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The Searchers

The Searchers  

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  1. 1. Does "The Searchers" belong on AFI's Top 100 list?

    • Yes.
      7
    • That'll be the day.
      6

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  • Poll closed on 01/11/19 at 08:00 AM

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Posted (edited)

This week Paul & Amy ride deep into Texas for The Searchers! They discuss the complicated legacy of John Wayne, place the film in the context of Western history, and look at The Searchers' influence on directors from Martin Scorsese to George Lucas. Plus: Joely Proudfit speaks to us about American Indian representation in film history, and The Searchers in particular.

For Unforgiven week, who would you rather have in your posse - John Wayne or Clint Eastwood? Call the Unspooled voicemail line at 747-666-5824 with your answer. Follow us on Twitter @Unspooled, get more info at unspooledpod.com, and don’t forget to rate, review & subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts. Photo credit: Kim Troxall

Edited by DanEngler

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Listening to Paul and Amy talk about the question of whether the kidnapped girl actually would be happier if she weren't "rescued" put me in mind of an excellent 2017 novel titled "News of the World," which is set in Texas in 1870 and tells the story of a an old man returning a girl who was taken and raised by the Kiowa to some distant relatives after the tribe is pressured to release her by the local Bureau of Indian Affairs agent.  In the story, the girl very much wants to stay with the tribe, and in the foreword to the novel the author mentions that almost without exception, white children who were abducted and raised by Native American tribes actually did not want to return to their families, even in cases where they had been held by the tribe for pretty short periods of time (a few months).

And just to strengthen the tie-in to the movies, I have read that "News of the World" is under development to be made into a film starring Tom Hanks (who is actually a bit young to play the old man in the story, who is in his 70's, but that is the subject for a future rabbit hole)

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List comparisons for The Searchers

AFI (2007) - 12
AFI (1997) - 96
BFI,  Critics (2012) - 7th (78 votes)
BFI,  Director (2012) - 48th (11 votes)
IMDB* - NR-th place (IMDB rating of 8.0.  250th spot has a rating of 8.0)
Metascore - ... there aren't any ratings
They Shoot Films - 9th
Oscar, Best Picture (year) - not nominated.  winner: Around the World in 80 Days (nominees: Friendly Persuasion, Giant, The King and I, The Ten Commandments)

Links
AFI (2007) - https://www.afi.com/100years/movies10.aspx
AFI (1997) - https://www.afi.com/100Years/movies.aspx
IMDB - https://www.imdb.com/chart/top
TSFDT - http://www.theyshootpictures.com/gf1000_all1000films_table.php
http://www.theyshootpictures.com/gf1000_films1001-2000.htm
Oscar, BP winners: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academy_Award_for_Best_Picture

Quick Note on the history of The Searchers for the BFI poll
Critics

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sight_%26_Sound
1952-1972: not in the top 10, didn't quickly find archival lists of past decades
1982 - 10th place (11 votes)
1992 - 5th place (17 votes)
2002 - 11th place (15 votes), http://old.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/polls/topten/poll/critics-long.html
2012 - 7th place (78 votes)

BFI Directors:
2002 - 24th place (7 votes)
2012 - 48th place (11 votes)

So, quasi-interesting things to note.  If you use the critic's list and the TSFDT aggregate list, it looks like the 1997 AFI placement is the anomaly, and the the 12th place ranking in 2007 is a smidge lower than those lists, and it looks like with the BFI critic's list, it's been floating mostly around in the top 10 for the past 35 years.  However, the BFI director's poll is... lower, but notably higher than the AFI 1997 poll, which is also quasi-interesting because in the podcast, all of Amy's examples of people championing the film were directors (it appears to be more popular with critics).

I still need to rewatch it, so I'll refrain mostly for now.

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Based on Letterboxd, this movie is not popular here. I get that. I didn't see what all the fuss was about when I watched this a few years ago. Like Paul, I watched it again (with commentary) and I liked it more on the second viewing. I found a lot of stuff going on in the background that I hadn't noticed (like, as Amy points out, John Wayne being in love eith his sister in law).

It's been a few years since I watched it. So, I can't defend it much. I don't think it will turn you around on the movie but this does benefit from an additional viewing if you're on the fence about it.

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Yea, those undercurrents are what I was wrestling with -- I get they are there and maybe give the simple story a bit more depth, but I just don't think they change it enough for me in the end.

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I tossed a "yes" vote this film's way, just to acknowledge how much influence it had on future generations of filmmakers.

But personally, when I watch this movie I can't seem to fully get into it. I like the actual "searchers" part of the story (where they're looking for the kidnapped girl) and the complexity of Wayne's character. Meanwhile, all of the comedy bits back at the homestead seem like they belong in another movie entirely and always hurt the pacing.

Yet, this film always rates very highly in critics' polls, which means it must hold entertainment value for a lot of people. Maybe one day it'll fully click for me. I like it, I don't love it.

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It's not my favorite John Wayne or John Ford film but I like it. I also enjoy their other collaborations: Stagecoach, The "Cavalry trilogy" (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon), and Rio Grande, The Quiet Man and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. Stagecoach is what made Wayne a star and Ford gave Wayne's character this memorable introduction:

y0S1m5.gif

Wayne's expression is so innocent, like Ford's intent was not to show Wayne as a badass but someone with a good heart. In The Searchers, Ford gives Wayne another memorable zoom as he look with hate at the white woman who's now insane after being kidnapped and raised by Indians:

UntriedWavyCaribou-small.gif

I think nowadays when most people think of John Wayne they think of him as being like in the second GIF while people who grew up watching his movies think of him as like the first GIF.

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John Ford actually made a spiritual sequel about captives "rescued" from Indians who didn't want to return to white civilization, "Two Rode Together". However, it was a failure and he regarded it as one of his worst movies.

I would think that Stagecoach is the prototypical western, while The Searchers is an attempt to add some complexity to the genre. I agree that the originally scripted ending would have been significantly better than the one we got, where it's just "surprise, he doesn't kill her".

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“Two Rode Together” isn’t a great movie, but it is an interesting companion/response to the Searchers. The focus is on the difficulty (and perhaps even the impossibility) of re-integration of captives back into white society, so it may satisfy people who feel Natalie Wood’s return is oversimplified. However, it’s an inherently pessimistic and unsatisfying film, anchored by Jimmy Stewart in one of his oft-overlooked unrepentant asshole roles. I think of it as one of Ford’s late “half-woke” films (Sergeant Rutledge, Cheynne Autumn) in which he is earnestly trying to take apart myths of the West from the perspectives of Native Americans and minorities, but he’s hamstrung by the conservatism of the studio system and the biases of the time as well as his own. The saddest example of this is how “Cheyenne Autumn” went from Ford’s original conception of a docu-realist narrative starring non-professional native actors to a bloated 60s Hollywood epic half-focused on white soldiers chasing the Cheyenne and half Sal Mineo and Ricardo Montalban in brownface.

Anyway, I agree that The Searchers is good but underwhelming, particulary on first watch. It’s easy to get lost and frustrated in the meandering plot and miss the coherence of the themes and images, or fail to appreciate how easily the film switches from drama into action or suspense (and a little more abruptly in and out of comedy). It helps that since first watching this over a decade ago I’ve seen far more Ford films and become somewhat inoculated to his humor.

One of the big problems with lists like the AFI is how they flatten genres and filmographies. It’s a pity that people write off Westerns or Ford or Wayne because this one overhyped classic doesn’t work for them (I did when I first saw this). It also makes films like this and High Noon seem especially unique, when really plenty of Westerns were similarly ambitious and complex. There’s as much complexity regarding different versions of masculinity in Stagecoach as there is in the Searchers (though admittedly, not much complexity with the treatment of Natives). There’s more darkness in Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur or Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome. For better Ford, I’d highly recommend Fort Apache, which fictionalizes Custer and moves the action of Little Big Horn to Arizona, and is a much earlier, and in my opinion far sharper, take down of how Native Americans were mistreated and how the narrative around that was misshapen.

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My mom claims to be a descendant of Hannah Dustin.  Hay cousin.  There is a statue of her in Haverhill, Mass.  Probably will be take down at some point. 

 

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I guess I'm mostly in the camp of "it's lame and racist," to use Amy's words.  I'm on the fence about putting it on the list, because I do credit it for changing the way that landscapes are shot, but ultimately I vote no.  Even though Lawrence of Arabia is inspired by The Searchers cinematographically, it combines the camerawork with a better story (though also super problematic, but we'll get to that when the die rolls that lucky #7), so I'm mostly content without it on the list at all.

I'm glad to hear Paul is rethinking High Noon though!  I like it, Shane, and Unforgiven considerably more than The Searchers.

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This might be an unpopular opinion but I have to wonder if a film is only good after repeat viewings is it that good of a film? Now, the clarify there are plenty of films that get better on repeat viewings because you pick up things you first missed, details that you forgot, etc. However you usually are rewatching it and getting those things because you enjoyed or were interested by the movie on the first viewing. A lot of people seemed to not like this movie at all or been bored by it on first viewing then they read something or heard something and when they go back a second time and it is better because they are getting those things now. If it truly was a "top 100" movie shouldn't your first viewing leave you wanting to see it again or at least with a sense of "that was good." To see something and have no reaction to it but then do research and then appreciate it seems like a failing on the part of the movie to me. It shouldn't only be enjoyable if the audience has prior knowledge going in. I'm going to jump the gun here a bit and use next weeks movie as an example. Unforgiven works as a character piece if you have no idea who Clint Eastwood is. Yet in many way it is playing on who he is and his history and the genre itself. If you get that you'll probably enjoy the movie more but because the story is so character driven that a layman to Westerns or Eastwood I think would have an enjoyable first viewing. I could be wrong.

For me the movie was beautiful. The way the exteriors were shot and some of the shot compositions are of course iconic and influential. However, the other half of the movie is on cheap sets on sound stages and look it too. It's jarring. The story itself is a bit of a hot mess. You have a young girl turn into an older girl and yet all the other actors look the same yet we have to be told "It's been five years" because they don't show us any signs of time actually passing. So for me a lot of this negative things offset the good things. While I get why it was influential I don't think that is reason enough alone to put it on the list. 

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5 hours ago, Cam Bert said:

This might be an unpopular opinion but I have to wonder if a film is only good after repeat viewings is it that good of a film? Now, the clarify there are plenty of films that get better on repeat viewings because you pick up things you first missed, details that you forgot, etc. However you usually are rewatching it and getting those things because you enjoyed or were interested by the movie on the first viewing. A lot of people seemed to not like this movie at all or been bored by it on first viewing then they read something or heard something and when they go back a second time and it is better because they are getting those things now. If it truly was a "top 100" movie shouldn't your first viewing leave you wanting to see it again or at least with a sense of "that was good." To see something and have no reaction to it but then do research and then appreciate it seems like a failing on the part of the movie to me. It shouldn't only be enjoyable if the audience has prior knowledge going in. I'm going to jump the gun here a bit and use next weeks movie as an example. Unforgiven works as a character piece if you have no idea who Clint Eastwood is. Yet in many way it is playing on who he is and his history and the genre itself. If you get that you'll probably enjoy the movie more but because the story is so character driven that a layman to Westerns or Eastwood I think would have an enjoyable first viewing. I could be wrong.

For me the movie was beautiful. The way the exteriors were shot and some of the shot compositions are of course iconic and influential. However, the other half of the movie is on cheap sets on sound stages and look it too. It's jarring. The story itself is a bit of a hot mess. You have a young girl turn into an older girl and yet all the other actors look the same yet we have to be told "It's been five years" because they don't show us any signs of time actually passing. So for me a lot of this negative things offset the good things. While I get why it was influential I don't think that is reason enough alone to put it on the list. 

I agree that the audience shouldn't need to do research using outside the film resources to appreciate it. That's a bad film.

I think The Searchers doesn't require that though. I think the interesting details are in the film. They are just hard to pick up. I needed to hear the commentary to notice them but they are there on screen.

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6 hours ago, Cam Bert said:

This might be an unpopular opinion but I have to wonder if a film is only good after repeat viewings is it that good of a film?

I've had scenarios where I didn't quite "get" a movie on first glance, but after doing a bit of reading on it and then going back it totally clicked. Mulholland Dr. was one like that for me. It also wasn't that I really had to "work" to get the movie to click the next time; I just went into it looking for different things and it became a different emotional experience. Sometimes it helps to find that key.

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10 hours ago, grudlian. said:

I agree that the audience shouldn't need to do research using outside the film resources to appreciate it. That's a bad film.

I think The Searchers doesn't require that though. I think the interesting details are in the film. They are just hard to pick up. I needed to hear the commentary to notice them but they are there on screen.

That's fair enough. I suppose there are little details that I didn't pick up on like John Wayne's lost love like Amy and Paul were talking about. There are things like that but not enough to make me want to revisit the film.

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This one broke me. Whereas I've been able to experience nearly 90% of this podcast by enjoying a re-watch before listening, this one was a completely new and unfamiliar film. Unfortunately, it just failed on every level to capture any interest of mine. For the first time in a long, long time, I couldn't make it through in one sitting. I found myself on the phone, then preferring to wander for some chores, then trying to rewind, then resorting to watching in small chunks, then just skipping to the last 10 minutes. 

I really appreciate listening to the podcast and coming to the boards afterwards, as it allowed me to understand other views, but it's just going to be an academic understanding, nothing personal. And I'm going to be a week behind everything thanks to the slog of Searchers. I didn't think any film would be at the bottom of my personal rankings below Swing Time, but congratulations "Suck-ers," you made it.    

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So, The Searchers.

I watched this for the first time about five years ago and am only revisiting it now.  Coincidentally, I finally watched Unforgiven for the first time shortly before also around five years ago.  This is my first rewatch of both now. I had decided to give Unforgiven a chance because a sibling said they thought I would like it because I *really* liked No Country for Old Men - seen quite about seven years before.  The Searchers was watched because of intermittently working my way through the two BFI lists and having watched Unforgiven, it seemed like the time to watch The Searchers would be appropriate.

Oh wait.  This is getting a bit meandering and I wish to finish this post in less than five years.

I’m voting yes on the poll, but if I’m being honest with myself, there’s a good chunk of deference to the BFI critic’s list going on there.  I’m not well versed on Westerns of the era. This is the only John Wayne or John Ford movie I believe I’ve seen, and really don’t have a larger context to really judge it against.  To be honest, that’s probably how I’m going to be when we get to Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (and how I feel about The Passion of Joan d’ Arc). But all three of those movies, while weren’t movies that I loved, were movies that while watching, I felt there is something there.  So even if I couldn’t connect to them fully, I got the sense how other people could.  I say that because I didn’t get that with L’ Atalante or Battleship Potemkin.  And The Searchers, Sunrise, and Passion of Joan d’ Arc are all movies that are from eras and genres that I’m not really that well exposed to.  So if the really well regarded critics list says there good and I sense at least something, I have at least some deference. Though I approached going through that list not so interested in making rulings of, “does this movie belong on the list of all time greats,” but rather as, the critics list seems like a canonical representation of world cinema throughout the decades (I think I’ve said before, I find the BFI director’s list more in line with the movies I enjoy and love.  They just seem less diverse of types of movies - appropriately with that statement, The Searchers is way down near number 50).  Many of which are blindspots for me.  Let me see these and see which ones click.  Some will, some won’t. And having seen all but two movies of the top 50 in the list, I’ve found they usually had some hook to put in me or were interesting.  Even the ones I didn’t really click with. Extrapolating from the movies on the AFI list from which I feel more comfortable saying, “yeah, I don’t think this is very good,” I don't feel as much deference to it.  I say all this because, deference to some other list as belonging on a list of great movies isn’t a great argument in and of itself. And yet, here I am, doing it. Maybe if I did a deep dive on classic westerns, I’d change my opinion.  Anyhoo.

I will say, the first time I saw it, I did get the ambivalent sense of, this isn’t the full throated subversion I was expecting.  Though it did seem to be there, and yet, possibly not as much there as people lead me to believe. Wasn’t entirely positive if people were reading more into it than was there.  And that was the better half of the movie. The other half seemed trapped in the style of how I imagined John Wayne westerns - the type of westerns I’m not really interested in.  So, I am sympathetic to, well, this, opinion: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/nov/17/most-overrated-films-the-searchers

Because it’s quite possible it’s correct.  I think this is close to the place where Paul landed.

However, on this second watch, John Wayne does seem much more the anti-hero.  And I mean the Dustin Hoffman Straw Dogs anti-hero, i.e. the villain who happens to be the protagonist, but because of narrative conventions, it isn’t really obvious unless you’re paying attention.  And it just worked a lot better for me this second time around.

That other half of the movie that seems not so good.  Not so good, but maybe expecting the bad parts dulled it a bit.  Maybe having seen The Ballad of Buster Scruggs 3 or 4 times in the past two months has made Mose (and Vera’s suitor) seem less grating (just an attempt at humor that really doesn’t work for me).  They really seem like something out of a Coen brothers' movie.  Well, something in that vein.  Just not one that works for me.

Actually, I need to hit the hay, but some notes I scribbled down relistening to the podcast.

* Them going over the original ending with Natalie Wood - yeah. That is way more interesting. But I wonder if the talk of people reacting very strongly emotionally  to the ending - I wonder if that's in reference to the door shutting, not the not-shooting of Natalie Wood.  The shot of the door ending is the most iconic thing about the movie to me. It's what always gets shown/talked about when summarized in a short line/one shot. It's the first/only scene I knew of the movie going in 5 years ago. There's something emotional about the hero no longer having any place in the world and having the door shut behind him, heading off to the isolation of the open plains.

* Paul talking about Scar being offscreen and it being anti-climactic...  Actually, I took Martin killing Scar to be a thematic point of, John Wayne is no longer the hero of this world and has no place in it when I first saw it.  But if we go with the anti-climactic interpretation. No Country for Old Men also did this (even more offscreen!) - and would have been a lesser film if it hadn’t.  For this, it would be to emphasize that Scar isn’t the villain, and the building up of him is the mislead/subversion/critique.  The character you’re used to being the hero always needs someone to chase, so let’s deflate that myth by not giving him the showdown.

* Amy said there's nowhere in Texas where it goes from Martin being shirtless in the morning and then it's snowing in the afternoon.  I took that to be something like a six month time lapse. There’s some dialogue to the effect they had been searching for a year. It did make me think of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian because they had a situation where it went from being really hot to snowing very shortly.  I assumed they were in mountains though. Also not sure where. Unforgiven went from raining weather to snow in just a single day though.

* Them coming back in time to interrupt the marriage, eh... Other stories did the concept of these obsessive pursuits ruining lives better. Namely coming back in time.  Usually the quest is something more obviously shallow though, like the quest for money, power, skillmanship (usually at killing people) - I think Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu is coming to mind.  This could have been potentially a stronger part of the movie. I did like the meandering aspect of this movie though. If a movie is about a multi-year search with lots of false leads and dead-ins, then if it isn’t meandering, I would think that’s a false representation of the journey.

* I think Paul said, "Death wish came out a few years later." Um... Death wish came out nearly 20 years later.  But then again, The Ox-Bow Incident came out in 1943 (nearly 15 years earlier). That’s a western I channel surfed across once in high school.  I would like to revisit that one. Watching it as an adult, it could very well turn out to be heavy handed virtue signaling, but it also seems like it could be subversive seeming to this day.

* Amy mentions that the treatment and death of Martin's wife was cruelly handled. She focuses on the breadcrumbs that maybe she was going to betray them, but I'd point out that he also bemoans that she was killed for no reason.  I feel like, there’s something about killing the Other who was dehumanized as comic relief that points out the savagery of the white soldiers is kind of subversive in a weird kind of way. Even if it is at the same time problematic because it dehumanized a Native person for comic relief, and even more problematic in the sense that I suspect the film was that smart and did it on purpose.

Which I guess also goes to the situation of subverting a genre by resembling it in many ways.  And I think I was planning to write more on that when I first started this. It’s a topic that might come up in the discussion of Unforgiven as well.  And I do wonder if it lands better to viewer who are fans of the genre being subverted - and to those it isn’t, it’s just, “okay, you have some subversion in here, but you’re also just kind of another entry in this genre, I don’t like.”  Because there are instances where it really works for me, e.g. No Country for Old Men, Let the Right One In, Straw Dogs

And there are others where it did not - A.I., Unforgiven, and I think, The Searchers.

And it is something I do wrestle with and can only leave it at, I do wonder about it.

Oh, and I left off one aspect on me voting yes.  When I went into Unforgiven, I was told there were shots in it that were just beautiful.  I was mostly unmoved. Maybe because I existed in a world where I had seen movies such as There Will be Blood, No Country, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward, Robert Ford.  I went into The Searchers having read that Ford was known for his majestic filming of the southwest. I’m not that big on the terrain of the southwest, but I was fairly impressed by the landscape shots.  So that is worth something. I can’t compare to Lawrence of Arabia though, because the last time I saw that was in college. On VHS. On a 12-inch CRT tv/vcr combo. I think that’s the only time I’ve seen it.  Maybe in high school.

That said, in terms of westerns, I still think McCabe & Mrs. Miller is the best western (and Altman) I've seen.  I'll save my thoughts for Unforgiven for when it comes up, but, oh boy.  It seemed to go the opposite route of The Searchers for me on the rewatch.  The flaws seemed even worse this time around.

Okay.  Too many words and meandering thoughts.

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2 hours ago, ol' eddy wrecks said:

I'll save my thoughts for Unforgiven for when it comes up, but, oh boy.  It seemed to go the opposite route of The Searchers for me on the rewatch.  The flaws seemed even worse this time around.

Hmm, interesting. Exactly the opposite for me. It keeps improving.

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5 hours ago, sycasey 2.0 said:

Hmm, interesting. Exactly the opposite for me. It keeps improving.

Yeah, why I could ignore the flaws of one this time around and the flaws of the other became magnified (apparently like the comedy in The Searchers did this time for Amy) is the type of thing I do wonder about. The next episode is going to drop in about a day and my mind is viewing this should borderline be a two-parter on comparing/contrasting the two, so if I don't get back to this today (which is likely) I'll probably get into it in the Unforgiven thread.
 

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I'm way late to the game on this, but I was not excited by Searchers. I had no idea what it was about and had never heard of it before this podcast, so on my first watch I didn't really get that it was trying to subvert the genre. I just thought, hoo boy is this racist! I had no context for when it was released, or how this fit in with the Wayne/Ford collaborations. This might be my first full John Wayne Western though I've seen bits before. I watched it a second time after listening to the episode, and it improved just a little, but I still just find it racist and not enjoyable. I'd strike this one off the list with The Sixth Sense. I really just don't get the hype when there are way better westerns out there. 

I'm in the middle of Unforgiven, on the second watch, and it's maybe better than the first? I still feel like there's just too much Acting going on. And I find Clint Eastwood's later work to be overwrought. Too much of "look what I can do! Did you see what I did just there? Aren't I clever?" But maybe I'm an old maid. 

That said, I do enjoy Westerns more than I used to. My family wasn't that into them so I wasn't really introduced to them and have no long-standing relationship with them. But The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is maybe the perfect Western. I'm really enjoying the modern reboots of things like Westworld and the Cohen Brother's take on the genre in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Searchers is just not a good movie to me. If you need that much context and background to get it's point, it feels like a miss. 

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