I like John Ford as much as anybody, but when I heard about Warners’ new Ultimate Collector’s Edition of The Searchers, what really made my eyes moist was not the prospect of a new transfer or watching a bunch of filmmakers sit around and idolize the old manâ€¦no, it was the inclusion of a reproduction of an old, 1956, Dell comic book.
Sure, it’s a reduced-size reproduction, they had to fit it into the box, but it’s pretty nifty nonetheless, being a near facsimile of a vintage copy, with 10 cents on the cover and the Dell Pledge on the back.The Dell Pledge, if you remember, was one company’s total acquiescence to The Comics Code, which was the feeble, but very consequential, result of Congressional furor that ignited in the mid-fifties over certain “unwholesome” comics.(The Pledge reads, partially: “The Dell Trademark is, and always has been, a positive guarantee that the comic magazine bearing it contains only clean and wholesome entertainment.”)
Many of the comics of “questionable taste” had been published by EC Comics, the brainchild of Bill Gaines, whose line of horror comics, including titles such as Tales of the Crypt, rankled community standards at the time. Gaines response to the hoopla was to say the hell with it, ditch his horror line, but save and nurture just one of his titles, Mad.
But Dell always smelled good, like a bathroom freshener. One of Dell’s long-running, squeaky clean lines was the Movie Classics, which featured mostly adaptations of Biblical epics like Ben-Hur, fantasy, sci-fi films like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and The Time Machine, or Disney films like Pollyanna.Dell put out dozens of these titles, many of them badly conceived and drawn.(Believe me, I know, I bought a truckload of them.) Occasionally, there’d be winners, like the adaptation of Robert Wise’s Helen of Troy in 1954 (drawn by John Buscema), but in any case, all of them lacked, shall we say, controversy?Dell certainly didn’t run out to adapt Gentleman’s Agreement or The Girl Can’t Help It.
Which makes their taking on The Searchers something of a puzzle. Intense racial hatred, implied rape, and murderous intent are pretty much Ford’s show here.Reading the comic today is fascinating if only to observe how the writer/editor removed all traces of The Searchers’ ornery thematic material and dialogue, while still very skillfully retaining nearly all of the plot threads and cadences. The artwork is not Dell’s best, but it doesn’t descend to the worst, either.The artist got Ethan Edwards to look like Wayne maybe half the time, a fairly good average for Dell. Warners’ scan of what must’ve been 50 year old copy in mint condition yields detail like wood pulp in the margins but stops short of bringing the Ben Day dots into focus. Regardless, there were never any bloody dresses on view here nor does Ethan shoot any dead Indian’s eyes out.The film’s climactic scene, where Ethan appears ready to murder Debbie, is smoothed out in Dell’s version by having Ethan mistake Debbie for an Indian; once he recognizes her as a little white girl (the artist gives her blonde hair), they can go home. There’s racism here, but it’s pretty muffled.
Warners’ new transfer of the film looks darn good to me, although online buffs have complained that some scenes are keyed too bright, with the Technicolor hues losing their saturation.What struck me this time was the immediacy of Max Steiner’s wonderful score which effectively encapsulates Ford’s perennial penchant for sentimental 19th century ballads.In Grapes of Wrath, it’s Red River Valley; in Fort Apache, it’s I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen. In The Searchers, it’s Joseph Philbrick Webster’s 1857 ballad, Lorena, which is closely associated with the Civil War.Steiner’s lovely setting of the tune renders the opening scene, when Martha Edwards swings the cabin door open onto the sun drenched Monument Valley landscape and Ethan’s return, a throat-catching resonance.
It’s moments like these that give one perspective over elements in the film that can give one pause. And I don’t mean Ethan’s racism, either.I mean things like Natalie Wood looking like a debutante at a costume ball (pretty Injun girl) when she’s been living five years with the Comanche and is implicitly Scar’s favorite concubine. Or Ken Curtis, as Vera Miles’ suitor, acting like a congenital idiot until he picks up a guitar and reveals honey-coated tonsils as he sings “Skip to My Lou”. (Remember Jim Nabors, as Pyle, doing this, suddenly breaking into sweet song?Or the Frankie Fontaine’s the-drunk-suddenly-an-Irish-tenor schtick on Jackie Gleason’s show? Where did this business come from?Vaudeville?)How about the Duke’s suddenly cheesy wardrobe when the action moves South of the Border?The red-checkered shirt he’s wearing looks like it’s straight from J.C. Penny’s; his straw sombrero appears lifted from some roadside souvenir shop on Rt. 66.
But these are silly externals and they don’t affect the heart of the film.For my latest viewing of the film, I had to be cued by Glenn Erickson (of DVD Savant) to notice Ford’s total non-verbal handling of the attraction between (and probable past history between) Ethan Edwards and his brother’s wife, Martha.It’s all done with quiet gesture and furtive glances (at one point while Ward Bond sips his coffee, oblivious to the repressed interactions going on behind him).If he gives Wayne two minutes of maniacal ravings over the mere existence of Comanchees, Ford will then allow several seconds of Wayne looking haunted and alone.
The comic book left this stuff out, too.