Around the World in 80 Days (Directed by Michael Anderson)
The Nominees: Friendly Persuasion, Giant, The King and I, The Ten Commandments
The Searchers (Directed by John Ford)
My Nominee: The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. Demille)
By the late 50s, Hollywood was fighting the battle of the box. The new phenomenon of television was keeping audiences at home and so the studios sought to make bigger, grander epics that could only be experienced on a large screen.
The final battle would be called at a draw and for movie history and the spoils of war were some of the grandest epics ever made: Giant, The Ten Commandments, Bus Stop, Forbidden Planet, The Searchers, The King and I, Moby Dick and War and Peace. The Best Picture nominees of nineteen fifty-six were proof that the voting academy was on their side. All took full advantage of the new technology and even if the stories weren't always up to par, the pictures were as grand as they come.
The winner of the year's Best Picture was the least of the bunch, Michael Todd's elephantine adaptation of Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days, created with a DeMille-sized vision to take advantage of the CinemaScope process, whereby anamorphic lenses allowed the process to project a film up to a 2.66:1 aspect ratio, twice as wide as the previous format which had been 1.37:1.
The process worked for what was put on the screen. Around the World in 80 Days, which follows the punctiliously punctual Phileas Fogg (David Niven) and his manservant Passepartout (Cantinflas) on their celebrated journey around the globe, is a great travelogue that takes us to Spain, England, India, China, Japan, Pakistan, France and the United States but it isn't much more than that. Outside of the broader outlines of the character, we never really get to know Fogg all that much or any of the other galaxy of characters he meets along the way. Todd employed a galaxy of guest stars with recognizable faces like Charles Boyer, Peter Lorre, John Carradine, Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, Buster Keaton, Andy Devine, George Raft, Red Skelton and Shirley MacLaine, some with speaking roles and other just to stand around and be recognized. Most of these actors are given nothing to do, especially poor Shirley MacLaine who joins the journey after being rescued from a Thugee sacrifice and then spends the rest of the movie sitting to David Niven's right and is hardly even given a line to speak until the film is nearly over.
The film is fun as light entertainment but it is kind of superfluous, especially alongside more serious epics of the time. I thought, initially, of giving my Armchair Oscar to Cecil B. DeMille's gigantic biblical epic (and my annual Easter tradition), The Ten Commandments but instead, I'm going with John Ford's The Searchers, a film that the academy completely ignored. It baffles my mind why the voting academy completely shut out a film that is today viewed as the best western that Ford and John Wayne ever made. I am also baffled by their long-standing unwillingness to reward westerns. Only three westerns have won the Best Picture award, Cimarron, Dances With Wolves, Unforgiven and the first two of those films fall into a gray area.
I think my choice is better than any of those. The Searchers is complex, beautifully photographed and contains a surprising turn in John Wayne's career. The film is a Western but it does not draw a clear line between heroes and villains. Wayne's Ethan Edwards is a racist, not so much by design but by cause and effect. He is a racist who hates Indians so much that he defiles the body of a tribal elder to keep him from entering the spirit world.
We meet Ethan Edwards, and learn that he is a war veteran who has been away fighting for the Confederacy. He hasn’t seen his Sister-in-Law Martha or their children Debbie, Lucy, Ben or the adopted Martin since before the war. He doesn’t care for Martin, who is part Cherokee, despite the fact that it was he who saved the boy from an Indian raid some years earlier.
Lured away by the reverend Sam Clayton to investigate some cattle that have been stolen from a local rancher, they form a posse (which includes Martin) to find the men who have stolen the cattle only to find the livestock dead, having been killed off by Comanche. Ethan fears that this was a trap to lure him away from the ranch in order to stage a raid on the family. They return to find that everyone in the family has been murdered except Lucy and Debbie who are have been hauled away. Fueled with hate, Ethan reforms the posse and they head out to find the missing girls. The true nature of Ethan’s hatred for the Comanche is exposed when the men come upon a corpse and Ethan puts a bullet in each eye, then explains that without his eyes the man cannot enter the spirit world and has to wander forever between the winds.
He spends the next five years on the trail trying to find Debbie and along in the posse is Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) who battles with Ethan to see that he doesn't kill Debbie when he finds her. He has a twisted logic that "Livin' with Comanches ain't being alive.", a ridiculous statement but to his mind it seems perfectly logical. So do his actions such as slaughtering a heard of buffalo to cut down on the Comanche winter food supply.
The Searchers is an amazing film because it is positioned at an odd place in history between the holocaust in the 1940s and the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and Wayne's character stands for the evil that bred bloodshed on both sides. At a time when Wayne was seen as the all-American movie star, here he plays a character who reflects the attitude that many Americans had.
The Searchers contains a lot of subplots (some of them, like the inclusion on an Indian bride, are unnecessary) but the focal point is Ethan Edwards. Here is a man who stands at the center of this film where the hero should be, he hates beyond reason, hates so much that he is willing to punish the Native American beyond the grave. Perhaps it is not just the Indian that he hates. His history reveals that he is a man who has spent the last several years fighting in the Civil War on the side of the south. He seems to fight a never ending battle against those he sees as subhuman, second-class, beneath him.
The movie never gives a rational reason why (there really wouldn't be), but his is a brilliant case study on the nature of hate, the nature of a man who spends five years on the quest of revenge not against any individuals but all Comanche and then he strikes out for the blood of the woman he has those years trying to find. He believes that because Debbie has spent years amid the Comanche that her flesh and blood have been spoiled by them. "She's no better than the leavins of a young buck", he said and consider that he assumes this about a woman he hasn't seen for years.