith . . .
As with The Searchers, lost and rootless characters amble into the drama and are gone, death can be sudden and unexpected, the story unravels rathar than plays out according to type, good people die . . .
The Missing is a gripping Western, but more than that it is a human drama played out against that mythic backdrop of its Western predecessors no less than Eastwood's Unforgiven which also discreetly referred to the history of the genre.
And where Wayne's character in The Searchers offered a racist subtext, here the fact that Jones' character Samuel Jones/Chaa-duu-ba-its-iidan is a man who has found a kind of life within a Native American context undercuts the brutality of the Scar character here, the Chiricahuan El Brujo/Pesh-Chidin.
The real surprise is that The Missing comes from director Ron Howard who is renown/notorious for his soft-soap approach to matters of the heart and morality.
But while The Missing has necessary resolution there is no real sense of redemption.
The Missing, although flawed (Blanchett's features rather too manicured to be convincing as someone who has lived a battered life on the remote prairie) is in many ways a worthy successor to John Ford's classic The Searchers of which it is an intelligent and provocative revision.