We love myth. We bury our heads in it when facts and the fallacies of life fail to deliver the necessary psychological goods. Myth makes us happy, it reminds us of better, beefier times. It recalls our best while smiting our worst with tales of titans and troubles conquered and overcome. More importantly, myth makes up our consensus. It’s a communal explanation and a means of making sense of a complicated often elusive world. Of course, if one gets lost in myth, we lose touch with true reality. We can augment our existence, but living for and through folklore is a recipe for ridicule. A myth isn’t life. It’s a rose-colored window that frequently fogs up, misdirecting us and those who worship at its door.
When addressing the films found at number seven on Sight & Sound‘s recent list of the world’s greatest films (both overall, and from the exclusive director’s purview), we see perfect examples of moviemaking myth. We see art as entertainment, classicism as cause for celebration. While both movies are indeed monuments to the name of cinema, each is exclusive to their determination. If you are looking for The Godfather on the overall ranking, you have to go all the way down to 21. The directors, oddly enough, have The Searchers ranked even lower, coming in at 48. There’s an even more interesting twist if you look closely. The directors place another genre (and personally preferred) entry, Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western epic Once Upon a Time in the West, a few slots higher (at #44).
If films were featured in museums like canvases, both movies would have prominent places in same. Both resemble their period within an arty aesthetic which smoothes out the scars and, in at least one case, balances out the blood. The Searchers is often considered John Ford’s best, and when you look as his creative output, those are indeed strong words. The Godfather, on the other hand, was a fluke, a fortunate turn of events that Paramount chief Bob Evans rode to ridiculous award season riches. The debonair studio head thought that hiring Francis Ford Coppola was a mistake, and he dogged the future auteur mercilessly. The results, however, earned multiple Academy considerations, while The Searchers, though equally raved over ion its time, failed to garner a single Oscar nod.
Placement is not really an issue here. Both movies manage a mid-level line of consideration while previously appearing/disappearing from past lists. Each has its staunch supporters, and a few misguided critics, but for the most part, they represent film as a force of amazing artistic expression. Both are also guided almost completely by myth.
In the case of The Searchers, it’s filtered through the full faith and credit of Ford and his primary collaborator, John Wayne. For them, the West represents the last idyllic stand of pure man vs. pure nature, the culmination of our civilizing spirit over the angry and aboriginal “natives” and their weird, backward ways. Of course, back then, these tribes were referred to as “Indians” (or more often than not, “Injuns”) and shown to be savage, and unsophisticated. The main storyline has said wilderness scourge tricking a group of settlers (including one pissed off ex-Confederate soldier) into leaving their homes, leading to rape and pillage. Wayne is determined to find his kidnapped niece, turning the mission into one man against an entire country’s pre-history.
The Godfather is a story about revenge as well. In fact, the entire form of the mafia seems to be built on favors and forgotten/remembered vendettas. Power within the immigrant class is centered within the family, and in this case, the Corleones own the bustling, burgeoning city streets. The Don (Marlon Brando) maintains the traditions, while his sons, both biological (James Caan, John Cazale, and Al Pacino) and adopted (Robert Duvall) struggle within modern society. When deals with other dynasties go sour, death comes calling…and once he’s buried one of his own, there is no going back for a Corleone. There are a lot of killing in The Godfather, from close relatives to criminal rivals. Yet every time a body is discovered, there seems to be a need to “create” several more.
Wayne’s ‘wounded’ vet feels the same way. He’s out to destroy the Indian, not just for the wrongs committed against him personally, but for everything they stand for. Since the movie is called “The Searchers,” it seems sound to assume that the quest is as internal as it is external. Finding his niece is one thing. Finding out why she defies him later is another issue all together. The search then becomes one of individual assessment. Wayne’s background in clouded in secrecy and we are never sure if he’s back in the territory because of desire or desertion. Yet throughout the vast open vistas of this romanticized version of the West, he discovers purpose and a true calling. He gets what he wants in the end, if only because he was willing to fight and die for it.
For the Corleones, there is similar struggle. Michael wants out of the family business, but gets dragged in when his family faces the kind of threat few manage to survive. Sequestered in Italy, he meets someone who reminds him of the simply ways of his ancestry. Again, destiny…and the deadly force of an explosion, pull him back. It’s what his father wants, after all. Sonny is too pigheaded and Fredo too weak. Michael is meant to carry the Corleone torch, yet he’s convinced there is more life outside his legacy. Naturally, once in, he’s better than anticipated. He handles the various quarrels with lethal efficiency, carrying on where others in the clan have failed. Like Wayne, he is out to destroy those who wronged his family, not for the specific crimes (and they are many), but for the good of his future and that of his name.
And then there’s myth. The Searchers turns the truth about the dirty, dire Wild West into a symbol of the wild being tamed - both within the participants and the place. It’s all startling primary colors and visually stunning backdrops (David Lean apparently studied the film to get a handle on how to manage Lawrence of Arabia‘s oversized scope). The Godfather‘s focus is on the mass immigration of the turn of the century (even more so with its excellent sequel). With said influx of foreigners came a whole new way of dealing with dissent, from the various political causes to putting terror and Tommy guns into the street. The Coreleones exist because they have always existed, from the time of their ancestors to their eventual journey from Sicily.
Both films may fly in the face of fact, but both seem authentic and real. Each offers details that only the truth could create, and yet each one has said authenticity accentuated by the operatic dramatic of their creator. In myth there is grandeur. In myth, there is meaning. Most importantly, in myth, there is greatness, and nothing symbolizes this more than the selections offered at S&S‘s #7.