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The Searchers

Oscars oversights

Everybody gets to gripe about the Academy Awards. Sometimes it’s a matter of “How could you nominate that mess for anything but oblivion?” Sometimes it’s disbelief at a great performance or great camerawork being passed over to reward something not-necessarily-bad but not nearly as good. Then there are the compensation awards — giving somebody an Oscar for second-tier work because their first-rate achievements have somehow never won in the past. (Certainly not meaning you, Martin Scorsese!)

Those are all fun conversations to have, but in this case we want to call attention to something different — some amazing, mostly appalling oversights. There’s a surprising abundance of great and/or universally admired and/or culturally indispensable and/or dearly beloved films that were ignored by Oscar the year they came out. In some cases, totally ignored: not even a nomination, let alone a statuette.

Fortunately, most of our candidates have been, or will be, redeemed in the fullness of time — in many instances outlasting and outshining the pictures that beat them in their day. Better yet, all of them are available for us to resee and reevaluate. Pass the popcorn.

‘The Searchers’ win an Oscar? That’ll be the day.

The Searchers (1956)

What movie most influenced the “American renaissance” filmmakers of the ’70s? If you answered The Searchers, take a cigar, pilgrim. This towering Western, acclaimed as the supreme example of its genre, the masterwork of director John Ford, featuring the best performance ever given by John Wayne, and firmly ensconced as one of the Ten Best Films of All Time in international polls devoted to such things, has left its DNA in dozens of later movies, from Taxi Driver to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars. Each year, new audiences discover its visual grandeur, shattering power, and the enigma of its monstrous hero Ethan Edwards: long before it became fashionable to take a “revisionist” view of frontier life, Manifest Destiny, and the Indian wars, Ford and Wayne had wrestled with the demonic side of Western myth and achieved a deeper, more disturbing complexity than anyone would afterward.

And yet in 1956 The Searchers came and went as just another, perhaps slightly above-average Western. The film, director Ford, John Wayne, supporting actor Ward Bond, the never-more-vivid Technicolor and VistaVision cinematography by Winton C. Hoch — none received an Oscar; none was even nominated. Probably they didn’t expect to be, given the way both the industry and the culture regarded Westerns then. As Ethan Edwards would say, “That’ll be the day!”

And the 1956 Oscar went to … “Around the World in Eighty Days”

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“Somebody’s Fiddle”: Traditional Music in “The Searchers”

Martin Pawley has barged into Charlie McCorry’s wedding to Martin’s childhood sweetheart Laurie Jorgenson, and the two have waded into a typically Fordian brawl—momentary comic relief from the darker concerns of most of The Searchers. Suddenly, Charlie interrupts the fistfight: “Somebody’s fiddle!” he cautions, picking up an overlooked musical instrument and handing it hastily out of harm’s way before Martin lands the next blow. It’s not the only, but probably the most audacious, announcement of the almost-sacred importance of music to this world and this film.

We’ve known it from the outset. In barely two minutes of film time, before the first word of the film is spoken, four pieces of music are thrown at us, each one dramatically distinct and loaded with information.

First, we hear what analysts have dubbed the “Comanches” theme, a powerful, full-voiced fanfare that evokes the traditional “Indian” music convention of the western film score, and startles us by supplanting the production company logo music that we’d normally expect in a studio film made in 1956.

After this short attention-getter, which firmly establishes the notion that this film will have something to do with Indians, we hear an acoustic guitar introduction and a sung ballad (written by Stan Jones and sung by The Sons of the Pioneers), the “title tune” of a film that came from an era in which it was common for a movie to have its own originally-composed theme song. Because this song has words, we need no prior experience of film or cultural heritage to grasp what it conveys, and add it to the “Indian” motif we heard first:

What makes a man to wander?
What makes a man to roam?
What makes a man leave bed and board
And turn his back on home?

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Interview: JT Petty, The Burrowers and the “alien territory” of the horror western

Clancy Brown and William Mapother take the first watch
Clancy Brown and William Mapother take the first watch

JT Petty’s third feature The Burrowers is another of his distinctively unusual takes on a generally conventional genre. Set in the Dakota Territory of 1879, where survival is already a challenge, Petty brings a starkly unglamorized sensibility to life and mortality on the Dakota prairie: it opens with a boy come a courting to a farmgirl only to discover a massacre and what appears to be the abduction of the girl. Clancy Brown and William Mapother, who have faces that look like they’ve survived tough times, are perfect as the leaders in a hunting party after a kidnapped girl: confident but unpretentious and very respectful of the country. But they think they’re tracking an Indian raiding party. What they find are fetid holes in the prairie ground filled with bone and blood and sinew, as if a body has been digested by the Earth. Which is close to the truth. Petty plays the unforgiving tensions between the settlers and the native tribes with palpable animosity, the distrust so great that their fragile truce snaps before they even take on the burrowers, the underground creatures that have been hunting on the prairie. He keeps the threat visually vague and the insect-like burrowers shadowy and smudged, creating his horror out of mystery and suggestion, but it’s nothing supernatural or alien. It’s a real western/horror/monster movie with a devoted frontier sensibility and loving nods to The Searchers.

The film debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival and toured various festivals dedicated to films of the fantastic but was otherwise released direct to DVD by Lionsgate (they did the same thing with Ryuhei Kitamura’s English language debut Midnight Meat Train, adapted from the story by Clive Barker). The film deserves better. I spoke with Petty over the phone a couple of weeks before the April 21 DVD release.

Why a horror western?

I’m always trying to get a little bit outside the genre. I think people who watch scary movies now are such a sophisticated group of watchers. We’re probably the first generation that takes multiple viewings for granted, that you can see anything as many times as you want to see it. We’re sort of the video generation and the twenty-year-olds now just assume they can see anything they want anytime they want as many times as they want. So what’s already been done, we’ve seen so many times that I think it’s hard to actually scare people inside that framework. So once you get a little outside the genre, you can hopefully surprise people again.

What makes the combination of western and horror so resonant for you as a filmmaker?

A lot of it is just they’re two of the most cinematic experiences that you have watching a movie. If a horror movie does well, it’s entirely because of the direction, it’s classically not the performance. All the things that do make a horror movie pornographic also make it exceptionally cinematic. If you have a well directed horror movie with a crappy story and bad actors, it can still be a pretty awesome horror movie. And to some extent, the same thing with the western. All of those spaghetti westerns with dubbed voices and obvious cartoonish characters but have this amazing cinematic strength to them still resonate. So I guess horror and western movies are both, in a very specific way, the most cinematic movie you can make. Is that a fair statement to make?

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