Few directors killed off more Native Americans in his films than John Ford. Near the end of his career in 1964, Ford made what many have called an apology to the American Indian, an attempt to right 50 years of prejudicial film making. The truth is, Ford’s film were not so much racially stereotyped toward Indians, as that they simply told the story from the settlers/cavalry point of view. The Indians in his classic films such as The Searchers and Fort Apache were always brave, ferocious warriors, a worthy adversary to John Wayne and Henry Fonda.
In Cheyenne Autumn, Ford told the story from the other side. It was well intentioned, but unfortunately suffered from spotty storytelling. The films is great in parts, those dealing with white characters studies such as Karl Malden as the psychotic fort commander and Jimmy Stewart with a nice turn as Wyatt Earp. But what really killed the film was bad casting. In the first major motion picture to give a sympathetic portrayal of the First Americans, Ford loaded up the leads with Hispanics and Italians. Take a look at the trailer and prepare to be appalled. The worst maybe Sal Mineo, a fine actor, but every time you see him, you wonder when James Dean and Natalie Wood are going to show up. Look for Richardo “Khan” Montalban as well. The movie bombed at the box office.
Though I found the movie above average years ago and am a huge fan of Ford, I find the scenes with the Native characters exceptionally difficult to watch these days. The film was gorgeously made, with wonderful Western vistas. It’s just too bad they couldn’t have filled it with the people who lived there. On the plus side, Cheyenne Autumn laid the groundwork for later films like Little Big Man and a host of others that did it better.
Why review a book to movie adaptation that’s nearly 60 years old? The Searchers is considered one of the top 100 American motion pictures ever made, directed by one of the masters of film, John Ford,and starring two American film icons, John Wayne and Natalie Wood. That alone makes it worthy of consideration even after more than half a century. The other part of the fascination is how a book, now largely forgotten, could be transformed into a classic film.
After viewing The Searchers countless, maybe too many times, I’m afraid I’m finding holes in the plot, which is why I went back to the novel. The comparison is intriguing. The book is more graphic in its description of the violence than the film, though tame by comparison to today’s standards and completely humorless, which considering the subject matter, shouldn’t be surprising.
The author, Alan Le Maywas no stranger to film when he wrote The Searchers. A veteran of the First World War, Le May had published his first novel, Painted Ponies, a Western, in 1927 at the age of 28. Moving to Hollywood he became a successful screenwriter in the 1940s including among his credits Cecil. B. DeMille’s Reap The Wild Wind 1942 and the 1945 Gary Cooper vehicle, Along Came Jones.
The Searchers was published in 1954 and filmed in 1956, not an unusual turnaround for a popular novel in that era, especially for a writer who was already plugged into the Hollywood grapevine who had at this point in time also directed a Western. But the Searchers was Le May’s first novel to be turned into a major motion picture and it illustrates how a solid, if unspectacular novel, is turned into a classic movie. Despite Le May’s experience, the screenplay was turned over to Frank Nugent who had already worked on several of Ford’s films.
As stated in Scott Eyman’s biography of John Ford, Print The Legend, John Hopkins University Press 1999, page 442, Ford and Nugent crafted what was essentially a simple story into a far more complex exploration of racial and sexual tensions.
Among the basic changes was the shifting of the protagonist from Martin Pauley to Ethan Edwards, or Amos as he was called in the book.In the original, Martin is the hero; it’s his story, told from his viewpoint, the workings inside his head that tell the tale, not Ethan’s. And in the book, Martin loses his love, Laurie, who does not wait for him and marries Charlie McCorry, played brilliantly and comically by the wonderful Ken Curtis in the film. Another variance between book and movie; in the film Debbie is portrayed as being married to Chief Scar her abductor, while in the book, she is raised by Scar as his daughter and is about to be sold into marriage by him when she is rescued. An interesting contrast considering 1950s morality, that in the book she is still virginal, while in the film she’s the 14 year old wife of the villain. An edit made no doubt to sharpen the perfidy of Scar for the movie and heighten the racial and sexual traumas being exploited.
But much of the film’s dialog is lifted directly from the book, a sure sign of the skill of the author. You’ll find much the same in adaptations of Larry McMurtry’s works. But the most notable difference is the John Ford touch. Ford both invented and was a student of the old school of filmmaking and the use of humor was one of its major ingredients no matter the subject at hand. John Ford improved on the original by using his trademark humor, which if you consider the nature the story, is inappropriate at times, but is necessary to keep the story from becoming an unrelenting tragedy as it is in the book.
One major flaw in the film: Debbie is played to 1950s scrubbed Hollywood perfection by Natalie Wood speaking faultless English and looking like she’s on her way to a high school drama class in her Indian Princess costume. In the book Debbie has forgotten most of her English and been traumatized so terribly she’s blocked out much of the memory of her former life. But she is restored in the end by her fierce love for her brother Martin, not Amos/Ethan as it should be. John Ford makes what is essentially a grim, unforgiving tale, into a highly entertaining film with frequent comic interludes. The casting of John Wayne lends Ethan an instant likeability. The audience is on his side because he is ‘John Wayne’ no matter how abominably he behaves. And in the end he’s redeemed by being given Martin’s rightful role as rescuer, whereas in the book’s finale, Amos/Ethan, is killed in the raid on the Indian village and it is, appropriately, Martin who rescues Debbie.
Read these excepts:
Chapter 39Ethan/Amos’ Death:
Mart believed he saw Debbie again. A young squaw, slim and shawl-headed, ran like a deer, dodging among the horses. She might have got away, but she checked, and retraced two steps, to snatch up a dead man’s pistol; and in that moment Amos saw her. The whole set of his laboring body changed, and he pointed like a bird dog as he charged his horse upon her. The lithe figure twisted from under the hoofs, and ran between the lodges. Amos whirled his horse at the top of its stride, turning it as it did not know how to turn; it lost footing, almost went down, but he dragged it up by the same strength with which he rode. Its long bounds closed upon the slim runner, and Amos leaned low, his pistol reaching. Mart yelled, “Amos—no!” He fired wild at Amos’ back, missing from a distance at which he never missed. Then, unexpectedly, Amos raised his pistol without firing, and shifted it to his rein hand. He reached down to grab the girl as if to lift her onto his saddle. The girl turned upon the rider, and Mart saw the broad brown face of a young Comanche woman, who could never possibly have been Debbie. Her teeth showed as she fired upward at Amos, the muzzle of her pistol almost against his jacket. He fell heavily; his body crumpled as it hit, and rolled over once, as shot game rolls, before it lay still.
Chapter 40Martin’s Rescue of Debbie:
She lifted her head to stare at him—wildly, he thought. He was frightened by what he took to be a light of madness in her eyes, before she lowered them. He said, “You used to like the ranch. Don’t you remember it?” She was perfectly still. He said desperately, “Have you forgotten? Don’t you remember anything about when you were a little girl, at all?” Tears squeezed from her shut eyes, and she began to shiver again, hard, in the racking shake they called the ague. He had no doubt she was taking one of the dangerous fevers; perhaps pneumonia, or if the chill was from weakness alone, he feared that the most. The open prairie had ways to bite down hard and sure on any warm-blooded thing when its strength failed. Panic touched him as he realized he could lose her yet. He thought she was asleep, until she spoke, a whisper against his chest. “I remember,” she said in a strangely mixed tongue of Indian-English: “I remember it all. But you the most. I remember how hard I loved you.” She held onto him with what strength she had left; but she seemed all right, he thought, as she went to sleep. Book to Movie. It’s an entertaining comparison which usually concludes with the standard, they sure wrecked that book, or they sure left out a lot. In the case of The Searchers, the original was greatly improved upon as far creating a cinematic masterpiece. But in the same instance, the interaction between a brother and sister and the necessity of their redeeming love to close a traumatic wound, is replaced by what is essentially a plot twist in which the savage/racist Ethan Edwards is forgiven for a lifetime of viciousness by a single act whose redemption he ultimately cannot share in. Both endings are valid. The literary one is more authentic, the celluloid one more entertaining.
Mystic Hedgehog studios presents The New American Cowboy – Performed by The Old Cowboy from his forthcoming album, the Post Apocalyptic Cowboy, a tale of the decline and fall of the American West. I think this is one of the songs I sent Shelby Singleton 25 years ago. He didn’t think it was commercial, but he liked it.
Inside Lewyn Davis, the newest movie from the Coen Brothers (O’ Brother Where Art Thou, True Grit, The Big Lebowski) is a mystery. No, not a whodunit mystery, but a mystery as to what their point was in making this movie. Inside Llewyn Davis is not a bad film, it just seems kind of pointless.
Inside Llewyn Davis is the story of a Folk Singer on the fringes of the music scene in Greenwich Village in 1961. In other words, this is kind of, but not quite a what if tale of a semi, kind of, almost Bob Dylan/Dave Von Ronk/Phil Ochs type of character. In fact, a Dylan look alike is in the audience and on stage at both the beginning and ending of the film in case we didn’t quite get it.
One would think with such a premise in the more than capable hands of the Coen Brothers, we could expect a grand romp through the early Folk Music scene, a grand send up like O’ Brother Where Art Thou, or at the very least a homage to an era gone by. Instead we get ninety minutes of gratingly nasty characters headlined by the baffling self-destructive Llewyn Davis.
Actually, there shouldn’t be anything baffling about Llewyn Davis. Guys like him make up the majority of failed musicians who exist on the fringe in any genre of the music business, but that’s only half the problem. We never find out why LD is the way he is other than a vague reference to the fact that his former music partner committed suicide. There’s no hint of the usual suspects in why a great talent blows their chance at fame and fortune, booze, dope, women, crooked managers, etc.
The highlights? Well, a thin slice of 1961 Greenwich Village from the point of view of a musician on his way out the door seems very real, but it is an extremely narrow vision of what was an extremely interesting era. Carey Mulligan, of Great Gatsby fame, plays a nasty, self-centered singer looking for an abortion. Justin Timberlake is her chirpy little husband. Stark Sands and Adam Driver have great scene stealing cameos as a pair of loopy Folk Singers. John Goodman also drops by for his usual Coen Brothers bombast at mid– film. He’s good, but predictable. It also makes me realize that Goodman would have made a much better Rooster Cogburn than Jeff Bridges. Garrett Hedlund does a good impression of a twenty-five year old Dennis Leary if he’d been a Jack Kerouac Beat Poet Punk.
The trouble with the whole mess is that in the end, you don’t really care whether Llewyn Davis becomes a star, drops out or joins the merchant marine, (hint, this is another grating episode within the film). The movie keeps your interest, but there is no payoff, leaving you frustrated and not wanting to bother with it a second time.
There was one character I did connect with, the cat. A running joke, or motif or whatever the hell it was, involves a cat that Davis is attempting to return to its owner. I worked up more genuine concern over whether the cat was going to make it home than I did over poor old Llewyn.
Note: This brings up two other dead end plot lines in the movie. During LD’s road trip with John Goodman, LD runs over…something, another cat or something that looks like a cat or God knows what, maybe it was the financiers of this fiasco trying to escape before the bills came due. During the same road trip LD also decides to look up a child he didn’t know he had, but he apparently decides to just drive on into the night instead. Inside Llewyn Davis? Never once do we get inside Llewyn Davis. This is a surface portrait, not superficial, but one that never gets beneath the skin.
Perhaps worst of all is LD’s name. Llewyn? If you’re like me, every time you see the name you fill in the blanks and make it Llewellyn. Maybe that’s part of the joke. He’s two Ls short of being somebody, just like this movie is about two well written scenes short of making us give a damn about Llewyn Davis.
Ultimately this is a seventies Art House film which would have looked brilliant if it were made for a dollar ninety-five back in the 1970s and played for five years at the stoner Valley Art Movie Theateron Mill Avenue near the ASU campus in Tempe, Arizona as part of a double bill with Harold and Maude or The Go Between. As an A list movie by big time directors with top dollar movie stars, it’s a joke and not a very funny one.
The Coen Brothers are a throwback to the old school film making of John Huston and John Ford. It looks like a real movie and not a 3D video game come to life and for that I tip my hat to them. I just wish they weren’t so smug about it. Don’t be afraid to make a statement boys. That’s what Huston did. Some of the critics may laugh condescendingly and you won’t be so hip anymore, but it’s all right to admit you care about something. That’s the trouble with Inside Llewyn Davis. It doesn’t seem to care about anything deeply which misses the point of what the Greenwich Village Folk scene was about, caring about something; the music, the politics, the excitement of being part of a once in a lifetime moment that people would still be talking about fifty years later.
Three out of Five Stars for quality film making. ***
In a simliar, funnier vein Christopher Guest’s parody A Mighty Wind.
A real life story of the Canadian Folk Scene – The Travelers.
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