251. THEM! [B-]
252. The Searchers [C+]
THEM!: This is an odd B-movie that gave rise (along with THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS) to the atomic monster subgenre of sf that was popular in the 1950s. At times, it is positively brilliant, featuring gorgeous cinematography that is reminiscent of film noir, with harsh shadows, and mobile light sources. The cast is also fairly strong for such a B-Picture, including Oscar-winner Edward Gwenn in one of his last feature film roles, as well as James Whitmore, James Arness, and a memorable cameo by Fess Parker (not to mention a brief speaking role by Leanord Nimoy, and yet another appearance by William Schallert, who guest starred in "The Trouble with Tribbles").
But that doesn't get around the times when the cinematography is positively embarrassing--once you start to notice that in certain shots the director has blocked up to seven actors into the 4:3 frame you can't stop noticing it, as the actors awkwardly take their positions so that everyone can be in frame at once. It also doesn't help the ants, which look terrible. They're wisely kept off screen for more than half an hour, but once they appear it seems like they never leave (Warner Bros. apparently asked the director to include as much of the ants as possible, despite his protests, and it shows). It also doesn't help that the film switches from 35mm to 16mm near the end (and often alternates between the two) which is positively jarring.
Finally, there's the Dr. Medford character (Gwenn). At times, he's the voice of science and of reason (let's ignore the fact that even Warner Bros. own research files, pulled from articles written in the late 40s suggest that 'giantisim' of any sort was just plain fantasy), but at other times he speaks of biblical prophecy, of science gone too far, and the end of the world. It feels like these lines have been tacked on, and the idea that "science has gone too far" (implicitly, that it has encroached upon 'God's domain') leads to incoherence when science (in concert with military might, itself the development of science) ultimately comes to the rescue in the end. But, I'm sure nobody else cares--I've just been working on this angle as part of a research project lately. Getting to look through the old studio files about THEM! has certainly been fascinating.
The Searchers: This is often hearalded as one of John Ford's best Westerns (if not the
best), but it's not without some major problems. For one, despite the fact that Wayne's character is intended to viewed with scorn by the audience (his sneering in close-ups, and his slaughter of buffalo, drive home this point), the film undermines this scorn by supporting his racist viewpoint. You see, the Indians of this film go around raping women, murdering families, and kidnapping children. The late suggestion that this is retaliation over the murder of Chief Scar's sons does little too alleviate the fact that he and the other Indians are demonstrated again and again to be brutal savages. It's not nearly the revision of the norms of the classical Western that some critics suggest. The Indians are also, of course, terrible shots. Despite being armed with plenty of guns, they can't seem to hit any of the white characters, while the Indians are killed by the dozens.
It's also held down by the subplot with Vera Miles, which injects some unneeded humor (often, where humor is innapropriate--such as the revelation that Jeffrey Hunter's character could only be bothered to write one letter to Vera Miles in five years
). The heart of the story is the relationship between Wayne and Hunter (yes, the original Captain Christopher Pike), and the film spends a third of its running time, if not longer, on a long tangent that distracts from that.
THE SEARCHERS has several strong elements, but it is not Ford's masterpiece. Even Roger Ebert, who hails the film as one of the "great movies" cannot praise it without intense qualification.