The Searchers (1956)


John Ford’s The Searchers is a landmark in western filmmaking. But is it the last classic western, like Roger Ebert said, or is it the first revisionist western? When faced with a question about the meaning of like, Forrest Gump said “maybe both.” I think that’s the same conclusion to the question I just posed about The Searchers. It shows a landscape of romanticism, not the starker more brutal landscapes of revisionist westerns. And its characters are all (except one) shameless, blindly and violently racist just like those in classic westerns. But, in The Searchers, that views against Native Americans  are understood as a cultural norm that its audience is not expected to share with the characters. Classic westerns that have Native American characters (something westerns by John Ford and/or with John Wayne didn’t usually have) all operated under a simplistic black-and-white mentality of “white is good, red is bad, whites rescue, reds savagely scalp” The characters in The Searchers operate under this same mentality, but the movie’s purpose couldn’t be farther from it. John Wayne’s character Ethan may be a hero in the sense that he accomplishes the search the title refers to, but he’s not a good guy. We see the evil of his racism and are forced to face the reality of that evil, something no classic western would ever dream of communicating about its hero.

So The Searchers is both the last classic western and the first revisionist western, a monumental achievement to be sure. But it is much more than an innovative bridge between the two stages of western film history. It is a depiction of an evil man who accomplishes something very good. It’s about the very nature of humanity, the mix of the good and the evil that is in us all, and about how even when the one overshadows the other, the good and the evil continue to co-exist. Through most of the movie, it’s the evil that dominates for Ethan, and it’s the good that dominates for Martin (Jeffrey Hunter).

When Ethan and Martin first meet, Ethan doesn’t shake his hand, introduce himself, or do anything that would seem natural upon meeting a new person. What he does do makes it clear that he doesn’t see Martin (or any person with any Native American blood) as a human. He uses a racial epithet against him and when finding out that Martin is 1/8 Comanche, we see that 1/8 is all it takes to incite Ethan’s hatred. Nevertheless, Ethan and Martin embark on their journey together. Their search is for Ethan’s niece whose parents took in Martin. So Martin looks at this girl as his sister, and he’s motivated to find her out of love, but Ethan is motivated by his hatred towards Comanches which manifests itself constantly through how he interacts with Martin and is at its worst when they find the girl who he then views as sub-human because he sees that she has become like the Comanches.

The Searchers brilliantly allows us to watch Ethan’s growth as a character, which is not a growth away from racism but a growth towards better motives than he begins the search with. He’s still deeply flawed, full of hate and bitterness at the end of the search. We’re never expected to justify his beliefs and actions like he does, but we are expected to recognize that he is capable of goodness in spite of the evil that dominates his character. Through Ethan, The Searchers forces us to ask deep philosophical questions about morality and the presence of evil in the world without giving us any easy answers. It’s up to us  to figure out those answers.


Bride of Frankenstein (1935)


“An audience needs something stronger than a pretty little love story. So why shouldn’t I write about monsters?” Actors portraying Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, her husband Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron introduce the second installment of her Frankenstein story (something she never actually wrote). Mary Shelley, played by Elsa Lanchester (who also plays the monster’s bride), asked question I just quoted. This is the mindset that undoubtedly has guided director/screenwriter/producer Guillermo del Toro’s career, leading to his passionate and sensual (but definitely not pretty or little) love story about the relationship between a deaf-mute cleaning lady and a sea monster that just won four Academy Awards including Best Picture.

In James Whale’s first Frankenstein film, he produced a perfect retelling of Mary Shelley’s masterwork for film. Just as Shelley did, that film emphasized the horrific results of playing God. But Bride of Frankenstein goes even farther to condemn the actions of the mad scientist while finding empathy, and even humanity, for the monster he created. The evil actions committed by the monster are not the monster’s fault but the creator’s fault. Beginning just where the earlier film left off, Dr. Frankenstein is about to be married, and his bride reminds him of just that. She will not allow him to continue a life that does not take responsibility for his destructive creation. Wanting to please her, he tries to turn from his ways until an even madder scientist, Dr. Pretorius, convinces him to return to his former ways and to build a wife for the first monster.

Our empathy for the monster is built through his desperate pursuit of connection. As he’s being pursued by all the people of the town who wrongfully blame him for the murders that have occurred instead his maker, he is marginalized to the point of feeling invalidated and dehumanized, much like Sally Hawkins’ character and her sea monster in The Shape of Water. But the monster begins to gain a sense of humanity not initially through romance but through the sound of a violin. As he’s drawn to the beauty of the music, we see something that the monster has a soul, something that the first movie only hints at.

As the monster follows the sound of the violin, he meets an old, blind hermit who welcomes him and teaches him to speak. His first words are “bread,” “drink,” and “friend.” He is now becoming human as is finally experiencing the fulfillment of the most basic human needs. Through this first taste of humanity, he learns to embrace his desire for mate all while his maker and the even madder scientist are trying to make that happen without even knowing he wants or needs it. They’re motives of course have nothing to do with the monster’s humanity or the safety of the community but with their own insatiable lust for power over things no human has power over. As they proclaim the beginning of “a new age of gods and monsters,” they continue to dehumanize both their creations and the rest of the world around them. But for a brief moment, the monster has the opportunity to embrace life and to be a human, making this monster, as played by Boris Karloff in both films, one of the most profoundly moving character in cinematic history.

Pulp Fiction (1994)


Pulp Fiction is known for its gruesome but stylish violence, pitch black but goofy sense of humor, and especially the many ways Tarantino’s storytelling so brilliantly messes with our minds so that even after seeing the movie several times (I think I’ve seen it about 10 times), we’re still not quite sure we just saw. Yet behind all this is a strangely profound movie about faith. Every twist and turn, every intentional chronological confusion, every character that seems unrelated to Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) in some way or another all center around Jules’ professed experience of the miraculous that leads him to leave his life of crime and become a Christian.

Near the end of the film we see an act of repentance where Jules begins to put his past life to death so he can begin his new life. He describes the miracle he claims to have experienced, during a hit, when bullets should have killed him and his partner Vincent (John Travolta) but instead ricochet onto the wall, many times throughout the movie. Because Tarantino organizes the story without any traditional sense of chronology, we see him explain his story in several different times and contexts as well as the results of that experience from people that don’t even seem related until everything unfolds in the final scene.

As we see the impact that Jules’ newfound faith has on himself, we might get confused whether we’re seeing a scene before or after the miracle the first time seeing the film, but once the movie’s over, this all become clear (even if little else of the story is after the first viewing). With repeat viewings, we get to know that Jules’ transformation is clarified throughout the movie, not just in the last scene. The first time seeing the movie, we might think he’s crazy or just telling the story as part of a brilliant criminal scheme. But the way he uses a prophecy of destruction from the book of Ezekiel as a tough-guy line before killing people is how we know we’re seeing a pre-Christian Jules.

Most of the time we see Jules actually is after the miracle, so when he says at the end of the movie how he’s trying to be like Christ, we can see that in the rest of the movie with repeated viewings. We see the genuineness that he tells his story with. We see a desire for others to experience what he has. We see lots of confusion, lots of anger, and lots of uncertainty of what it means to live this new life, so many of the old things are still there. But we do see through all of these things that he means what he says at the end when says “I’m trying, I’m really trying.”

With the exceptions of a few film portrayals of great real-life saints and church leaders like Monsieur Vincent and A Man Called Peter, Jules Winnfield is probably the most lovingly and fully created developed character in film history to represent repentance and conversion to faith in Jesus Christ. This is admittedly an extremely strange thing to say about a character in a movie so filled with actions of brutality and perversity, but that’s precisely what makes all the complex and divided puzzle pieces Pulp Fiction come together. It is a depiction of how in the places and situations of the world where evil and darkness are the most visible, light still shines, and goodness still pervades. Repentance like Jules’ is turning point that can make everything different in the world around the genuinely repentant person.


Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)


And Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon introduces us to three complex characters that force us to think about how we see ourselves, what we value most in life, and how we answer the deep spiritual questions that every person is faced with. Li Mu Bai (Chow Fun-Fat) attempts to give up his life as a warrior in pursuit of Buddhist spiritual enlightenment. He gives his famous sword, the Green Destiny, to a friend to symbolize the end of that part of his life, but when the sword is stolen he’s brought right back into the world he wanted to leave.

Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh)  has given up all semblance of a normal female life as her 18th century Chinese culture defines femininity. She’s not a proto-feminist. She has high regard for what her culture deems appropriate for a woman including arranged marriages and the perceived woman’s roles in society. But her own engagement ended in the death of her fiancé (Li Mu Bai’s brother), leaving them both with the desire for vengeance against the murderer.

We learn about Yu Shu Lien’s past and the unrequited love that has developed between her and Li Mu Bai through her relationship with the third key character in the story. Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi) is a rebel, but she assumes treats the other two are as well. She doesn’t care what society thinks she should do. She wants to love who she chooses. She wants to be a warrior. She wants to be better than her master Jade Fox (Pei-Pei Cheng), a vengeful woman who tries to kill masters that won’t train woman. She tries to deceive Yu Shu Lien into a a sister-like relationship so she learn about Li Mu Bai and learn how to defeat him.

The only one Yu Shu Lien is deceiving is herself. Li Mu Bai sees the good in her and recognizes that she’s acting deceptive only because she has been trained to do so. Her master has taught her more about how to think as her master wants her to think than about to fight. Jen Yu is already a better fighter than her master and is both held back and poisoned by her control. Yu Shu Lien understands something about Jen Yu that Jen Yu doesn’t understand about herself, that the freedom she really desires is not the freedom she’s seeking. This knowledge leads Yu Shu Lien to the complicated type of devotion to Jen Yu that cares enough about her to let her have her way in order to show her that her way isn’t what she actually wants. This is what leads to one of the greatest scenes in film history, the electrifying fight between the two women who have previously claimed to be like sisters.

Ang Lee gives a beautiful portrayal of complex relationships that involve romance but don’t center on that romance. It’s a portrayal of not just relationships between people with each other but of relationships between people and their dominant cultures, between people and their own ideals and perceptions of the world when those thoughts are deeply challenged and even contradicted. Having said that, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is ultimately about the relationship every person has with spiritual matters, about how we relate to the intangible realities of the world that are bigger than ourselves, about how we determine right from wrong, and about how we perceive the world as a whole and our own part of it.


Mrs. Miniver (1942)


The sounds of William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver assist the story in ways so profound that they actually tell a lot of the story. The first half hour or so shows the pre-war Miniver family full of materialism and vanity. Every time we hear a war siren, it’s not just the simple sound we’re used to hearing in WWII movies. Each siren is a warning to the Miniver family to denounce their ways of materialism and vanity. Each siren connects in an important way to a car, an expensive hat, or some other luxury that the family has come to depend on.

Along with the sounds of war, some of the more usual sounds of life send important messages to the Miniver family. Several scenes occur during church services. When we hear one of the Minivers sing along with the voices around them, we know from the tones in their singing what’s going on inside of them. The first and the last church scene both involve the hymn “O God Our Help in Ages Past.” The first time, the sounds of the Minivers singing tell us that they’re in church only because the Minivers have always gone to church. But the last time, they’re a family that has recognized their deep for help, and the sound of their singing expresses a willingness to receive the divine help that they didn’t express the first time we heard them sing it.

Before the war begins the only challenge the Minivers experience to their vain lifestyle comes from their son. After a year at university, he recognizes a need to stop living only for himself. He doesn’t have a clue how to do this since it has never been modeled for him, but his newfound desire to see justice done around him confronts their status quo. Once the war starts and he joins the air force and the family has started to grow out of its self-centeredness, we hear planes all the time but there’s a special cue their son gives through the sound of his plane whenever he flies over the Miniver house. The sound of his plane further confronts them to leave their lives of selfishness, but much more than that it gives them a reason and desire to that. It gives them an example of what it means to sacrifice and to live for others.

Director William Wyler is the star of Mrs. Miniver, even more than Greer Garson who plays the title role, wonderful as she is, as is the rest of the cast. His attention to the smallest of details shows the growth of the story’s characters in a genuine, believable way without ever giving way to emotional sensationalism or cheap sentiment. Along with all the sounds that William Wyler uses to accomplish this, the name of the Miniver’s cat is another important detail that tells us so much about the family. The Miniver family was real, so I don’t know if they actually had a cat named Napoleon, but if they did it tells us a lot about them, and if they didn’t then the screenwriters did something brilliant (among many brilliant acts) to communicate the truth of the Miniver family.

They had Napoleon before WWII started. They never discuss why they gave the cat the name they did, but the name communicates more of the vain presumption the family lived on before the war. They named their pet after one of history’s most destructive tyrants apparently seeing it as a cute name for their pet only to having to endure the destructive tyrant of their own time. The cat’s name is also important for the irony that in the movie’s greatest scene it’s Napoleon the cat who gives them a picture of what it means to really live. This great scene with Napoleon the cat, who is named after a destructive dictator, gives them an example of where true joy comes from, much different from how they had been living their lives before.

This scene where they learn about joy takes place in a bomb shelter. They learn how to love through the hate that has attacked their country. They learn how to find peace during war. They became a family of heroes through the most ironic and contradictory of situations. Kay Miniver became a war hero on the homefront when German soldiers surrounded her home while both her husband and oldest son were in battle. The family that was once so stuck inside itself was able to become a family of heroes that made great contributions during WWII because they were willing to listen to the sounds and voices that all originated from God himself to lift them out of their self-centered vanity and into life, joy, sacrifice, and love. Because they were eventually open to hearing the voice of God in all the ways that it presented itself to them, they even experienced the greatest irony of all, abundant life while surrounded by the constant death.


Corack (1974)


Jon Voit has consistently been one of the finest actors around for the last 50 years. Not many would argue against that, but the film where I believe he has given his best performance of them all is in a very small, criminally under-seen movie. Conrack is based on the experiences of Pat Conroy about the end of his teaching career. After being fired from the Beuford School District, Conroy became a prolific author through a book in which he presented a composite of his experiences at the school district though slightly fictionalized and of course his great novel The Prince of Tides.

Jon Voit embodies the curiosity, the desire to learn, and most importantly the love that characterize every great teacher. Conroy takes a job at a school on a South Carolina delta island in 1969, an entirely black community that thought of itself as lucky to even have a school. But the school was so burdened by poverty and by the racism of those on the mainland that they couldn’t get any help from the state to educate their children. Conroy’s mission was just that, to educate. The movie never treats him as the generous, self-sacrificing, heroic white man that saves all the black children. That’s what a typical 1974 movie would do, but Conrack just lets him be a great teacher.

Being a great teacher, Conroy does have an immense positive impact on his kids and ultimately on the entire community, but it comes because of who the man really was, his sense of how to best fulfill the role of his vocation and the intimate connection between that sense of purpose and the kids of the island, not a contrived cinematic invention like The Blind Side or The Help that requires white people to save black people from their civil rights plights. There have been more than enough of those movies, but Conrack is so unusual in its ability to inspire by introducing us to a real group of people. He can only accomplish what he does because of the children, so he’s not praised any more than the kids are for their willingness to learn or the community is for its willingness to grow.

Just like the well-intentioned civil rights movies that are all about white characters (which this movie is thankfully not), there are far too many movies about educational systems that treat the teachers with hero worship, paying no attention to the flaws or the humanity of the teacher (like Dead Poets Society which will never admit that the suicide in the movie is actually the teacher’s fault or Music from the Heart that expects us to believe that a real person could be as harsh, condescending, and self-centered as Meryl Streep’s unfortunate portrayal of a real teacher—and a good teacher in real life—could have any kind of a positive impact on her students). But Conroy is a hippie and a goofball, something the rest of the North Carolina school district didn’t want anything to do with. The movie never sidesteps his flaws, it lets them speak for themselves.

Most of all the character we meet, as played by Jon Voit, is a real person, not in the common “based on a true story” sense but in the sense that Jon Voit’s portrayal of him is three-dimensional and fully realized. It may not be completely accurate to Pat Conroy’s life and experience, it’s not supposed to be, but it’s a real person. And through that one real person, we get to know the whole community. We get to know the kids who make a difference in his life. Of course he impacts they’re lives, he’s a great teacher, that’s what great teachers do. But most of what we get to see is the joy of how these kids impact him. After more than 30 years, I hope something comes about where people finally start watching this magnificent film. It occasionally appears on various streaming outlets, but seems to be removed as quickly as it’s added, so go to periodically, and check for Conrack to find a way to watch this masterpiece.


Les Misérables (2012)


In his writing, Victor Hugo harshly criticized a large portion of the church in France at his time, even if the subject matter was set before his time as in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But Les Misérables was set entirely within his lifetime telling a story that in many ways was the very real France he lived in where the church and the government had collided making an environment that promoted a type of Christianity without love. The 1980s musical based on Hugo’s novel has the two main characters that embody Hugo’s criticisms of the church and desire for real Christian love to reign in his culture. The songs are thread and repeated throughout the musical to develop Javert as the man of loveless religion and Jean Valjean as the man of grace.

In Tom Hooper’s masterful film version of the musical, Hugh Jackman gave his best performance to date as Jean Valjean. In the opening scene as he is about to be released from prison he sings the story we all know of being imprisoned some 20 years for stealing a loaf of bread. It’s a duet with Javert as Jean shows himself to be a loving man doing what he needed to do for his family while Javert makes it known that no matter how long he’s out of prison Jean will never be free from Javert.

Russell Crowe also gave his best performance to date but five years later he’s still getting complaints for supposedly having ruined the movie with his singing. True, he doesn’t have a Broadway voice, but nobody in this movie really sings with a Broadway voice. Tom Hooper’s direction made sure every scene had an raw emotional candidness that apparently was off-putting to many viewers but the finished product is clearly Tom Hooper’s own vision of Les Misérables, and that vision requires extended close-ups and rough live singing because all of that helps bring to life the effects on all those around the personification of grace and the personification of loveless religion.

The best thing about Russell Crowe’s part in the movie is that his Javert is much less villainous than is commonly interpreted in many of the other film versions of Hugo’s novel and even the original stage musical. Russell Crowe’s Javert is bound by his idea of the law. He’s so bound to that he refuses to receive grace every time it is offered to him. He brings a character that is more tragic than villainous. He so deeply believes the lie that he’s serving God by doing what he thinks is his duty of convicting and imprisoning people for acts of survival that he cannot recognize what it really looks like to serve the God he thinks he’s serving though he’s shown it many times in the movie.

I don’t know of any movie that gives a better picture of what grace is than Tom Hooper’s version of Les Misérables. The contrast made between the two characters is not one of good vs. evil but of real good vs. supposed good. Javert’s inability to receive love is an inability to receive truth. His inability to receive love and truth makes it impossible for him to know what justice really is even though he is supposed to be a man of justice, a man of the law. His sense of justice is actually injustice that harms and even kills man people. His moral confusion contrasted with the real grace and love shown by Jean Valjean gives a beautiful picture of empathy and sacrifice, fighting for what is right, and of the truth that, as Jean Valjean sings at the end of the movie, “to love another person is to see the face of God.”