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Was Natalie Wood really John Wayne's daughter, or what?

Q. So, how coincidental is this? “2001: A Space Odyssey” includes a character named Dr. Heywood Floyd. The new movie “Moon” evokes “2001” powerfully for you and is directed by someone whose birth name is Duncan Zowie Heywood Jones. Heywood isn’t exactly a common name. Maybe he was born to direct this movie. John Wilson, Ottawa

A. Jones was born in 1971, when “2001” was at the height of its fame, and is the son of David Bowie, who I think we can be sure saw it, who was famous as Ziggy Stardust, who played an alien in “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and who is only four degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon. Cue “The Twilight Zone” theme.

Q. I came across an item stating the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter of Mars” novels are being filmed. I looked forward to it until I read that the rating target is PG-13. The novels can easily be set to R. I feel disenfranchised from current studio movies by not getting adult-level entertainment — and I don’t mean pornographic.

To me and many of my friends, PG-13 means marketing and video games. I stopped seeing James Bond films as they became too kiddified. There is a level of content an adult desires, and most of today’s PG-13s don’t hit the mark. The most recent R-rated adult fantastic, for me, was “Watchmen.” Do you think a return to R-level content based on adult concepts will ever happen? Todd A. Kennard, Imlay City, Mich.

A. There’s a theory that the surprisingly soft box-office figures for Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell” are explained by the insistence of the distributors on cutting the film for a PG-13, which Sam Raimi fans sensed was just not right. As mass-market “tentpole” movies are increasingly tailored for the younger teenage audience, a demographic is being lost. Although distributors know that many theaters do a laughable job of policing the ratings, they are haunted by nightmares of a single 16-year-old being turned away. Strange, how many under 17 somehow found a way to see “Watchmen” and “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.”

Q. In your Answer Man section, Gerardo Valero from Mexico City said Carl from “Up,” had an unshaven beard at the end of the film. You said you couldn’t remember the last action movie that shows an action hero progressing through the film with his facial hair growing longer. As I was watching “Deja Vu,” the 2006 Denzel Washington movie, I noticed that Val Kilmer’s character went through the movie without shaving. In fact, the effect of the unshaven beard makes the character look tired and beaten up. Alex Hagani, New York City

A. An exception that proves the rule. I noted that most action heroes, even in the midst of nonstop action, somehow find time to maintain their beards at the official length established by “Miami Vice.” This has the benefits of signaling their high testosterone levels, shadowing any signs of a double chin, and saving time on makeup.

Q. You love the “Seven Up” series. Spanish beach real estate has collapsed worse than anywhere. I fear Tony, one of the subjects of the films, has been wiped out. I don’t want to wait till “56 Up” is released to find out if my guess is correct. Do you know how Tony is doing? David Williams, Bellingham, Wash.

A. The “Seven Up” series of documentaries by the great British director Michael Apted, which I consider a noble use of the time-traveling nature of film, has visited the same group of subjects every seven years since they were 7 in 1964. Tony Walker was the young boy who dreamed of growing up to be a jockey, achieved his dream for a time, then became an often-recognized London cabbie and even played one in a few British TV shows. He was able to move his family to a beach resort in Spain. I have no doubt that Apted knows how Tony is doing, but I am reluctant to ask him. “56 Up” is due in 2012, and it’s part of the fascination of the series to wait seven years between installments. The project is about the mystery of time’s passage in human lives and is the opposite of the breathless updates on reality TV. Seeing what can happen after years is the kind of wake-up call you get at your high school reunions.

Q. I’ve long suspected that not so deeply layered in the John Wayne’s and John Ford’s “The Searchers” (1956) is the idea that Debbie isn’t Ethan’s niece — she is his daughter. Ethan’s sister-in-law Martha (Dorothy Jordan) is clearly in love with Ethan (Wayne) by the way she treats him and by the way she holds his clothes close to her when she believes no one is looking. The sheriff (Ward Bond) pointedly ignores what is going on behind him when Ethan and Martha interact. Her daughter Debbie (Natalie Wood) is the apple of Ethan’s eye.

Ethan’s reactions are driven by something deeper than a man’s unrequited love for the woman who married his brother, seen in his pursuit to at first rescue Debbie, and then to kill her to save her from a “fate worse than death.” If Ford did intend to hint at this, then the story takes on a deeper, and more awful meaning. I guess the wonderful thing about art is that it can be interpreted in many ways. Matt Kaufman

A. I found your idea intriguing and turned for help to people who know more about films than just about anybody else: The legendary critic Andrew Sarris and his wife, the equally legendary Molly Haskell, and the noted University of Wisconsin scholar and author David Bordwell.

Molly tells me: “Although that interpretation is certainly possible, Andrew and I both felt it to be improbable, it just doesn’t belong in the Fordian universe. The feelings between the two are palpable, but never (it seems to both of us) overtly expressed. That tacit love is quite sufficient to explain Ethan’s special feeling for his niece.”

David writes: “In grad school long ago we talked about this; good to know that some people are still doing so. Still, I’m skeptical, since there’s little evidence of the sort that I guess lawyers call ‘probitive’” Ethan loves Debbie, true, but his expression of affection is typical of how you’d treat a child; he’s quite affectionate to little Lucy, too. Of course Martha is in love with Ethan, but there’s no direct evidence that that love has been consummated. Ward Bond does avert his eyes, but that’s just as likely because a moment of tenderness between Martha and Ethan would be something he’d overlook out of gallantry in any event.

“Ethan’s reactions are driven by something deeper than revenge for the death of his brother and his family, but there is evidence that that something is racism — as indicated in his comments, before the attack, about the obvious Indian ancestry of Martin Pawley. Finally, if Ethan were trying to save Debbie from rape at the hands of the Comanche, several characters point out that he’s long since failed; she’s obviously come of age and probably has become a warrior’s wife. It’s that state of sexual maturity, at least according to the orthodox reading, that impels the later years of his quest: Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) is convinced that Ethan means to kill her for becoming defiled and his struggle to keep Ethan from doing so is the engine driving the last portion of the film.

“All of this is more interesting, at least to me, than some hidden blood tie. It presents a more complex portrait of a man so blinded by codes of honor, family loyalty, masculine pride, sexual jealousy and racial prejudice than would a reading that indicates he’s out to rescue his daughter. This mix alone is extraordinarily edgy for an American movie. It seems to me that everything we see in the film supports this interpretation. I think we’d need some anomaly or extra clue to infer that Debbie is Ethan’s child.

“And the context of Ford’s other work doesn’t suggest the hidden-affair account: Think of the unrequited yearning of Maureen O’Hara and Walter Pidgeon in ‘How Green Was My Valley,’ or Wyatt Earp and the schoolmarm in "My Darling Clementine" (1946) or even Lincoln and Ann in ‘Young Mr. Lincoln.’ For Ford, as for many of his contemporaries, it seems that unconsummated love is deeply poignant. Something else we’ve lost, maybe.”

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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