John Ford’s 1956 film, The Searchers, is arguably the pinnacle of Ford’s career. It’s also arguably the pinnacle of John Wayne’s career; though he had several comebacks later in life. When the question is posed, “what is the greatest western of all time?” it’s not out of left field to get the answer, The Searchers. In fact, I’d think The Searchers pops up at least 7 out of 10 times. Best-of lists, film critics’ Top 10s, AFI’s most notable, the Academy Awards…if not name checked directly, footage from The Searchers at least garnishes montages and retrospectives of classic American cinema. It is the western genre.
So, why did it take me so long to watch it? Well, it’s not like I didn’t try before. This viewing marks the 3rd or 4th time I’ve tried to sit down and take in the Great Film. This time I was successful. The previous times, always hit a wall of boredom. Chalk it up to a young boy’s attention span at least 2 of those times; the others, just not engaged. I think there’s a hurdle with classic-era westerns and me. I’m just not engaged by them. Spaghetti westerns, yes. Self-reflexive westerns of the 1960s-1990s, thank you sir, may I have another? It stands to reason, then, “Greg, if you like these things, you’ll probably like the movies that influenced them, that birthed them.”
Few classic-era westerns engage me, grab me, speak to me. Whereas I can swim in the style of Leone, and badass music of Morricone, and even traipse in Bacharach and bicycle montages in Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, style is very traditional in the classic era. That’s not a bad thing, but how do I explain it? Pacing, music, acting, even directing doesn’t strike me with vivaciousness, vibrancy, movement. It’s all very blocked, and I mean that in a distance kind of way. It’s rehearsed, stilted. Blame growing up on the vibrancy of Spaghetti westerns as my first foray into the genre; it spoiled me. I mean, there are a few. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, for one. I just also recently saw Red River for the first time; took a couple viewings to grow on me, but dig it a lot now. Hawks was, and will always be, my favorite American western director. Nothing against Ford, but more on that later. Hawks’ handling of story and character speaks to me, and that goes for every genre he worked in. His female characters are also a draw. It wouldn’t be beyond reason to say what turns me off about classic-era westerns is how it handles the genre’s tropes. It isn’t often aware of its tropes, it’s playing them for real. The political sensitivities of Native American subjects, making them often the villain, also, rubs me the wrong way. On the surface, westerns are about maintaining the community, the civilization and family unit, particularly the white settler’s. And, that stuff is too conservative for me. Too stuffy. I want anti-heroicism, emotional complexity and gray area. And classic westerns are pretty short on gray area.
As previously reported, I’m a gigantic Akira Kurosawa head. The dude’s my bread & butter. Much like questions of influences and their progeny discussed above, you would expect me to love John Ford, Kurosawa’s foremost cinematic influence. Again…nope. It isn’t a stretch to see the similarities between Ford’s westerns and the samurai adventure pictures Kurosawa put his stamp on. The kineticism and violence, bursts of movement, composition, they all talk back to each other; East meets West. And that’s just the surface. Kurosawa and Ford share similar story themes and lead characters. But, it becomes more apparent the chasm between the two’s cinema when you look further to the next generation, and particularly whom Kurosawa influences. Leone, Lucas, Scorsese, Schrader; hell, the whole American New Wave grew up on his films. The French too. The Russians. Whole fucking nations’ film movements were begat from Kurosawa. I don’t know if you could say that about John Ford. I’m serious. I know Ford is an influential filmmaker, I’m not significantly undercutting that. But, at some point, the modern cinematic world didn’t rush to Ford first for inspiration. It’s just like how most modern filmmakers use Quentin Tarantino as a jumping off point, not Kurosawa, Hawks, Leone or Preminger (which is a shame). I just think the scope of Ford’s influence is smaller than cinephiles give him credit for.
That is not to say John Ford is a bad filmmaker. On the contrary, he is a master. I’ll forego the synopsis of The Searchers, for the most part, to focus on what I took away from my viewing. This movie is so utterly beautiful in every way. Composition, setting, color. It is so striking. Monument Valley, breadth, scope, epicness. The Searchers has it in spades. That’s one thing, first and foremost, that blew me away.
I don’t want to dwell too much on my failed past attempts at watching this film. It’s not clearly because of a short attention span. Anyone who knows me knows I love deliberately paced media; slow builds that grow to crescendo…or don’t. What didn’t engage me the first few times, and honestly, what didn’t engage me this time is the film going through its genre paces. Meeting the family unit, giving them the typical importance before they’re robbed away from the protagonists, meeting the quirky townsfolk. The typical rigamarole. Once it went into that mode, I started tuning out. It’s not possible I wasn’t on The Searchers‘ wavelength four different times in my life, is it?
I have to say that first hour was a chore. But I do appreciate something about The Searchers wholly. It isn’t a classic-era western. At least, not how I’ve defined it for myself. This isn’t a heroic, black & white, good & evil adventure. The protagonist, Ethan Edwards (Wayne) is a despicable, racist former Confederate soldier. He doesn’t seem at any point in the film to embody fairness, goodness or the qualities of a classic hero. In fact, he’s an anti-hero, with elements of even villainy. The question is, how much of this disconnect was intended? I’m watching this in 2014, but did moviegoers in 1956 have a different mentality and different values? Of course they did. Did they see John Wayne as a hardened man who reflected social prejudices of the day? I can see a large section of white viewers being in Wayne’s camp without hesitation. The film’s story also is complex and better realized than most classic westerns I’ve seen. It isn’t just a rescue/revenge story; there is collateral damage. The family unit is destroyed; members killed and scalped. Ethan’s niece is kidnapped by Comanches. His reluctant partnership with his one-eighth Injun surrogate son whom he rescued from death as a child, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), is full of racist barbs and the wedge between them is never completely lifted. In fact, their five-year journey to rescue the niece, Debbie (Natalie Wood), only goes to show how different they view their worlds and missions.
I didn’t connect with The Searchers until the last act really; before I was just passively watching. I knew the twist: once it’s revealed that Debbie has a little case of Stockholm Syndrome and has become a pseudo-Comanche herself, Ethan tries to shoot and kill her. There’s no sense of heroicism here. Again, it’s quite clear he is a horrible human being. He’d rather see his niece dead by his own hand than become “one of those heathens.” This is where the complexity of the movie grabbed me. Not only is Wayne playing an atypical (for his reputation) lead, and doing a great performance at that, but his motivations are completely on par with what his character would do. It takes balls to play disgusting and inhumane when you’re John Wayne. But, again, were 1956 audiences screaming, “yeeeah, kill that little Injun wannabe!!!”? I don’t know.
I want to believe this was all intended by John Ford and the writers. To create almost an anti-western. (Not like The Proposition or something, but anti-what-you-expect.) The actions of Ethan, at odds with young Martin, in the mission to basically save Debbie (& her soul) makes for a damn fine last act. Ethan is willing to let Debbie get killed as a bystander when he and his men plan to invade the Comanche camp. Martin is having none of that; volunteering to sneak in Sam Fisher style and get her out before any bloodshed occurs. Things don’t go exactly to plan. Debbie does get rescued, but the action, shooting, horse riding invasion comes on quick. Some of the best editing of the film is in this sequence. In the chaos, Ethan scalps Scar, the Big Bad of the villainous Comanches (also played by a white dude). What I respect about the ending is how empty it is. It’s audacious on Ford’s part. Debbie’s rescue means something to her parents (I think those were her parents?). The relieving denouement also means something to Martin and his sweetheart-someday, Laurie (Vera Miles), who smile and hold hands. But what does Ethan have? He is left in a doorway with no one to hug him and ask how he’s doing and celebrate his actions. He has nothing. Everyone enters the house, and he is alone. No reward. No parade.
Really getting into the last 30-45 minutes of The Searchers makes me wonder if it needs another viewing. No, I know it needs another viewing. How I feel about it after the fact makes me see the lead-up in a new light. Maybe my patience is prepared for another outing. Maybe there’s more to chew on than just the beautiful scenery. I might give Ford another look.
1. Some Like It Hot (1959)2. Persona (1966)
3. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
4. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
5. The Searchers (1956)
6. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
7. Cinema Paradiso (1988)
8. Breathless (1960)
9. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) / Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
10. It Happened One Night (1934) / His Girl Friday (1940)
11. Sabrina (1954)
12. Hell in the Pacific (1968)