John Ford’s The Searchers is a sprawling western, with heroes, villains and victims, except some of the lines are not so clear.
In very much the same way as The Godfather, the closing shot of John Ford’s The Searchers poignantly frames its flawed hero in a doorway of loneliness. Ethan Edwards, like Michael Corleone, has a mind narrower than a backyard alley. While Michael rose to new heights of depravity, Ethan (John Wayne) finds redemption. Only by the time it is found, there is no one to share it with.
The Searchers is about four things: Obsession, prejudice, loneliness, and the frayed optimism of the Old West. There are subplots involving marriage, lost love, and feeble attempts at creating uncomfortable comedy, but they serve more as distractions from the central passage of the movie than as supports. Indeed, whenever the focus is drawn away from Ethan and his companion Marty (Jeffrey Hunter), we are compelled to tune out and await their return.
Yet the odyssey Ethan and Marty embark upon is fraught with questionable motives. Ethan seeks vengeance against the native Comanche because they murdered his brother, his sister-in-law, razed their ranch, and abducted his two nieces. This provides the initial drive of the plot, but doesn’t provide an explanation that justifies Ethan’s prolonged obsession with finding and slaughtering the “savages”. Yes, he wants to rescue his nieces, but when he finds one after five years, and discovers that she’s now more Comanche than American, is it natural for him to want her dead instead?
The Searchers is an interesting film because it finds both gallantry and hatred in this hero. A Confederate veteran, Ethan has no professional interest in the eradication of the natives. His prejudice stems from a core of vengeance. Was it right, at the time, to craft such a one-sided hero? Did audiences in 1956 understand the racial and moral issues that lay beneath Wayne’s swagger? Every move Ethan makes in the movie spits in the face of Comanche progress. When he and Marty are caught in a blizzard, he hysterically guns down a grazing bison, saying “At least they won’t feed any Comanche this winter!”
“The Western audience didn’t want moral complexity,” writes Roger Ebert, “Like the audience for today’s violent thrillers and urban warfare pictures, it wanted action with clear-cut bad guys”. Were the Comanche still considered clear-cut bad guys in 1956?
Ethan Edwards, therefore, was a vessel in which the fears and misinterpretations of an entire nation were coddled, and he found the right face in John Wayne, who, by the time of The Searchers, had starred in more than eighty films, mostly westerns. His audiences trusted in his weathered smile, his towering stature and his benevolent speech. They followed him into battle, regardless of the enemy.
In The Searchers, Wayne and Ford partner up to deliver a movie that is not perfect, but that perfectly encapsulates the mental state of an old west that has suffered the tragedies of war. Ford was a master of shooting landscapes, framing his deserts here as if they are but a massive board on which insignificant pieces move. He makes sand and stone beautiful, and inspired a generation of admirers, from David Lean to Wong Kar Wai.
This movie could have done without a lot of its smaller stories, like the hackneyed romance between Marty and Laurie (Vera Miles), but what it has is a compelling hero in Ethan Edwards, who strides through the scenery carrying his own beliefs, his own rituals, his own missions, and demands that we follow him all the way to the end, to that lonely open doorway.
The Searchers screens at Windsor Cinema December 9
Images courtesy of Warner Bros