1956Director: John Ford
Cast: John Wayne, Jeffery Rush, Vera Miles, Natalie Wood
n a July 6 column entitled “The Worst Best Movie,” Slate’s critic-at-large Stephen Metcalf shared his thoughts on the John Ford Western classic The Searchers without so much as mincing a word. He started off by saying that it was “preposterous in its plotting”; “unfunny in its hijinks”; “alternately sodden and convulsive in its acting”; and, for measure, “boring.” I had to see for myself, so I picked up a copy. I can report back to the reader that Metcalf is wrong; but wrong for an entirely different reason than merely ridiculing the way in which The Searchers was canonized, by “film geeks,” film studies, and the “interpretation factory,” as he see it. Metcalf is wrong because he appears to have approached the film from a “contemporary sensibility”—an unwise strategy considering the film was made in the early 50’s. It’s doubtful, one suspects, that a “contemporary sensibility” would appreciate, or at least contextualize, the still-developing medium’s faults. Would it make any sense to measure 1903’s The Great Train Robbery against the technical virtuosity of last year’s Munich or War of The Worlds? That doesn’t seem fair.
But The Searchers is hardly one of the “best movies of all time.” In AFI’s 100 movies, 100 years, the movie barely eked onto the list at #96, and in the year of its release, 1956, it received little critical fanfare. What was important about Ford’s film, however, was how influential it turned out to be. As Metcalf noted, the film went on to influence a new breed of directors in the wake of the studio system’s demise, most notably Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg. Taxi Driver, Star Wars, and Close Encounter of the Third Kind, to list a few, all owe their inspiration to The Searchers. For this reason, the film has given itself over to a glut of theoretical analysis, labored studies of its director and what the film implicitly represented: the quickly diminishing archetype of western Man and civil society’s rebuke of his racism. (Although this wasn’t apparent at the time.) It’s odd that someone like Metcalf—who spent the better part of the 80’s in and out of some of the best “interpretation factories” on the continent—would be so snide about the cultural and analytic cachet surrounding the film’s vaunted status. But that’s another issue.
1868, Texas. John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, an ex-Confederate solider returning home after years of absence, is as ascetic and oddly compelling a film character as one can come across. His emotionless delivery and almost rote movement could easily have been construed as chintzy when in fact they contain a certain amount of grace, elegance even, that seem more indicative of a silent resolve rather than rhetorical bluster. The film’s first shot, of a door opening to a framed, picturesque landscape, tracks Ethan riding in on his horse, baked sand and dust whirring in all directions off in the horizon. Weather-beaten and curmudgeonly harsh, Ethan still pledges allegiance to the “Confederate States of America,” grudgingly uses the “Yankee” dollar, and is open and unabashed in his disdain for “Indians.”
His brother and sister-in-law welcome him back and offer him a place to stay, for the time being. But there’s some ambiguity regarding Ethan’s relationship with his brother’s wife. At one point, she draws his garments close to her face and lingers longer than necessary, casting a fawning eye, while, for his part, Ethan embraces her as lovingly as a man of his abnegation can—which is too much by any standard. Nonetheless, this sets apace the next thread, where a group of “bloodthirsty savages,” the Comanche, pillage his brother’s home. In the process, his brother and sister-in-law are killed and their daughters, Lucy and Debbie (Natalie Wood), are kidnapped. The search, so to speak, is on, and accompanying Ethan is Martin Pawley (Jeffery Hunter), the young man he saved years ago, when Martin was just a child.
Martin is an eighth Cherokee, and their history doesn’t stop Ethan from hurling racial epithets. Yet on their journey through the arid southwest, up through the temperate plains, in search of Lucy and Debbie, they imperceptibly warm to each other. Ethan, meanwhile, seems haunted by the prospect of Lucy and Debbie being infected by the Comanche, and, morbidly enough, plans to shoot them if they have been—lest his blood relatives be compromised.
Despite the film’s apparent foreboding, another storyline appears illogically embedded into its fabric. It revolves around Martin and Laurie Jorgensen’s (Vera Miles) comic correspondence, and the eventual hijinks that ensue upon Martin’s return to see Laurie, his girl, set to marry the village idiot. Most people find these sequences lacking; I thought they broke up the film reasonably well, if somewhat imperfectly. For Metcalf, the comic set pieces are “doltish.” I’d be more charitable, and say that they possess a quaint charm that dates not only the genre but also the medium’s development. Not that the film should be immune from criticism, but on these grounds it seems unkind.
Even so, the film’s strength lies primarily in its evocative and strikingly pastoral visual imagery, which—for its time, and even today—was captured with an assured deftness. As Ethan, Martin, and a group of Texas Rangers are being slowly perused by a phalanx of Comanche warriors, confrontation all but inevitable, the imposing buttes of Monument Valley, Utah, (where it was filmed) dwarf everything, positing a naturalism that both precedes and outlasts humanity. Even the final shot, which mimics the first, sees Ethan portentously limping off into the horizon, a man adrift in the wilderness, as civilized society shuts him out.
The Searchers has recently been re-issued on DVD.
By: Ron Mashate
Published on: 2006-07-25