The Searchers (1956) – Film #0020

Directed by John Ford 
Inducted to the National Film Registry in 1989 
I first watched it in March 2016 

What It’s About:

After his brother’s family is murdered by a group of Comanche raiders, Ethan Edwards (played by John Wayne), spends several years trying to find his niece, who was abducted by the raiders. 

My experience with the film:

As I briefly mentioned in my Deer Hunter entry, I only took one formal film class in college. I took it during my final semester as a senior, partially because I needed an extra class to be enrolled full-time that semester, but mostly because I loved movies, and I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t take at least one film class before my undergrad career was over. Each week in that class, we were required to watch a different film and to write a brief analysis of a specific aspect of it (e.g., writing, acting, directing, production design, etc.) For the week that we were assigned The Searchers, we were also supposed to analyze its cinematography. For anyone who might be exceptionally interested, you can find a copy of the analysis paper that I wrote here, but I should confess that it was mostly B.S. analysis on my part, that I wrote mostly just to get the grade. (I ended up getting a B+ in the class, though I’ll admit that since it was my final semester, and even though I enjoyed the class, I didn’t exactly consider the assignments to be my highest priority.) 

While we’re on the topic of confessionals, I suppose it’s also worth mentioning that for that class, we were technically supposed to watch each film on campus, during one of the scheduled public showings of the film. However, I only made it a few weeks into the semester before I decided to rebel and watch the films at home (using my trusty DVD Netflix subscription). This wasn’t so much an act of defiance as it was a choice made for practical reasons. The public showings took place in large lecture halls with mediocre sound systems, which often made it hard for me to hear and understand portions of the film. It was also hard to take notes in the darkened environment (since I couldn’t really see my pen/paper, and since electronic note taking was forbidden.) Being able to watch the films at home, with subtitles (which I use on almost every film), and the ability to pause/rewind if necessary was worth the occasional pang of guilt I felt for not watching the movies that way I was “supposed” to. 

Strangely, I think my overall feelings about each of the films that I watched in that class ranged from “it was all right” to “I didn’t like it” (with the exception of “The General”, which I thoroughly enjoyed). But despite my less-than-enthusiastic feelings about the films and the assignments, I actually loved attending and learning the material in the class. I already had a love of movies (hence why I took the class, as I mentioned), but I feel that the class helped to strongly cultivate that love. I came out of that class with a desire to branch out and start exposing myself to films that I wouldn’t normally watch. Again, as mentioned in the Deer Hunter entry, it inspired me to make a goal to watch all of the Best Picture winning films, a goal that would also later inspire me to start this current massive project of watching all of the NFR films. I honestly don’t think that I would be the film lover that I am today had I not taken that class. 

I suppose I should briefly get around to mentioning my thoughts on The Searchers. I didn’t record my specific thoughts about the film after my initial viewing, but I seem to remember that my feelings for it were along the lines of “it was all right, I guess” (and maybe even skewing slightly negative.) With that in mind, I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about revisiting it in order to write this entry. Surprisingly, I found that I enjoyed it quite a bit with this viewing. Ironically enough, despite my B.S. attempt at analyzing the cinematography five years ago, I was actually quite impressed with the cinematography this time around. The scenery/location shots are absolutely gorgeous, and they quickly reminded me of films like Lawrence of Arabia (I was pleased with myself for making that connection when I learned during my background research that The Searchers was indeed a large influence on that film.) Another influence that I (correctly) picked up on was the parallel between the scene when Ethan finds his brother’s home on fire and his family dead, and the scene in the original Star Wars film when Luke Skywalker finds his home on fire and his aunt and uncle dead. Beyond the technical filmmaking aspects though, I also quite enjoyed the playful relationship between Marty and Laurie, and the humor that it brought to the film (especially during the wedding fight scene that helped to calm things down before the climax of the film).

Of course, as with most movies that are above a certain age, there are some aspects that don’t sit well with a modern audience. Much has been said about the racist overtones at the heart of the film. However, many have also defended the film saying that much of that material wasn’t meant to condone racist ideologies, rather to display them, and indicate that those feelings were common at the time that this film took place. Some argue that this interpretation is supported by the way that Ethan’s racism is portrayed in the film: the idea that he (and even other protagonists like Laurie) believe that it would be better to kill Debbie than to rescue her is not meant to be sympathized with, and is rather shown to be horrific in the eyes of Marty, who some could argue is the true protagonist of the film. (For more on this discussion, see the several resources that I’ve linked below.) 

Regardless, despite its flaws, The Searchers is still considered to be one of the most influential Westerns, and one of the most influential films of all time, with several popular modern filmmakers listing it as one of their favorite films. I’m not sure why I was really down on it during my first viewing five years ago, but this time around, I can definitely say that I saw what all the hype was about. 

Availability:

The Searchers (1956) is available to stream on the services listed here: https://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/the-searchers 

To learn more about the history and significance of this film, I recommend the following resources:

For the complete list of films in the National Film Registry, including information on how you can view each film, and links to every entry that I have written, please see my NFR Directory

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The Magnificent Seven (1960) – Film #0613

Directed by John Sturges
Inducted to the National Film Registry in 2013 

In 1954, Akira Kurosawa released what is considered by many to be his most influential film: Seven Samurai. Kurosawa was a self-admitted fan of American western films (especially those directed by John Ford), and he set out to make a western-style film in a genre that was popular in Japanese film at the time: the samurai movie. Six years later, the western influences on Kurosawa would come full circle as his film would itself get a Western (in more than one sense of the word) remake with John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven, which would itself be considered one of the most influential westerns ever made. 

Considered a bit of a flop on its initial release, The Magnificent Seven would go on to gain popularity after it became a financial success in foreign box office markets, and after it began to play on American TV. 

One of the biggest impacts that this film had on Hollywood was its choice of cast. Steve McQueen was an up-and-coming actor at the time he was cast in this film, and The Magnificent Seven was a major launching point in his Hollywood career. This may have been helped by his well-known rivalry with Yul Brynner during the filming of the movie. While Brynner was considered the lead of the film, McQueen was known to try to upstage him at every possible opportunity. Much of this can be seen in the film. During many of the scenes that the two actors shared together, whenever Brynner was talking, McQueen would move in some way to draw attention to himself, such as by adjusting his hat, or loading his gun. McQueen was reportedly so eager to appear in this film that he faked a car accident to get a break in his television contract so that he would have time to shoot it.

Eli Wallach (who played the lead bandit, Calvera) was another breakout star. His role in this film would eventually lead to a role in another one of the most famous westerns of all time: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. In it, he played Tuco, aka “The Ugly,” of the film’s titular trio.

The Magnificent Seven also helped to popularize the “gunslinger” or “hired gun” trope, which would go on to become a popular element in the western genre.

Lastly, the film’s score (composed by Elmer Bernstein) is considered one of the most iconic western themes of all time, and has been used as a shorthand for western music in other settings (including a ride at Disneyland Paris, and in an episode of The Simpsons). It was also the theme music used in advertising for Marlboro brand cigarettes for several years.

The presence of The Magnificent Seven on the National Film Registry presents one of the most compelling arguments (to me) as to why foreign films should be included in the Registry (there are currently none that I know of at current time of writing—November 2020). The Magnificent Seven has gone on to influence many aspects of American culture (especially American film culture), but the Magnificent Seven (and all its influence) would literally not exist without the influence of Seven Samurai. Thus, it could be argued that Seven Samurai has also had just as large of an impact on American film culture (and that’s not to mention some of Kurosawa’s other films, such as Hidden Fortress, which heavily influenced George Lucas in the creation of Star Wars, an absolute juggernaut when it comes to film impacting American culture.) 

Likewise, since Seven Samurai was itself influenced by previous American westerns you get a kind of ouroboros of film—American film influencing Japanese film influencing American film. And if that’s not the kind of movie that should be recognized and preserved for both its influence by and influence on American film, I don’t know what is. 

Likewise, since The Magnificent Seven was somewhat saved by its performance in the foreign box office, that further reiterates how American film culture isn’t all that insular—without influence from other countries (both monetary and artistic), American film just wouldn’t be the same.

Availability:

The Magnificent Seven (1960) is available to stream on the services listed here: https://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/the-magnificent-seven 

Information sources and additional resources:

Melody Ranch (1940) – Film #0332⁠

Directed by Joseph Santley
Inducted to the National Film Registry in 2002

What It’s About:

In Melody Ranch, Gene Autry plays himself as the star of a weekly western musical adventure radio show. Two old friends from his hometown travel to the city to invite him to come home to act as the honorary town sheriff during an upcoming celebration. While there, he has a run-in with some local bullies who are causing trouble in the town. He decides to stay in order to stop these troublemakers, and eventually runs for the actual elected position of sheriff. The bullies won’t go down without a fight, and they’re determined to do anything to get him to leave town. Along for the ride are the cast and crew of his radio show (including his co-star and love interest, Julie, and her would-be suitor and the producer of the show, Tommy) who have traveled with him in order to continue doing their weekly broadcast. 

Context and Significance:

Gene Autry was known as “The Singing Cowboy,” and was a key figure in the popularization of country music. He started his career as a musician, and later starred in several western films and television shows. In addition to country music, he’s also known for several still-popular Christmas songs, including “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Here Comes Santa Claus.” 

The film Melody Ranch seems to have had a large impact on Autry’s career. A few months before the film was released, Autry recorded a pilot episode for a radio show also titled “Melody Ranch”, which was picked up for sponsorship by Doublemint Gum. The radio show continued until 1956 (with a two-year hiatus during World War II when Autry served in the Army). It later became a television show in 1964 that ran for 9 years, though Autry himself only appeared on the television show a few times, having retired from acting by that time. 

Autry also purchased a movie ranch (which is pretty much what it sounds like: a ranch where movies are made) in 1953 and renamed it “Melody Ranch” after the film. Melody Ranch is still in operation today, and many movies and television shows have been filmed there, including Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and HBO’s Westworld. 

My Thoughts:

For me, this film surprisingly works. Melody Ranch is so cheesy that it should have been painful to watch. Instead, it was somehow charming. It felt like a live-action version of the fictional television show “Woody’s Roundup” that appears in Toy Story 2. While that was probably more directly parodying shows like “Howdy Doody,” it was hard for me not to notice some similarities. The good guys act like proverbial boy scouts, and while the clean-shaven bad guys lack any mustaches to twirl, they do things like knowingly endanger children, and literally attempt a violent voter suppression. The romance in the film is intentionally kid-friendly (apparently, the studio executives even cut out the one onscreen kiss that was originally filmed, because they thought the kids in the audience wouldn’t want to see it.) Even the obligatory romantic triangle gets resolved with no hard feelings between the three individuals involved. This movie is about as clean-cut and safe as you can get, but because of that, it feels like an amusing window into what “family-friendly entertainment” used to be like.

To see one-minute videos about each film on the National Film Registry, and to get previews of upcoming posts, be sure to follow me on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Availability:

Melody Ranch (1940) is available to stream for free here: https://tubitv.com/movies/524892/melody_ranch  

You can view a spreadsheet that details how you can find every film in the Registry (and also notes how you can help me, if you feel so inclined) here: https://tinyurl.com/NFRDirectory

These blog posts are being compiled into a (very much work-in-progress) book, which you can view here: https://tinyurl.com/NFRCompletistBook

Information sources and additional resources: