SEASON2/EP4: THE SEARCHERS AND TAXI DRIVER

The Searchers movie review & film summary (1956) | Roger Ebert
photo courtesy of rogerebert.com
Taxi Driver (1976) - Turner Classic Movies
photo courtesy of tcm.com

https://anchor.fm/brendan–lee/embed/episodes/THE-SEARCHERS-AND-TAXI-DRIVER-e14qrja

Over a black screen, the title reads: “TEXAS 1868.” After the title fades the screen is finally illuminated as a door swings open and the silhouette of a woman stands in the open doorway. As the woman steps forward the camera slowly follows her through the doorway and outside and when it turns we are given the signature, most beautiful shot in the outstanding career of John Ford. John Wayne, deep in the distance, flanked on each side by two massive rock formations in Monument Valley, riding slowly on horseback from background to foreground as his sister in law Martha, the silhouette, now stands in full color in the foreground waiting for her brother-in-law and Civil War veteran, Ethan Edwards. The breathtaking shot and subsequent reunion that opens The Searchers, temporarily masks the real conflict of the film, which is the fact that Ethan Edwards, in perhaps John Wayne’s greatest performance, is a Confederate soldier, returning home form the Civil War, full of hate and bitterness, unable to accept the defeat of the Confederacy. Ethan’s hatred doesn’t stop with his War experience as we will soon find out that he detests Native Americans as well. While they were made twenty years apart and at almost opposite ends of the American landscape, the Texas frontier of the mid 1800’s and the gritty, filthy, and steamy New York City Streets of the 1970’s, The Searchers and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver share almost identical protagonists.

The Searchers has always been one of the most misunderstood films of all time. Sadly, a large portion of the moviegoing audience saw this film as another heroic performance by John Wayne as he hunts down the Comanche Indians who have murdered his brother’s family and kidnapped their young daughter, Debbie, played by Natalie Wood. Ethan Edwards, along with his nephew Martin, played by Jeffrey Hunter, embark on a years long journey to track down Debbie. When they finally catch up with her they find that she has been indoctrinated into the Comanche civilization. This becomes too much for Ethan whom upon rescuing Debbie, contemplates whether or not she would be better off dead. The film ends with another doorway shot only this time we are on the inside looking out. Looking out at Ethan as he stands helplessly outside his family’s home, knowing that he cannot go inside while at the same time, completely unsure of where he will go next. The film is not a glorious tale of John Wayne rescuing his young niece from danger. It is a tale of hatred and how it can consume a man and turn him loose on the world around him. It is clear that Ethan Edwards is suffering some type of PTSD from his Civil War experience, not to mention him having a particular disdain and bloodlust for Native Americans. This is a direct line to Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese’s story about a Vietnam Veteran returning to normal life, feeling increasingly isolated in the summer of 1976, a time when New York City was quite possibly more dangerous than the Wild West.

Summer of 1976. As the fictional Democratic Presidential candidate, Charles Palantine ramps up his campaign, a taxi driver named Travis Bickle begins arming himself with several automatic weapons with seemingly no motive in sight. What starts as a way of defending himself on the tough and dangerous city streets spirals out of control when Travis begins writing violent and deranged missives in his diary about “cleaning up the garbage and the filth in the city.” He then shoots and kills a thief in a deli. before he befriends a teenage prostitute named Iris, played by Jodie Foster. As Travis and Iris get to know each other, Travis sees that Iris is being controlled by her pimp, played by Harvey Keitel. Keitel with his long hair parted down the middle resembles a Native American, even going as far as telling Travis that he once had a horse in Coney Island. Travis then makes it his quest to save Iris from her abusers, mush the same way Ethan quested to save Debbie from the Commanche’s. Travis goes on a killing spree at the end of the film as he rescues Iris from another session with a John. This is the plot of Taxi Driver, Scorsese and Schrader’s journey into the decay and danger of New York City in the 1970’s and how it can push one lonely and isolated man to the breaking point. Much like John Wayne in The Searchers, this is definitely one of the best performance’s in the scintillating career of Robert De Niro. Travis Bickle not only shares the intense hatred of humanity with Ethan Edwards but with his arsenal of revolvers and cowboy boots, Travis looks like he belongs next to Ethan in the Wild West, battling with Commanches.

Martin Scorsese has always referenced John Ford and The Searchers in particular but it was in maybe his most daring film Taxi Driver that his devotion to the great John Ford was on full display.

FROM SILENT TO STREAMING: SEASON 2/EP 1: THE MAN, THE MYTH, THE LEGEND

John Ford - IMDb
photo courtesy of imdb.com

John Ford was born John M. Feeney on February 1, 1894 in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. In his late teens, the son of Irish immigrants followed his older brother, Francis to Hollywood where he changed his name to John Ford. Ford found work as an actor, stuntman, and set handyman before landing as an Assistant Director. Notorious for his sardonic humor, when Ford was asked in his later years by a documentary filmmaker, “How did you get to Hollywood?” The legendary filmmaker replied, “By train.” More comical than that remark is the thought that Hollywood’s most decorated filmmaker only got his first opportunity to direct while working on a Western as an AD and his boss failed to show up due to a hangover.

In the 1920’s, John Ford gained a reputation as a solid, efficient, no nonsense Director, which put him in demand among all of the major studios. By the time the 1930’s rolled around Ford went on a successful run of films that cemented his legend as Hollywood’s greatest director. Beginning with The Informer in 1935 for RKO, Ford began flexing his wide array of filmmaking muscles. Those familiar with Monument Valley John Ford would be shocked to see that the film is deeply inspired by German Expressionism. Ford himself stated that he drew from F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise but there are also many similarities to Fritz Lang’s M. The film opens with the main character Gypo Nolan wandering through the fog drenched streets and alleys of Dublin, Ireland, where shadows lurk around every corner. When Gypo’s friend is murdered by the Black and Tans after Gypo informs on him for a cheap reward, Gypo sets off roaming through the city in a paranoid daze, reminiscent of Peter Lorre trying to evade the police and angry mobs in Berlin during M. True to German Expressionism form, Gypo begins seeing the Reward Poster and his best friend’s face appear on screen, tearing away at his guilt while at the same time he blows all of his reward money on drinks and celebration. The truth finally catches up with Gypo in a basement inquisition, equally reminiscent of the moment Peter Lorre meets his fate in M. Dabbling in German Expressionism definitely agreed with John Ford as The Informer would win him his first of four Academy Awards for Best Director. Four years later, Ford would direct a film that would not only become the greatest Western of all time but it would also launch the career of the most popular film star ever.

In 1939, John Ford released Stagecoach, the epic tale of eight people on a stagecoach ride through dangerous country, each passenger dripping with dramatic presence. Stagecoach was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture where it was up against Hollywood mammoths like Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz. While it lost in the Best Picture category to Gone With The Wind it has certainly stood the test of time better than its competitors. Where Gone With The Wind’s disgraceful portrayal of African-Americans finally caught up with it, and The Wizard of Oz being reduced to a children’s fairy tale, Stagecoach has endured as a testament to the art of filmmaking.

With so many aspects that make it timeless, it really is the characters that stand out above all. Ford was way ahead of his time, having not one anti-hero in the film but three. While Thomas Mitchell won an Oscar for his portrayal of the alcoholic but courageous physician, “Doc Boone”, and John Wayne launched his legendary career with his performance as the outlaw “Ringo Kid”, it is the performance of Claire Trevor as the much maligned prostitute, “Dallas”, and her status clash with the prim and proper wife of a soldier, “Mrs. Mallory” that outshines the typical action and gunfights of a Western film. The arc of these two characters is remarkable, going form Mrs. Mallory not even being able to sit next to Dallas at the dining table due to her disgust, to Dallas winning her over with kindness and compassion while she helps Doc Boone deliver Mrs. Mallory’s baby. John Ford’s greatest achievement in Stagecoach is not the action packed finale or the wide beautiful shots of Monument Valley. It is the compelling drama portrayed by two strong women, something that is still uncommon in 2021, let alone in 1939, when Hollywood was entrenched in the Dark Ages of racial and gender bias.

On the next episode of Director’s Spotlight: John Ford…by the time the United States entered World War 2, Joh Ford had already won his second Academy Award for Best Director, laying the foundation for his dominance of Hollywood. Everyone was now taking notice of John Ford, especially the “Boy Wonder” from The Mercury Theater in New York…Orson Welles.

Akira Kurosawa/John Ford: EAST MEETS WEST

15 Best John Ford Movies You Need To Watch | Taste Of Cinema ...
Akira Kurosawa Great Director profile • Senses of Cinema

Akira Kurosawa. John Ford. Two directors considered to be the quintessential

filmmakers of their respective countries surprisingly have much in common. While

most of the similarities stem from Kurosawa’s admiration of his elder, Kurosawa

definitely shared and expanded on Ford’s legendary style. There are, I believe, three

major aspects that connect these two giants of cinema.

The first and most obvious connection between Kurosawa and Ford is their

focus on specific time periods as the setting for their films. John Ford is

synonymous with the Hollywood “Western” film. In his career as a Director, Ford

directed twenty five Western feature films and a number of Western TV episodes.

Not only did Ford favor the Western genre, he made it his own with classics such as

Stagecoach, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. A John Ford

Western became an epic presentation of not only the dramatic endeavors of the

characters but also a sweeping and mesmerizing view of the American landscape.

For Kurosawa, his “Samurai” epics were no different. From the aptly titled Seven

Samurai to Yojimbo and Throne of Blood, Kurosawa gave the audience, through

costume and action, an authentic adaptation of Japan’s medieval history. In the ten

Samurai films that Kurosawa made he also employed the same style of Ford’s

Westerns by showcasing the Japanese landscape in epic proportions. The

composition and shooting style is another tactic that brings the two directors closer

together.

In the opening scene of The Searchers, John Wayne as “Ethan Edwards” rides

toward his brother’s ranch. The shot is breathtaking in the sense that it is not a long

tracking shot or a pan but it is classic Ford: having his subjects move from

background to foreground or vice versa in an attempt to convey the depth of the

image on screen. Almost twenty years earlier, Ford debuted this shot several times

in his classic Stagecoach. From the moment the coach rolls away from the camera

into Monument Valley on its way from Tonto to Lordsburg, the audience can see

that the road ahead stretches all the way to the horizon. In Kurosawa’s classic

Throne of Blood one cannot deny the similarity of the Samurai riding his horse

frantically from background to foreground as he approaches Spider’s Web castle.

Moments later, when we are introduced to “Washizu” and “Miki”, we see them lost

in a foggy forest. Kurosawa’s use of the two men on horseback appearing like ghosts

from background to foreground through the fog is magical. Like Ford, Kurosawa

used the depth of the image to convey that Washizu and Miki were lost and riding

back and forth in the same direction. Keeping them inside the frame rather than

panning with them from side to side gives the viewer the sense that the two soldiers

are trapped inside this location.

As well as Throne of Blood, there is also a similarity to Ford’s style in the

opening scene of Yojimbo. The “Ronin” played by Kurosawa favorite Toshiro Mifune,

is introduced in a medium shot walking among the tall grass with large mountain

peaks on the horizon. After throwing a stick in the air and letting it decide which

direction he will go, Mifune starts off down the road, straight down the center of the

frame. The shot is meant to grab the audience as if we are following the Ronin down

that long path.

When most people hear the name John Ford only one thing comes to mind:

John Wayne. Another of Ford’s favorites was Henry Fonda who starred in My

Darling Clementine. As Wyatt Earp, Henry Fonda finds himself entering the town of

Tombstone, Arizona at the start of the film and finding it’s inhabitants terrorized by

criminals. The same can be said for “The Ringo Kid” in Stagecoach and “Ransom

Stoddard” and “Tom Donophin” in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Watching

Yojimbo, and seeing the Ronin as he arrives in town to find people hiding indoors

and then, when he is accosted by a gang of thugs, I immediately thought of Henry

Fonda’s Wyatt Earp or John Wayne as The Ringo Kid or any other hero from a John

Ford Western. Both Ford and Kurosawa liked to portray their hero as an outlaw

with a toughness and swagger that could withstand even the most dangerous bad

guys. I also believe that just as Wayne and Ford went hand in hand so did Kurosawa

and Mifune. These two legendary actors were both groomed by their respective

directors and arguably gave the best performances of their careers because of it.

Whether it is the red majesty of Monument Valley or the grassy plains and

mountain peaks of medieval Japan, with Akira Kurosawa and John Ford, it is always

the same result. A masterpiece of cinema that takes the audience on a ride into the

depths of history and into the depths of the landscape on the silver screen before

them.