Martin Scorsese channels his inner film critic on 'The Searchers'

Posted by · 4:38 pm · March 8th, 2013

Perhaps even more so than his last couple of films, Martin Scorsese’s contributions to film preservation and education in recent years have marked him as one of the medium’s greatest guardians. From his “A Personal Journey Through American Movies” to the cineaste evangelising of “Hugo,” he’s taken on the status of a vastly informed, infectiously enthusiastic film history professor — sometimes those who can do indeed teach.

Scorsese’s most heartfelt, engaged tributes tend to be of the American films of his youth, so you know to expect a treat from his lengthy Hollywood Reporter guest piece on John Ford’s “The Searchers,” in which he discusses both the film itself and Glenn Frankel’s new book on it.

As the Oscar-winning director writes, “The Searchers” is held as something of a sacred cow by cinephiles — including Scorsese himself, who has listed it in his personal Top 10 — but, as an “uncomfortable… deeply painful” study of prejudice and solitude in America, deserves more complex discussion and debate. (Indeed, Kris said something not dissimilar when listing the film at #10 in his Greatest Westerns list, writing that “succumbing to that kind of groupthink allows for blinders.”

Here’s Scorsese echoes Frankel’s assertion that the film, while a little-disputed American classic, has perhaps always been more precious to film buffs than regular viewers: “‘The Searchers’ is perhaps the greatest Hollywood film that few people have seen,” writes Frankel.

In his lovely piece, meanwhile, Scorsese goes on to explain how even his reservations about the film — including the comic relief often cited by critics as a debit — have only deepened his love for it:    

“A few years ago, I watched it with my wife, and I will admit that it gave me pause. Many people have problems with Ford’s Irish humor, which is almost always alcohol-related. For some, the frontier-comedy scenes with Ken Curtis are tough to take, but again, I don’t think they mar the film; these interludes are as much a part of the director’s universe as Shakespeare’s clowns are a part of his … For me, the problem was with the scenes involving a plump Comanche woman (Beulah Archuletta) that the Hunter character inadvertently takes as a wife … This passage seemed unnecessarily cruel to me. But the last time I saw The Searchers, the picture seemed even greater than ever, and it’s not that the scene had stopped troubling me; in fact, it troubled me on an even deeper level. In truly great films — the ones that people need to make, the ones that start speaking through them, the ones that keep moving into territory that is more and more unfathomable and uncomfortable — nothing’s ever simple or neatly resolved.”

Scorsese, incidentally, voted for “The Searchers” in last year’s Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll, where it ranked #7 among critics — but, interestingly, only #48 among the directors polled. Is that indicative of the film being more a critics’ pet than anyone else’s? Maybe not: Scorsese’s still in some good peer company in his love for Ford’s harshly beautiful western, which also took votes from Kenneth Branagh, Terence Davies, Roger Michell and the Dardenne Brothers.

Where does “The Searchers” rank in your affections? Is there another film you love for the ways in which is troubles you? Tell us in the comments.

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