This is one of John Ford's greatest films, one of the greatest westerns of all time, and in general, one of the greatest and most influential films of all time. Given all that, you may be wondering about my rating. Well, here's the deal: yes, this is well made, very compelling, and revisionist (which I like). But, it was revisionist at the time it was made...which was long ago. So yes, the film hasn't aged (in some respects) all that well, and some of this was kinda corny, overacted, and not as realistic as I was thinking it would be. Some of my complaints are valid, but then again, this review is being written twenty minutes after my first viewing. Yeah, that's right, it has (for whatever reason) taken me this long to finally see this. Had I seen it at a younger and not as enlightened age I might be really jumping on the bandwagon as I somewhat expected I might be doing.
Okay, enough of the rambling and backstory. On to the review. It is 1868 and Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) is an ex-Confederate soldier with an intense hatred for Comanches who, after his family is slaughtered by a Comanche raiding party, goes on a five year quest to rescue his eldest niece whom the Indians took captive. With him are some Texas rangers and his nephew, but in the end, this is truly his personal quest.
In a lot of revenge films, the lead is usually likeable and relatable, and that is somewhat true here, but the great thing is that Ethan is really more of an anti-hero. You want to see him successfully complete his quest, but the way he goes about it, and his attitudes are so strong that it's kinda hard to root for him all the way. That's dark. Considering the film's age, that's really bold too. Yeah, it's not as relevatory now, but still. I figured this would be more black and white and not have as many shades of gray.
I think that's what really got me hooked, beyond the fact that I'm supposed to love this film anyway since it's expected of me as a serious film buff. I think that's what also makes it hard for me to give it a full five since, while levity isn't a bad thing, the somewhat lightheartedness of things and occasional cheesiness undercut the material and stick out more than they should.
The performances are decent enough. Wayne of course is strong, even if he was more of a movie star than a true actor. Jeffrey Hunter is fine, but the ladies in the film are really not given the long end of the stick. They do as best as they can with the material, but still, it is another slight fault of the film, perhaps due to the time period. Where the film really shines though are in Max Steiner's thrilling score, the excellent location shooting (Monument Valley, ftw), and the absolutely gorgeous cinematography. There's some truly wodnerful and memorable shots and framing here that are STILL being copied to this day, and I was really struck by the artisticness of them. Not that westerns of that era couldn't be art, but man, this really goes above and beyond to deliver something special.
I think the fact that I'm conflicted on this and rambling so much about it actually makes me love it more, and, in the end, that's all you can really ask of great art. Strong A.