The Searchers (1956)

Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) leads a search for his captured niece in "The Searchers."

Directed by John Ford. Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent. Based upon the novel by Alan Le May. Produced by Merian C. Cooper, Patrick Ford. Music by Max Steiner. Photographed by Winton C. Hoch. Edited by Jack Murray. Starring John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, John Qualen, Olive Cary, Henry Brandon, Ken Curtis, Harry Carey Jr., Antonio Moreno, Hank Worden.

Within the long tradition of Hollywood westerns, John Ford’s The Searchers stands on the cusp of a great divide. It has all of the elements that would distinguish a standard entry in the genre: spectacular gunfights, cavalry charges, clashes with Indians, and arresting location work. But it also achieves an unusual complexity that marks it a cut above your typical fare. While most westerns of the period buy very rapidly into the concept of Native Americans being black-and-white villains, The Searchers takes a step back by allowing a main character who is unapologetically racist, and brings those attitudes in direct conflict with more moderate sensibilities. It doesn’t completely work—it’s a little bit too safe; too timid as it approaches and then shies away from any extended examination of these tricky (and audience-unfriendly) issues. Nonetheless, in many respects, compared to other westerns of the time, it is notably contemporary, especially by how it eventually recognizes its lead character as, essentially, an anti-hero.

Ethan Edwards, as he enters the picture visiting his brother Aaron’s ranch home, would certainly lull an audience into feeling comfortable about this man. After all, he’s played by John Wayne, and many of the Wayne trademarks are here in full view: he’s grizzled, contemplative. Picks his words carefully, seems possessed with what one might call a friendly disquiet. But also loving. As he embraces his nieces Lucy and Debbie after years away, he’s like the uncle we all wish we had. Right away, though, even these seemingly-innocent passages are charged with an ominous electricity: he evades questions he doesn’t like, offers the little girls medals that might have been stolen, and refuses to account for his years between the end of the Civil War and now. Refuses to relinquish his oath to the Confederacy. When Captain Clayton (Ward Bond) arrives at the house, he suspiciously notes that Ethan “fits a number of descriptions.” A mysterious man, this Ethan Edwards.

What is not a mystery is how Ethan feels about Indians. At dinner, a young man sits to eat with them, his face of a darker complexion. “A fella could mistake you for a half-breed,” says Ethan, disdainfully (I suppose there’s no nice way to say that). This is Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), Aaron’s adopted son, who is one-eighth Cherokee, and when he self-consciously mentions this fact Ethan glares at him across the table. The following morning, when Ethan is asked to help chase a tribe of Indians who have stolen a neighbor’s cattle, he gladly volunteers. Anything to teach the savages a lesson. While the cavalrymen seem to view Indian hunting as a solemn duty, there’s something about Ethan Edwards that takes a little too much grim satisfaction out of the work.

This strain of animosity will soon become very relevant to both Ethan and Martin. The men, pointedly given a distraction in order to separate them from their families, arrive back home to find it in flames. Aaron and his family are dead, except for the two little girls, who have been captured by Comanche Indians. Ethan, who has no authority, nevertheless tries to take charge of the rescue mission, leaving the funeral in disgust, not listening to anyone who tries to talk him out of vengeance, and bristling against Cptn. Clayton, who tries to give orders, and Ethan’s response to that (“Alright. But if you’re wrong, don’t ever give me another”) sums up his worldview nicely. He’s a man possessed by hatred, and he will now embark on a search to find the missing Lucy and Debbie. Martin and a few others tag along, although it becomes clear that Ethan doesn’t want or appreciate the help.

Martin will soon become Ethan’s sole companion, and the young man will serve as a sounding board for Ethan’s pervasive racism. It provides an interesting  rhythm to the middle portion of the film, which depicts a quest that takes years, between two men who never find much they have in common.  Ethan’s reluctant admittance of Martin on his quest seems downright cruel, since he doesn’t like him, rejects his skills, and cites the young man’s lack of blood ties as reason enough for him not to care what happened to the abducted girls. He abandons him at one point, uses him as bait at another, enjoys any situation that humiliates the young man. At one point, when visiting a saloon, he pulls a shot of whiskey out of Martin’s hand. “Not till you grow up,” he growls. Ethan is trapped between trying to honor his family’s acceptance of this young man into their house, but also trying to reconcile this with his own hatred of Indians, and so he takes to targeting the man’s youth as opposed to his heritage.

It’s an interesting approach, to deal with such an unlikeable guy and to see him clearly. But The Searchers is hardly PC, and doesn’t make the mistake of prescribing the “noble savage” stereotype prevalent in a lot of revisionist westerns simply to counterbalance the evils of the white man. It acknowledges the circle of violence that would press intolerance deep into a man’s psyche: Ethan never accounts or attempts to justify his prejudice, and in essence his lack of explanation becomes an explanation itself. And we certainly are privy to the horrors of what an Indian attack can do. Early on, Ethan goes into a canyon alone. He only admits what he saw hours later, under pressure: the body of Lucy, mutilated, probably ravaged (“What do I have to do? Draw you a picture?!”) It’s a raw emotional moment, horrifically realized. And part of a never-ending circle: certainly there’s a parallel in an Indian scalping corpses and the moment where Ethan shoots into a dead Indian’s eye sockets, so that without sight he’ll be unable to reach the afterlife. And if it is a cruel act of war for an Indian to steal a rancher’s cattle, then what can be said about a rancher mowing down a herd of buffalo, not for the meat, but for the promise of Comanches with empty stomachs? The Searchers sees the sentiments of both sides as symptomatic of the same violent, disease. This provides counterpoint to a character like Ethan Edwards, and gives him dimension without excusing him. Which is useful, because the real horror is still to come.

Ethan is a taciturn man, and keeps to himself. Only Martin seems to really see through him, and confesses that he sees Ethan as a man who could “go crazy,” and at first we’re not sure what he means. Everything points to the moment, after a search that lasts five years, when Debbie (Natalie Wood) is finally found, as the kept woman of the Comanche chief Scar (Henry Brandon). Both men are shocked, and for Ethan it is a confirmation of his worst fears. Debbie, who was 11 when captured but has since come of age, is now entrenched in a Comanche lifestyle, and perhaps the most poignant line in the entire film is Debbie’s admission to Martin, who is frightened that his adopted sister doesn’t even remember him: “At first I prayed to you. ‘Come and get me, take me home.’ But you didn’t come. These are my people.” We accept the fate we are left to in life, and Martin now must come to terms with the fact that Debbie has adapted, and may not want to be saved. This may be her despair, or perhaps just human nature, but it is an instigator for Ethan. As a woman now of age, she has been made a sexual partner for those he considers sub-human. She is now no worse, in his mind, than a Comanche, which is why when she runs down to visit their camp, he tries to shoot her.

So. This is heavy stuff. In essence, The Searchers is a parable about a man at war with the kind of progressive thinking that would allow one to see a Native American as an equal, as Debbie has, as Martin somewhat can, and as Ethan cannot. Ethan Edwards may be a product of the New America, but his time is perhaps past, and within the film you can almost feel the whole Western genre grappling with this same problem. As it follows a flawed protagonist on a fool’s errand that may turn murderous, The Searchers flirts with a moral complexity that daunts it, and the film slowly realizes that the Western may have to adapt in order to survive. Certainly this is the charge that Ethan Edwards gives himself, and it’s up to the viewer to decide whether or not he succeeds. Ethan finds it within himself to spare Debbie’s life, but not to extend the same courtesy to her new family, and even that concession might have been too much. The film’s famous last shot, as Debbie is brought back home, and her family forgets about Ethan, standing outside on the porch, strikes me more and more as the defiant last stand of a man who feels he has fatally compromised his principles. Tellingly, Debbie is never given a close-up after being rescued; her feelings about a reunion with forgotten kin built on the ashes of her previous home are left purposefully oblique.

There are some caveats. Try as I may, I can’t quite enjoy the significance of the romantic comedy subplot between Martin and Laurie Jorgenson (Vera Miles), which feels like a sop thrown in to keep things from being too grim, and to give the film an excuse not to spend too much time on the thorny moral issues. Any film that distracts you from its seriousness with a comical fistfight between two romantic suitors seems to have its priorities a bit confused. Martin’s attitude towards Laurie is suspect anyway, since he takes her for granted and only writes her once in five years, but is shocked when she announces her marriage to another guy. How does this resolve? Who cares? Honestly, The Searchers is better when dealing with how men see women than how the movie itself does: as is typical in 50’s westerns, the frontierswomen in The Searchers are perfectly coiffed, feel a bit too soft, and overall seem less like actual characters and more like 50’s girls plugged into old costumes. Once again, the boys get all the fun. There’s a bit too much comic relief, and a bit too many musical interludes; the quaintness of the approach gets in the way of the picture, which has more important things on its mind.

The film is shot on location in Monument Valley, and does an uncanny job of evoking the feel of the Old West, of campfires and homes that exist on the razor’s edge between civilization and the deep wilderness. The Searchers is littered with evocative moments of cinematic poetry, like the striking moment where Ethan spies on the Indian camp in the moonlight, a blemish on an impossibly high cliff. Or when Indians, on a nearby ridge, track the search party by trotting parallel to them. Even the obviously stagebound scenes, like the winter landscapes, or the homestead, achieve a quiet beauty, as when a blood-red sky fades into a desolate night, prelude to an Indian attack. The Searchers may very well be one of the most visually striking Westerns ever made.

And one of the most interesting, despite its flaws. The Searchers remains a terrific Western: expansive, ambitious, epic. If it has a tendency towards embracing outdated clichés about the genre, that is a testament to its reach, no matter its grasp. You can feel its desire to rewrite many rules, but it can only do a few at a time. At its center, it employs a flawed protagonist, and has the courage to see him—to really see him, and reflect that the time of viewing Indians as simplistic enemies may be a thing of the past. It is a touchstone in watching the Western evolve into a clearer ideal, and if that leaves an imperfect film…well, that’s growing pains for you. The qualities of The Searchers are so strong they make the deficiencies feel like minor quibbles, because it taps into the purest form of the Western: it tells a story about people on the frontier, hardened by battle, living a life free of TV, close neighbors, or most other distractions. Where men spent long nights in the wild, free to be themselves. For better and for worse.

GRADE: A-

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