“Ugh…I hate westerns!” proclaimed my wife upon walking in on me watching John Ford’s The Searchers. The look of disgust on her face, as if she had stumbled onto fresh roadkill, further emphasized this. It was a look I knew all too well. I had given it myself years earlier.
Westerns were not amongst my top viewing choices growing up. They were something the older generation seemed fond of, but felt like a form of punishment to me. Unlike in their youth, I had grown up playing cops and robbers, not cowboys and Indians. To me westerns were nothing more than relics of a time long forgotten. Of course as the years went on and I began to mature as a film lover, my views on the genre began to change. I started to appreciate the spaghetti westerns of tales of nameless drifters that the Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood pairings brewed up.
Although my eyes have been opened so to speak, I would be lying if I said my biases towards westerns completely vanished. I still find myself a little reluctant to make time for many of the modern and classic westerns that litter my Blind Spot list. It is one of the reasons why it took me so long to take in the splendor that is The Searchers. More than a typical tale of revenge, The Searchers is the type of complex film that will make you fall in love with the genre. It is beautiful to look at and yet morally tough to easily embrace.
At the film’s core is a hero who is not only unlikable, but whose ultimate redemption, if you can even call it that, seems questionable at best. The story centers on Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), a confederacy solider, who returns to his brother Aaron’s (Walter Coy) home in Texas after an eight year absence. Though his brother and the rest of the family, including his 1/8 Indian nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), are happy to see him, it is clear that Ethan only has eyes for his brother’s wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan).
Although romantic words are never spoken between the two, one gets the sense that Martha feels the same way. Unfortunately for Ethan, tragedy strikes when a rogue band of Comanches, led by Chief Cicartiz (Henry Brandon) better known as “Scar”, murders Aaron’s family and burns their home to the ground. Believing that Scar has kidnapped Martha’s youngest daughter Debbie (Natalie Wood), Ethan and Martin embark on a five year quest to find her. While Martin is determined to get Debbie back at all costs, Ethan is more than willing to shoot her dead rather than live with the possibility of Debbie being brainwashed into becoming part of Scar’s Comanche flock.
Considering how revered The Searchers has become over the years, I feel that there is really little that I can add to its overall significance. When a film has been selected by the United States Library of Congress for preservation in its National Film Registry, and considered to be one of the greatest films ever made by numerous polls including the illustrious Sight and Sound, it is tough to add anymore ink on the film to the mass already spilled. Especially when directors like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Jean-Luc Godard have all sung its praises. So instead, I will merely touch on what struck me about my second trip, the first being Stagecoach, into the world of director John Ford’s canon.
From the opening shot, that slowly moves through the comfortable framing of an open doorway to a picturesque landscape, the scope of the film immediately hits you. It is no mistake that Ford repeats this shot both when Ethan and Martin reach the Jorgensen’s home in the middle section and again for the film’s final shot. The vastness of the land not only provides Ethan’s quest with a needle in a haystack feel, but also emphasizes how small mankind is in relation to the world at large. This also speaks to the small mindedness of Ethan himself.
Ethan is a man who is unabashedly racist. He is a hero who we do not necessarily cheer for, but rather follow out of sheer curiosity. He constantly berates Martin as not being true kin to Debbie because he is tainted with Indian blood. Ford tries to soften Ethan’s hatred by emphasizing that it is more a response to the Comanche’s bloodlust. Interestingly enough, Ford touches on the fact that Scar’s hatred of the white man stems from them killing his two sons. Both Ethan and Scar are so blinded by their loathing that they fail to see themselves within the mirror that Ford is holding up.
The racism also adds a fascinating layer of tension to the film, especially in regards to pushing Ethan to the brink. Ford does a masterful job of toying with whether or not Ethan will follow through with his promise to end Debbie’s life. It creates an unsettling image of a possible racial purification, Ethan freeing her from the grasp of the Comanche, which hovers over the film until the final few scenes.
The Searchers, despite its unanimous praise, still managed to surprise me. I was expecting a slightly above average by the numbers western tale, and found myself stunned both by its craft and complexity. The film shows that westerns can be more than generic tropes. Ford finds a way to blend male archetypes, humor, and racial undertones in a way that ultimately feels miniscule within the vast landscape in which they exist. It is one of the few westerns that I foresee myself revisiting again soon.