Blu-ray is to DVD what vinyl is to CD — that is, it offers an incremental increase in quality that somehow takes the viewing or listening experience into a new realm. Vinyl sounds more like live music than a CD can, Blu-ray looks more like a projected 35mm print than a DVD can.

The Blu-ray quality is more important for some films than for others — beautifully lit films with shots composed in depth, like The Searchers, take your breath away on Blu-Ray.

It makes a great difference with a film like Rear Window, much of which takes place in a single room. Hitchcock works hard, through lighting and composition, to make that room seem like an interesting place to be confined.  It feels bigger and more inviting when seen in a Blu-Ray presentation, offering the compensations Hitchcock counted on for limiting his male star’s presence to one relatively small space.


I won’t say that every shot in John Ford’s Rio Grande is brilliantly lit, composed and choreographed, an example of cinematic craft at its highest pitch of elegance and beauty.  Perhaps five percent of the shots in the film don’t fit that description.  On the other hand, neither Citizen Kane nor Vertigo achieves that level of perfection from shot to shot, and very few films exceed it, Seven Samurai, Chimes At Midnight and The Conformist being among the few that come readily to mind.

Click on the image to enlarge.


No civilized home should be without this stunning Blu-ray edition of The Seachers and the means to play it on a large-screen television. It’s as close as you will probably ever get, these days, to seeing a pristine Technicolor print projected in a theater — which is to say as close as you will probably ever get to one of the greatest works of art created in America and one of the greatest performances (by Wayne) ever committed to film.


We will probably never again, in our lifetimes, see a movie like The Searchers. It was made by grown men. They may not have been the best of men, but they were real men, and such creatures are no longer welcome in Hollywood. If a grown man wandered by mistake into Hollywood today he would be hunted down like a dog by the pussies who run the place and ridden out of town on a rail, to the accompaniment of high-pitched hysterical screams.

There are of course real men hiding out in Hollywood in 2012 but they keep a low profile and dream of escaping.  They are relics of a vanished time.

This is all just a way of saying that Hollywood has become a place of terminally arrested adolecence and as such is doomed, will pass away shortly into nothing.  To quote The Searchers, “Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come,” but that’s what our bones are for — to mark the fight against what’s pathetic and shameful.

And don’t mistake me — the virility of The Searchers is not about guns and horses and action and moving through wide open spaces.  The widest open space in the film is the emptiness inside Ethan Edward’s heart, and inside the heart of the woman he loves, and who loves him, his brother’s wife Martha.

Ethan doesn’t become a real man until he can look into that abyss with clear eyes and live with it.  It costs him everything — costs him all his pride and self-regard, his construction of himself as a tough guy.  He becomes a man when he’s ready to pay that price.  This is something only a man who’s paid that price, or knows he needs to pay that price, understands.


On his recent trip to Paducah, Kentucky, Paul Zahl found an empty palace of dreams:

Of the two surviving movie palaces in Paducah, The Columbia is the larger and more ornate.  I saw heavy demolition equipment in
the rear and got worried.  Fortunately, I was able to consult with a
professor of regional history who knows all about
Irvin S. Cobb and more about Paducah as a riverfront city.  Dr. Robertson said
that The Columbia is not slated for demolition, although it is
derelict.  Cobb's movies, such as
Steamboat Round the Bend and the
one he made after Will Rogers was killed — in which the studio tried,
unsuccessfully, to make Cobb into Rogers's folksy successor on screen —
would have been shown here.  This theater is only six blocks from the
confluence of the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers.


Another report by Paul Zahl from his recent trip to the area around Paducah, Kentucky:

This is one of the main avenues of the ancient Oak Grove Cemetery in
Paducah.  Here Irvin S. Cobb is buried, here is where John Ford came in
1961, while shooting his section of
How the West Was Won nearby, to pay his respects to his old friend, and here is where the prototype for Cobb's (and Ford's) “Judge
Priest” (i.e. Judge William S. Bishop) is buried, right beside Silent Avenue.

This is Cobb's grave in Oak Grove Cemetery:

The inscription
reads, “Back Home”.  A dogwood tree, as per his dying request, shades the
grave.  He wanted only the Twenty-Third Psalm read at the grave,
together with the choir of a local African-American congregation to
sing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Deep River”.  Cobb's wishes were

Mercy Avenue is another of the main axes of Oak Grove Cemetery.  I
got up high on some crumbling steps leading into a mausoleum in order
to get this one.  I think if we could all spend some time on “Silent
Avenue” and then perhaps forever on “Mercy Avenue”, we would be in
excellent shape.

Just a few “blocks” down Silent Ave from Cobb's grave is this one — the grave of John Scopes, the
teacher of evolution in the Tennessee public schools who was prosecuted
in the famous “Monkey Trial” of 1925:

This is the man whom Clarence Darrow (or
Spencer Tracy, for those of you who remember the movie about the trial,
Inherit the Wind) defended, and who won, after a fashion.  He was found formally guilty and
fined $100, but the judgment was regarded by everyone at the time as a
victory for free speech, and even evolution itself. 
In the film, Frederick March played William Jennings
Bryan (below), who stumbled in attacking this man, and never fully recovered from
the moral defeat which the trial was for him.

What a picture of
Twentieth Century America, in one acre of ground — Cobb, now no longer
famous, with a big grave near the entrance; his prototype for “Judge
Priest” buried nearby, on Mercy Avenue, a man who kept on getting elected
because the Confederate veterans of the county were “Yellow Dog”
Democrats — that is, people who would vote for a yellow dog before they would vote for Republican; and then, after all that, down the way, the simple memorial
to John Scopes,  “A Man of Courage”.


Paul Zahl's thoughts on the episode of How the West Was Won directed by John Ford (a few spoilers here), with some photographs he took recently of the filming locations:


Right after the Intermission in How the West Was Won comes
John Ford's part.  It is his conception of the Civil War, in which Carroll
Baker bids farewell to her son forever as he marches off to war,
the Battle of Shiloh rages, during which her husband, the
Jimmy Stewart character, is killed off, then
character dies (off screen), and George Peppard comes home to find only
his brother still there, lovingly watching over the family farm and
also the family graves.  Peppard's character leaves, again, and his
brother weeps with desolation and resignation.

Above is the exact spot where John Ford filmed the bracketing scenes on the farm.  I photographed it from
the bank of the Cumberland River at Smithland, Kentucky, with Georgian and
early 19th Century houses — inns, churches, warehouses, and one “plantation” house called “Strait” — on both sides of me and behind
me.  Just beyond the trees on the spit of land across the river is
where the farm house of Carroll Baker and George Peppard and his little
brother was constructed.  That area is now farmland.  Also, just
behind the trees, they constructed the log fence along the road down
which Andy Devine rode at the beginning of scene one, and down which
George Peppard walked at the end of scene one, the family dog trying to
follow him, plaintively.

Although the river in front of the spit of land is the
Cumberland, on the other side of it, in the far left background, is
the Tennessee.  Baker and the other actors would be ferried across to
the location each morning, from the spot where this photograph was
taken.  The place is still and wonderfully quiet.

The two scenes on the farm are
distilled emotion in the classic Ford manner.  Carroll Baker carries a
black scarf as she says her dense and underplayed
farewell to Peppard and as she addresses the dead in the family
graveyard.  The second scene on the farm is like a silent movie, with
almost no dialogue, and Peppard plays this particular part — his
discovery that his mother has died — laconically and therefore
movingly.  The director's use of the Cinerama process seems
instinctive, with Ford hiding the screen lines by means of poles and
posts mostly.  I find these two short scenes on the “Rawlings” farm to be
as mighty as any he ever did.

The middle sequence of “The Civil War” represents
the Battle of Shiloh.  It includes a somewhat cynical exchange between
General Grant and General Sherman, and a contrived encounter that
George Peppard, slightly wounded on the Union side, has with Russ
Tamblyn, a Confederate soldier.  They are both quenching their burning
thirst at “Bloody Pond”, until they realize that the water has an odd color . . .

Above is Bloody Pond as it looks today.  It has changed little since the
night of April 6th, 1862, which is the night depicted in the middle section of
Ford's Civil War sequence
.  You can't
park anywhere near the place today, due to improvements being made by
the Park Service to the loop road; so you have to approach Bloody Pond
through the woods on the other side of the Pond (from this angle).  You
walk about a third of a mile through woodland, then come right out on
the clearing where the Pond is.  Now it is muddy and yellowish-brown.
 That night it was red.

Ford also depicts the battlefield surgical station, as well as the tiny Shiloh Church — above, as it is today.  This is where the fighting reached its apogee on the first day of the battle.  It is a reconstruction (but on the exact site) of Shiloh
Methodist Church, which was destroyed during the battle.  It is
depicted at the top of the frame at the beginning of the nighttime
section of Ford's Shiloh sequence.

They weren't able to
have church that Sunday morning April 6, 1862 . . .
but . . . the day I was
there, a couple of weeks ago, I went into the current United Methodist
Church of Shiloh, which is the active church, located to the right of what you
see in the photograph, and peered through its glass doors.  Behold!: a
dead woman was there.  There had been a “viewing” the night before, and
there, right below the altar, in an open casket surrounded by bouquets
of flowers and waiting for a late morning church service, was a
peaceful person of middle years, lying in death, for all to see.  It
was as if the entire scene were crying, “This is not abstract, what you
are seeing.  It's not re-enactment time.  These things really
happened.  And they still do.”

Ford's Shiloh sequence feels “staged” to me, and I've felt
this ever since the days when Lloyd Fonvielle and I saw this movie in
its first run at the Uptown Theater on Connecticut Avenue, not so many
blocks from the Obama White House.

For me the summit of How the West Was Won is reached during John Ford's “Civil War”.  But it's the home front that moves you, and moves you mightily.

[See my thoughts on the rest of the film here.]