'The Searchers' and 'Close encounters of the Third Kind'

I bought the old John Wayne movie 'The Searchers' (1956, John Ford director) a few months ago from the local supermarket, (when a western turns up in your local Stockholm store you get it as it's as rare as hens' teeth) and have recently been watching it scene by scene at lunchtimes.

Still from 'The Searchers'

I was surprised to realise, while I was watching it, that there are connections to 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' (1977, Steven Spielberg director and writer), though it's not a surprise really, as Spielberg is well known for making homages in his films, to his favourite films.

Steven Spielberg directing 'Close Encounters'


Here's just one similarity you can see if you compare the photos below.

  • The climactic scene in 'Close Encounters' where the space visitors alight on a secret airforce base on top of a mountain, is very similar to the Monument Valley landscape in 'The Searchers', below. It's the same kind of rock formation.

still from 'The Searchers'
'The Searchers' was filmed in Monument Valley, Arizona USA, as well as San Juan River, Utah, Aspen and south-western Colorado, (for the buffalo and snow scenes). Plus it was filmed in the studio. The studio scenes were criticised as being so visibly false. You can hear the echoes of the sound stage, but really I don't think it detracts. The whole film is so emblematic that these studio scenes fit in, as they're like pieces of a play that pops up occasionally. It gives the film a 19th century diorama quality.

Devil's Tower, Wyoming as well as Mojave Desert, California, and Hal, Khalipur, India. Most of the filming for 'Close Encounters' was done in Alabama.

Close Encounters

Perhaps Spielberg had the film on his mind as he created 'Close Encounters', as both films are about obsessive searches. In 'Close Encounters' the main character, Roy, becomes obsessed with discovering the truth behind his visions, after having a mysterious encounter with a spaceship one night.

Another character, a young boy, is taken by the et's and his mother becomes obsessed, like Roy, with a vision of a mysterious rock, (and of course she's obsessed with getting her son back).

Roy, on the other hand, loses his family (who can't stand the fact that he builds a huge mud mountain made out of their indoor and outdoor plants in the lounge room - photo above - and surprise surprise leave him). He ends up happily going with the et's at the climactic end scene.

The Searchers

In 'The Searchers' John Wayne spends years obsessively searching for his young niece, who's been abducted by an indian named Scar, and who, when he finds her, is happily a part of the indian society.

To me there are so many similarities between the films-

  • the desert scenes - 'close encounters' starts in the desert. And the use of silhouetted, (threatening or benign?) figures in 'ce' refers back to the earlier film.
  • the way the figures move frantically through the landscape- on horses and in cars. 
  • The attempts to try to understand and communicate sympathetically to 'aliens' and the fear and hostility to them.
  • Both are hugely entertaining films, with rich colour and set design. And unlike films these days, where the editing moves at such a manic, mind numbing pace, these films move at a pace where you can really immerse yourself in the story and environment and characters. Great storytelling films they are.

You can watch 'Close Encounters' here for free with spanish subtitles.
'The Searchers' you'll have to buy. But you can watch a scene here.

Just as an aside, I recently started watching 'Gravity' with Sandra Bullock and noticed that the first explosive opening chord of the film soundtrack, is the same musical idea that John Williams (the composer of the soundtrack in 'Close Encounters'), created in that film.

It gives you a slight shock when you first hear it. I'm sure the same idea has perhaps been used many times in various films, but it's too similar not to be some sort of direct reference to the earlier film.



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