This is heralded by many as one of the greatest Westerns ever filmed, and since I grew up watching a lot of John Wayne movies, I had to finally cross this one off my list. Plot lines in these types of movies often feel like retreads, and while this is no different, it offers enough nuance to separate itself from the pack and leave an indelible mark on the landscape of its time.
Wayne plays Ethan, a Confederate soldier visiting his brother’s family out west a few years after the conclusion of the Civil War. When a local Comanche tribe abducts his niece Debbie and kills his brother, he makes it his mission (along with a few others), to find her and bring her back home. But it’s no easy task, as it takes years of tracking and close-calls before they finally catch up to her. And when they do, she expresses a desire to stay with her new people, having become a wife of war chief Scar. In deciding whether to bring her home, let her live as a Comanche or kill her, Ethan faces a struggle that hinted at a darker shade of the frontier than the genre was used to shedding light on. Ethan’s nature is a violent one, and one could argue that, even in spending so much time searching for Debbie, he’s doing it for selfish reasons rather than noble ones. Bloodletting is the only answer in his mind, and he will even resort to tactics of those he would call heathens, if the opportunity presents itself.
The film is interesting because, while repetitive in nature, it gives a simple plot an epic feel. The issues of racial identification, order vs lawlessness and duty to family are explored thoroughly and the characters have clear motivation. The Monument Valley photography is great, and Ford achieved some wonderful shots of both action and quiet moments. The opening and closing shots, specifically, have lived on as iconic examples of not only the Western itself, but how to convey an idea without saying a word. In the beginning and end of the film, we see Ethan alone in a doorway, but not entering the home in question. It suggests that he must find his own way and make his own home, much like the Americans of that time and place had to carve out their own frontier space if they wanted to settle in dangerous territory. Or perhaps it’s suggesting that Ethan will always be a loner with his own motivations, even under the guise of doing right by family. The ability to debate that, among other ideas and scenes, gives something like this more replay value than the standard-issue tale of the West.
This is regarded as John Ford’s best work, and after finally seeing it, I know why. It is well-shot and acted, invokes emotion and hits the notes it aims for, while presenting a more mature work than the genre was known for at the time.