“”So we’ll find ’em in the end, I promise you. We’ll find ’em. Just as sure as the turnin’ of the earth.”
I’ve always wanted to watch more Westerns, but something pulls me away. Maybe I’ve had a distorted view of them, because I always seem to picture the discount DVDs in the corner of Cracker Barrel gift shops. I think The Searchers felt a lot more “surface” than I was expecting while I was watching, but as it so happens with any movie you watch in a film class, you study it and read essays and have “greatness” shoved in your face until you can’t really deny an objective prestige to the movie (if only because you place such trust in your film professor’s judgment). I think the movie plays with the structure of the Western and its archetypes in a way I was able to reflect and really appreciate, but for a surface-level adventure, it still gives a really fun story.
The Searchers follows John Wayne as Ethan Edwards, a Civil War veteran and cowboy action hero who returns home to spend time with his brother’s family. Right away, however, most of them are killed or kidnapped in an attack by Comanche Indians. Disdainful of Indians and fueled a strangely focused sense of vengeance, Ethan is joined by adopted nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) on an adventure to find his niece Debbie who was taken by the Comanches and is rumored to be alive.
Ethan is an antihero, a bold career move for John Wayne who was known for less ambiguous but equally kick ass characters. Spectator theory and Western escapism would explain why we root for Ethan, but he’s still an amoral, selfish bull of a character. It’s an interesting contrast where all the gun-slinging and survival skills are given to the guy who is in the wrong wrong, and I like to believe the film’s central question (regarding the kidnapping of Debbie and the implications of taking her back), is answered correctly, viewing Ethan as a dangerous radical. It’s instead Marty, the bumbling sidekick, who shows compassion and brings humanity to the film’s darkest moments, and through him, the film gives us the moral answer we’re seeking.
The movie triumphs technically, with some really beautiful shots that help you get lost in the story. The first and last shots have great unity, and there’s a “legendary” status to the presentation, almost as if John Ford knew what kind of legacy this movie would have while he was shooting. I think the degree to which we can root for Ethan is also a testament to the film’s formal elements. He’s shot heroically, though his words are anything but heroic. I think Wayne is letting himself deconstruct the “Western hero” by playing him up in such a contradictory way, though the contrast can take away from what I think is a more brutal screenplay than we’re ultimately allowed to experience. (Wayne shooting the eyes out of a dead Native American comes to mind, forcing him to “wander forever between the winds.” Yikes.)
I think the literary elements of the source material also get to come through in a cool way. There’s a unity to The Searchers that you usually only get in book adaptations. Marty’s romance with Laurie (Vera Miles) and her strange use as a framing device indicate that the screenwriter was tinkering with a great story but was still willing to experiment to translate that greatness to the screen. This is also apparent in some detail changes from the novel, such as Marty’s heritage being Native American in the movie but not mentioned in the book. This kind of detail also seems like proof that The Searchers has an agenda and is more than just popcorn entertainment.
I think The Searchers fits snugly into film and American history, and in my limited experience with Westerns, it feels bold enough to challenge convention and make an argument that comparable movies never seem to manage. I look forward to rounding out my knowledge of Westerns and maybe returning to The Searchers for a more informed comparison.
Films Left to Watch: 870