The Searchers

John Wayne in The Searchers


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



26 May


John Wayne born, 1907

On this day in 1907, Marion Robert Morrison was born, in Winterset, Iowa, USA. He was named after the Civil War veteran Marion Mitchell Morrison, and the young Marion’s middle name would be switched in favour of Mitchell when his parents decided to name their next son Robert. In any event Marion preferred the nickname Duke, which he picked up from his Airedale terrier pet, Duke – young Marion was initially Little Duke. Morrison went to the University of Southern California to study pre-law on a football scholarship, but a broken collarbone picked up while bodysurfing put paid to any hopes of playing football, and his university career too. Instead he started working at local film studio, in the props department before going on to pick up a few bit parts. He became friendly with director John Ford, who gave him work, but got his first starring role from Raoul Walsh, in 1930’s The Big Trail, though on Ford’s recommendation. Walsh also suggested the name change to John Wayne. The Big Trail, a big budget widescreeen epic, was a big bomb but it got Wayne noticed in the industry and he worked solidly in “poverty row” westerns for the next nine years until his breakthrough with John Ford and Stagecoach, in 1939. It made Wayne a star and he would remain one until he died 40 years later. Wayne did not serve during the Second World War, a fact he would later deeply regret, and which could always be used to call into question his increasingly strident patriotism – Wayne would turn down films if he thought them “unpatriotic”. The 1940s and 1950s was Wayne’s heyday, though he carried on playing “men’s men” right to the end – a cowboy, a pilot, a military man, a boxer, a detective, a sportsman, a vigilante, a gunman, a quencher of wildcat oil fires and Genghis Khan (not entirely successfully). In the Top Ten Money Makers Polls printed annually in the International Motion Picture Almanac – the truest real reflection of a star’s box office power – Wayne is still the actor with the most appearance, featuring on the list for 25 years.




The Searchers (1956, dir: John Ford)

John Ford’s The Searchers is a film that critics return to again and again. Not only because it features one of John Wayne’s best performances, and John Ford’s most iconic depiction of Monument Valley, but because the character at its centre is such an asshole. At a time when westerns were becoming increasingly revisionist, showing that the Indian or Native American was as much sinned against as sinning, The Searchers seemed to attempt to push this more enlightened view back into its box. The story is about Wayne’s Ethan Edwards searching for his niece (Natalie Wood), who has been kidnapped by the Comanches. He’s not out to rescue her though, he’s out to kill her, because she has become contaminated through exposure to Comanche ways. She’s become a redskin’s squaw – “The leavings of a Comanche buck” as Edwards puts it. What critics want to know is – what sort of a film are we watching? Is it a revenge thriller with sheer nastiness at its core? Or is it the journey of a bitter bigot towards redemption? Some people will always conflate the depiction of something with an endorsement of that thing, and in the case of The Searchers, about a racist killer hunting down a defenceless young woman who has been kidnapped, the suggestion regularly seems to be that the film is an endorsement of racism and the killing of the blameless. It isn’t, though in the shape of Ethan Edwards we are certainly being shown a man who doesn’t like Injuns. Is Edwards a psychopath, as Edwards’s travelling companion, the part-Comanche Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) increasingly comes to believe? It’s possible, though Ford and Wayne set up Edwards’s character so tenderly – he’s in love with his wife’s brother but only his eyes betray his emotion – that it takes us a while to realise that Edwards is not a representation of civilised society, in the way western heroes often are. Instead he’s an outsider, an obsessive whose side lost in the Civil War and is now busy consumed by another battle, and again he’s on the wrong side. For his part Wayne does what a man’s gotta do, and gives the lie to those who insist he can’t act – he’s as monumental as anything in Monumental Valley here, but with Wayne it’s all about the narrowing of the eyes. On a big screen easily read from the back in the dark, what more needs to be done? Wayne perfected the style of acting that Clint Eastwood would later borrow, and in The Searchers we also see the development of a style that Sergio Leone would appropriate – big, operatic, unafraid to take it slow, visually driven, iconic. The Searchers is a screen-grab sort of movie, in other words, and as it builds towards its climax, and Edwards closes in on his quarry after seven years of searching (two hours of screen time), the film itself becomes monumental. It’s no surprise that Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese referenced it relentlessly in their Taxi Driver.



Why Watch?


  • The definitive John Ford film
  • The definitive John Wayne movie
  • Winton C Hoch’s cinematography
  • Its continuing influence


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The Searchers – at Amazon





Jean Reno: The Bulletproof Star

Jean Reno and Natalie Portman in Léon

In a long career that’s seen him starring in films good, bad and spectacularly terrible, the public’s affection for French icon Jean Reno has never wavered. How does he do it?

Big guy. Woolly hat. Stubble. Shades. Round shades. Dark round shades. Doesn’t say much. Kills people. Sensitively. Ask a roomful of people to come up with a word or two about Jean Reno and that’s pretty much what you’d get.

You might also get French. Likes his dinner. And cool. Very cool. But what about versatile? Best known for playing loners, hitmen, tough guys, individuals who don’t say much because they don’t have to, to most people Reno is that French guy in that hitman film. Léon, or Nikita or whatever it was.

Which of course is true, Reno was that guy and those were the films. But there’s more to Reno than just a guy with a gun.

Take The Philosopher. The short about a guy who’s got it all who one day decides to give it all away. No shades. No hat. A bit of stubble, granted, but he’s just a normal guy who just kind of snaps one day and decides “that’s it, I want a simple life. It’s all gotta go.“

And off, indeed, it does all go. The Reno trick, though, is that as the stuff goes so do we. With him. To wherever he’s going.

He pulls off the same trick in 2010’s 22 Bullets, a revenge movie about a killer who is pumped full of bullets, 22 of them to be precise, and somehow survives. And then sets out for some very ugly payback. Nasty piece of work. But we’re with him all the way. Which is handy because, Reno excepted, 22 Bullets is not much of a film.

But it is vintage Reno, just the sort of likeable bad-guy role that made his name. It also made him, in a recent French poll, the country’s most popular actor.

All good. Except that Reno isn’t actually a native Frenchman. The man baptised Juan Moreno y Herrera-Jimenez was actually born in Casablanca, Morocco, to Spanish exiles of Franco’s fascist regime.

In the 64 years since, he’s collected three wives and five children, starred in France’s biggest box office hit, become the go-to man when the script calls for brutes with an angelic streak and the only French male star who could open a film in the USA (before the arguments start – Depardieu’s Green Card was a co-starring role).

The breakout role for Reno in the English-speaking world was as the titular hitman in the film Léon (also known as Léon: The Professional). And it’s a perfect example of this Reno phenomenon. The story of a killer who strikes up a master/pupil relationship with a pre-pubescent orphan (a pre-pubescent Natalie Portman), it’s the sort of plot that would probably not get made in the timid paedo-panicked world we inhabit today. Even back then it had producers and distributors sweating buckets and was heavily edited on its initial US run, a move which virtually removed the Reno/Portman relationship from the film, thus ruining it.

That it got made at all, even in comparatively permissive 1993, was down to two things. First, it was Reno. This is a proper man we’re talking about here, not some skulking sexual pervert with an eye for jailbait. Second, it wasn’t an American film, though it looked like one and, Reno apart, sounded and felt like one.

In fact it was a Luc Besson film, the first serious attempt by the French writer/director/producer/powerhouse to crack the USA, to take on Hollywood at its own game.

Besson is now so prolific and so successful that he’s almost disappeared into the oligarchosphere. The creator of franchises like the Taxi series, the Transporter series, a fistful of Jet Li films, kiddie movies like the Arthur and the Invisibles series, action movies like District 13, thrillers like the Liam Neeson hit Taken, sci-fi like The Fifth Element, Besson hasn’t yet had a go at silent German expressionist horror but it’s surely only a matter of time.

But back in 1993 it was a different matter. Besson was an unknown quantity in the English-speaking world, though a string of French films aimed squarely at a smart multiplex crowd had provided him with the weight he needed to break Hollywood. His battering ram was Jean Reno.

Reno had starred in Besson’s first film, 1981’s short L’avant dernier. After that he went on to take roles in Besson’s next offerings, the punky post-apocalyptic sci-fi The Last Battle and the grungily beautiful Subway, before making waves in the archetypal “cinema du look” movie The Big Blue. After that followed the junky hitgirl drama Nikita, in which Reno played Victor the Cleaner and perfected the stubble/shades/hat look that is all his own. Then, finally, came the film that made both Reno and Besson international players, Léon.

Looking back now we can see what Besson was doing. 1983’s The Last Battle completely turned its back on traditional French moviemaking – which you could unfairly but with some justification characterise as “bourgeois couple stare out of window, make love, stare out of window again” – and plugged into the Hollywood genre mainstream.

1985’s Subway saw Besson casting Christopher Lambert, the bilingual star of the Tarzan movie Greystoke, as his male lead. 1988’s The Big Blue had a co-starring role for American actress Rosanna Arquette while Léon, from 1994, was made entirely in English.

From the very start Besson showed no interest in making moody French cinema for the arthouse circuit. He wanted to make movies as big as Hollywood made them. Bigger even. To do that he needed his films to be shot in English. Or, failing that, peopled with characters an English-speaking audience would go for. Enter Reno, the sort of guy men want to be and women want to be with.

Jean Reno in Nikita
Reno in Nikita

Since Léon Reno has continued working with Besson (who produced 22 Bullets, for example) and has divided his time pretty well, making films for the French market and turning up regularly as a cool French presence in a run of Hollywood hits.. Alongside Robert De Niro in Ronin, Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible, Tom Hanks in The Da Vinci Code and Meg Ryan (when she was still recognisably Meg Ryan) in French Kiss.

At home meanwhile he starred in the time-travel comedy Les Visiteurs, the most expensive French film ever made, and the biggest moneyspinner in French box office history.

So he’s a success. A big star globally and back home. Three wives. The public loves him. Always working. But what about the critics?

Ask Reno himself and he’ll tell you he’s not part of the establishment. In fact he reckons he’s cold-shouldered by critics and the intelligentsia and the real inner circle of French cultural life because he’s so popular. “In France, if you’ve got any sort of talent you’d better keep it here,” he told the UK’s Independent newspaper recently. “And if you’re going to go abroad, it had better not be America.”

It seems Reno is the victim of an old gallic tendency. No one in Europe loves America more than the French, but the French are also acutely aware that you dance with the US at your peril. When it comes to a smackdown between America’s fast-food culture and la manière de vie francaise with its three hour lunches and afternoon naps, then Uncle Sam wins every time.

So French cultural gatekeepers are snooty with Reno, even though the tax the government levies on all foreign films – many of them featuring Reno himself – subsidises homegrown production. And let’s not forget just how vibrant and well loved (and watched) French cinema remains worldwide, to a large extent precisely because of that subsidy.

People go with Reno. They love him. He’s friends with former President Nicolas Sarkozy. In fact the then Interior Minister was best man at Reno’s third wedding in 2006, alongside Johnny Hallyday, a pop icon in France for 50 years.

But Reno has street-level appeal too. Perhaps because of what he’s not as well as what he is. Look at the list of international leading men and it is groaning with actors with lovely hair, moisturised skin, bleached teeth and waxed chests, guys who need to stay hydrated, who fixate on diet, bodyfat percentages and protein shakes – all the paraphernalia of the bulimic teenage girl.

Sure Matthew McConaughey looks buff in those perfume ads, his lips parted like a blow-up dolly. Sure Ryan Reynolds is toned and sleek, his chest more impressive than most of his female co-stars’. Sure Hugh Jackman – well, Hugh, where do we start?

You don’t get that with Reno. Like some latterday John Wayne, whom Reno idolised as a drama student, Reno doesn’t do dental bleaching or built-up shoes. With Reno you get old-fashioned masculinity – proud, hirsute, self-assured, not concerned overly with externals, courteous, dangerous when pushed.

And now that Gérard Depardieu has pretty much retired to his vineyards to become a barrel, Reno is about the only French male actor who really translates worldwide.

Most famous for playing hitmen, Reno himself has started to become bulletproof. How else can you explain the undying affection of everyone (arthouse critics excepted) in the face of some spectacularly terrible career choice. In short, have you seen The Da Vinci Code?

There’s worse, far worse. It’s difficult to know what persuaded Reno to turn up doing the comedy Frenchman routine in the remake of the Pink Panther. Apart from the paycheck, perhaps. The money must have been even better for the infinitely more moronic sequel. Or maybe Reno just felt sympathy for Steve Martin, whose decision to revive a role that virtually killed its original star, Peter Sellers, has virtually killed his own career (I say virtually, but Martin’s movie career has a remarkable ability to return from the dead. Which must surely be some consolation to Lindsay Lohan).

Reno is the man who turned down the role of Agent Smith in The Matrix – Mis-ter An-der-son – to play second banana to Matthew Broderick in 1997’s damp phhht Godzilla. Godzilla!

And if you haven’t seen Couples Retreat – the Vince Vaughn/Jon Favreau relationship comedy featuring Reno as a “couples whisperer” – then here’s a one-word recommendation. Don’t.

The strange thing: in interview after interview Reno seems as happy with, say, the role of hitman Vincent the Cleaner in the seminal Nikita as he is with some godawful load of old rubbish made simply to support popcorn sales.

His explanation is that he just loves working, being on a film set. His unbroken chain of film credits on the Internet Movie Database suggests this might be true. Apart from a pause for breath just after he got married for the third time in 2006, Reno has been at it virtually non-stop for the past 30 years.

Film star years aren’t the same as real years. Spending downtime in luxury resorts, having staff to take care of the bad stuff and always travelling first class can add years to your lifespan. Even so, at 64 Reno must surely be aware that the clock is ticking.

There were rumours he was lining up something for the London stage in 2012, a return to theatre, his first love. It didn’t happen. But there are also more than five films in the pipeline, including the starring role in a biopic about Rasputin, and he recently turned up in Kenneth Lonergan’s magnificent mess Margaret. Not forgetting Fantomas, a remake of the classic of the French silent screen which will have to be quite amazing if it’s going to keep the critics quiet.

Let’s hope it is. But whether it’s brilliant work or down in sump with those The Pink Panther films, one thing’s for certain. Everyone will love Reno. They always do.

© Steve Morrissey 2011

Ryan Reynolds and the Death of the Real Man

All aboard Ryan Reynolds, prime example of Hollywood’s new breed of depilated, exfoliated, irrigated masculine star. Whatever happened to real men?

From out of the low, strong sun, three figures ride towards the camera, tall in the saddle, squinting into the wind. As they hit medium shot, John Wayne turns to the compadre on his left and parts the lips on his line-free face to reveal two rows of snowy white teeth. Meanwhile the man he is about to address, Clint Eastwood, has thrown aside his poncho to reveal a shirt unbuttoned to the waist, his tan, hairless chest cresting sensually towards what might or might not be a nipple ring. And on Clint’s left, Lee Marvin is sucking urgently on a bottle of Volvic in an attempt to stay hydrated.

This is clearly not how the West was won.

Once upon a time in the movies men were men and women tried to stay upwind of them. Yup, the leading men of yore were a different breed. They didn’t ostentatiously work out. They didn’t swear off carbs after 6pm. They didn’t appear in gender-swap rom-coms. In fact it’s unlikely John Wayne knew what a gender-swap rom-com was. Or a carb. As to Bogie, Cagney, Jimmy Stewart or Steve McQueen, it’s difficult to imagine any of them starring in a movie where the plot revolved around someone having to pretend to be gay in order to… oh, you know, keep the movie moving until 89 minutes of ironic homophobic hilarity had finally worn itself out.

Rotate 180 degrees from John Wayne and we’re facing the leading man of today: Ryan Reynolds. The star of Van Wilder: Party Animal, co-star of Blade: Trinity, Smokin’ Aces and now The Proposal, Sandra Bullock’s comeback bid. Typical of the new leading man, Reynolds is pretty in a slightly pinheaded, boss-eyed way. He has an impressive cleavage and is happy to talk about how hard it is to activate the lower abs.

After Blade: Trinity Reynolds, like many a new leading man, went home with an impressive bod, honed by months of personal training, strict diet and hard work. Compare that with old leading man Humphrey Bogart. Bald, ageing and kranky he may have been, but after making To Have and Have Not, Bogie also went home with an impressive bod, that of his 19-year-old co-star Lauren Bacall.

Old leading men drank bourbon or whisky, new leading men do Whey Protein Shakes. Old leading men smoked AND inhaled. New leading men do conjugated linoleic acid, have a Macmillan Nurse head-tilt, puppy-dog eyes and pecs that wouldn’t look out of place with a tassle on.

Where’s that spittoon?

In some respects there is nothing new here. The world has always had actors with non-threatening, boyband looks. Rudolph Valentino might have been the first. But since then you can trace the unbroken, hairless line through Leslie Howard, Tyrone Power and James Dean to Keanu, Johnny, Tom and, king of the girls, Brad Pitt.

It’s also always had out and out meatheads too, who don’t so much act as just stand there (Victor Mature and Charles Bronson to Bruce Willis, Arnie and Chuck Norris).

Between these pole were the real stars – Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, James Stewart and so on. Instinctive actors who played effortlessly masculine men who knew which end of a woman did what. By rights Reynolds should be in this camp too. Being married to Scarlett Johansson should grant him automatic admission, you’d have thought. But Hollywood’s current feyness is dragging him towards the realm of the eunuch while his stylist and trainer drag him the other way, towards the sort of hell that’s Dolph Lundgren all the way down.

Though Bogie was almost outdone by Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen and Eastwood fought hard against Shirley MacLaine in Two Mules for Sister Sara, it’s almost impossible to imagine any of the old leading men playing second banana to Jessica Biel as Reynolds did in Blade: Trinity. Or to Sandra Bullock, as Reynolds does again in the The Proposal – a sparky rom-com in which Bullock plays a bitch in a fix who orders her assistant to marry her. While Reynolds plays the bitch who says he will.

Old leading men dressed like there were more important things to think about than their clothes. Like winning the Second World War. “Male grooming product” was a dab of Brylcreem or possibly even axle grease. Would “body fat percentage” have meant anything to John Wayne? And as for dental bleaching… the hell he will.

This thousand-crunches-before-breakfast business is genuinely impressive. And the new leading men are paid handsomely to do them. But in their white singlets, cut just a bit lower than the ones you get at Gap, and with their palms facing backwards, bodies turned three quarters to the camera, dressed in cargo pants and razor-slashed top, the leading men of today run the risk of being mistaken for Britney.

As in look, so in plot. In film after film Reynolds is bitch-slapped by women tougher, smarter, ballsier than himself. Bullock’s pet in The Proposal, Biel’s little helper in bloodsucking bore Blade: Trinity, Reynolds also has rings run round him by Amy Smart in Just Friends. That’s the one in which he plays the “hero” with weight issues, low self-esteem and a bag of other women’s magazine staples. And in the pointless remake of the already pointless The Amityville Horror, Reynolds is once again the girl to Melissa George’s tough nut, charging round hysterically and becoming increasingly axe-fixated in what looks to the casual observer like a bad attack of PMS.

The thing about Reynolds is: he actually can act. He’s incredibly good in three separate roles in The Nines and in film after film is consistently better than his material. Then why so wet when he’s hot and genuinely talented? It can’t be just because he’s from Canada.

Reynolds is clearly symptomatic of a wider malaise. Take Daniel Craig – the “blond Bond” as he was dismissively dubbed until everyone remembered that he actually has dramatic range, unlike his predecessors. Craig also has lead in his pencil – Francis Bacon’s bit of rough trade in Love Is The Devil, a lusty stud in The Mother, blunt Yorkshire poet Ted Hughes in Sylvia, Sienna Miller’s entirely plausible love in Layer Cake, an Israeli hit squad member in Steven Spielberg’s Munich. But let’s not forget Craig’s kingmaking moment as the new Bond. He was not only the sixth incarnation of 007 but also the third iteration, after Ursula Andress and Halle Berry, of the impressively chested sea-deity rising in slo-mo up out of the spume to cries of “look at the rack on that”.

Or take Matthew McConaughey. Somebody. A fine actor who was hotter than the face of the sun when he appeared in John Sayles’s indie jewel Lone Star in 1996, McC immediately abandoned high-tone product and set off to become a Hollywood star, misplacing his testicles along the way. It started with a lace collar in Amistad (not conclusive proof in a period drama but a sign nonetheless). Two years on and he was in EdTV, a budget-traveller Truman Show which saw McC perfecting his Valley Girl whine. Two years further on and he’s in The Wedding Planner with J-Lo and the transformation is complete – from grungey promising talent to a loose collection of abs, pecs, simpering smile and orange skin who’s made a career out of playing pussy (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Failure to Launch, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past).

And on to the hardest sell of all – Hugh Jackman, a talented all-rounder who at first glance has kept faith with masculinity, having played the tangled mass of testosterone and chest hair that is the X-Men’s Wolverine a total of four times. A man who’s bench-pressed 315 pounds, everybody. A man who’s also played a character called The Drover, essence of XY chromosome, in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia. It surely does not get any more grrrr than that.

Hats (and shirts) off to Huge. Clearly he’s the most ripped actor there’s ever been, bigger and more impressive even than Christian Bale (a character actor suffering from the terrible delusion that he’s a leading man). And yet and yet and yet. All this posing around in a slashed white T shirt looking up through your lashes, the obsession with body fat, the diet of cottage cheese (slow-release, low-fat protein, if you will), the fixation on hydration, the best-buddy personal trainer, the running along the beach like Bo Derek (younger readers: count yourselves lucky). You can’t imagine James Coburn doing any of it.

And let’s not forget Wolverine’s nails.

Where are the modern equivalents of Errol Flynn, Clark Gable or John Wayne? Where, for that matter are the replacements for ageing heroes Mel Gibson and Denzel Washington? Have we become so metrosexual that the nearest thing we have is fragrant George Clooney? Is this dicklessness a cultural response to an overpopulated planet? A symptom of the developed world’s increasing disinclination to reproduce? Put simply, is the only real red-blooded A lister in Hollywood Russell Crowe?

Until the answers to this needlessly long string of questions, or some real men, turn up, why don’t we head on over to the saloon, push through the swing doors and order a bottle of whiskey, pour a glass, raise it to lips. And repeat. From a distance it might look like a workout.

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© Steve Morrissey 2009