The Searchers (1956, John Ford)


It happened — this movie got me. I saw it five years ago, almost exactly, and found myself intrigued but unmoved. I felt I “understood” it, sure, but that I was immune to its thrust, the peculiar intimacy of it that’s led it to be considered the pinnacle of the American western, a genre I typically admire in theory without actually enjoying. Critics emphatically insist it’s an anti-western; I saw a western, if one that I appreciated in a superficial, picture postcard sort of way. But something happened to me, either in the years in between or during the runtime of the film itself, when it ceased to be cinema and suddenly became about people: lopsided, fucked-up, messy people whose flaws outweigh their virtues. And when there comes a moment when John Wayne lifts Natalie Wood into the air, completely unexpectedly (even though, seeing it before, I knew it was coming!), I felt the depths in the hearts of both of them. Against every intellectual rationalization I could come up with, it brought me to my knees.

Wayne plays something approximating, so he’d later claim, himself: a bitterly hateful bigot with a taste for revenge (termed rescue in his parlance, which involves killing a young girl for cross-pollination with the Other), here against a tribe of Comanches who’ve slaughtered much of his family and kidnapped his niece. But beneath this, there’s a hollowness to the character that Wayne plays beautifully even if he might not have realized it — his entire plight is crushingly sad, quite apart from the tragedy of the murderous acts he seeks to wrongheadedly avenge. As the opening credits, the sole beige calm against the imposing VistaVision Technicolor of the uncannily vivid film itself, inquire: “what makes a man to roam?” It’s one thing to express verbally that Wayne and his passionate cohort follow the trail of the lost girl for seven years. It’s another to be confronted with just what that means, with the deep-down single-minded love-sickened obsession of it all.

Modern critics frequently interpret The Searchers as critical of its genre, of its characters’ prejudices. Director John Ford may indeed have intended such, and as Pauline Kael has pointed out, it’s a subtle and open-ended enough film to be easy to reinterpret and claim as one’s own. But where this subtlety, this parade of things left unsaid, matters most is in the barely spoken of but deeply involved inner lives of the characters. The most important action happens in the first half-hour of the film, before the Edwards family is slaughtered, when we are so elegantly given a sense of the entire history of our Civil War veteran Ethan (Wayne), whose ceremonious return home is marked by generosity and an unstated but unmistakable affection shared with his brother’s wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan). Their brief moments together, hampered and challenged by noise and distraction, haunt absolutely, more than a million passionately explicit Hollywood romances.

So it’s easy enough to read this as passionately decrying the gung-ho, hawkish mentality of most westerns, including those made by the film’s own director: the wistful rejection of a dying time, its ending encapsulating the change of attitudes in its own midcentury as much as the prior one. Maybe it’s an anti-racism screed, or the opposite, or an emotional journey, or isolationist rhetoric, a document of dated ideas or a presentation of those ideas as its own. But that’s all window dressing compared to those stoic forehead kisses, that lift into the air. We can finally sense the recognition within a bitter pending codger like Wayne that his ideals have become outdated, wasteful, unnecessary. The film’s attitude toward him remains ambiguous, as he does, but some things, some poetic and wrenchingly evocative things, are on the table — and what’s impressive is how abhorrent we find him while still detecting these wisps of a yearning humanity. It’s this sort of film that can help us begin to understand our culture’s past, or even our own.

There are two scenes in The Searchers that belong in any pantheon of great narrative film; as good as the entire movie is, they stand above its frayed brilliance as morsels of perfection. The first of the pair is near the beginning; the film’s first act is nearly flawless, incredibly scary and surprisingly realistic. There is a scene early on of the elder daughter Lucy (Pippa Scott) screaming that is genuinely unsettling; the terror in her eyes is so alarmingly genuine one wonders how she and/or the director got the effect. It visualizes a loss of humanity, and on repeat viewings becomes more oppressive yet, knowing the girl’s gruesome fate. As the night falls, menacing blues and reds hanging over all things, we know some dreadful thing is to come. It’s so persuasively foreboding it matters what specifically the threat is (Comanches) about as much as the nature of the “government secrets” matters in North by Northwest.

The stirring scene in question is repeated verbatim in Star Wars and countless other movies before and after Lucas’ most famous take. Wayne returns to his family’s home to find it destroyed, burnt to the ground, his sister-in-law’s corpse inside, scalped. The setting is miserably desolate, the destruction and doom abrupt and complete. The characters set up as our anchor for the film are just as quickly yanked away, never to return (the one survivor, the youngest girl, has transformed to Natalie Wood by the time we see her again). We are adrift. It may be one of the most gripping moments in all of cinema, the classic moment of recognition that it’s too late to back out from what the film can do to its audience. Ford dares to mount the sequence with a deep sense of dread; there is no light to which we can escape.

The opposite feeling is achieved by the other landmark sequence. After the long and meandering but consistently gripping journey, with little suggestion of an evolution of temperament in Ethan except the most nuanced of decisions and expressions, he suddenly has a change of heart. His hatred of Indians had been so severe that he intended to kill young Debbie (Wood), now having been raised and “corrupted” by Comanches, to put her (or more likely, himself) out of her (his) misery. At the moment when it appears he has captured her, he has his internal change and picks her up instead. It’s the most discussed character transformation in any American film; emotionally, it’s perfect. All one needs to know about how little Wayne suddenly feels welcome in the world (or indeed, his own skin) comes in the final scene, the most famous moment in The Searchers and one of the most fondly remembered endings in the movie world, indeed, possibly the most iconic final shot. Wayne’s resignation as he carries the girl home at last is fully palpable, the ambiguity of her very presence there inescapable, his wordless decision to simply walk away achingly moving. More than any actor, though, the key of the sequence — aside from the isolation, visual and otherwise, now surrounding the hero — is the door that closes behind John Wayne and seals us off from cowboys, perhaps forever.

The illogical obsession of Wayne’s Ethan is a mirror of another incisive portrait of a man in one of the definitive American films — Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie in Vertigo. Ford doesn’t expect us to sympathize with Ethan to nearly the same extent that Hitchcock wanted us to sympathize with Scottie, but he does provide us with just enough information to uncover a complexity and a hindrance to the automatic hero worship that once greeted a new John Wayne picture. He intends for us to be left wondering what happened and why, but finally to be simply overwhelmed by the capacity of the human heart to transform, to empathize, to grant life itself. “Let’s go home,” he says, and after the hatred, insanity, near-nihilism, it’s difficult not to be overcome. It’s only thirty seconds of this new Ethan we witness; there is no sweet-natured farewell, no explicit statement of any epiphany; just eyes, empty air, the land, the few words that are required to be said. And a quiet walk away, and an audience — a time, a place — left to cope with what it’s just seen. It wanders off at times, it contains extraneous characters and numerous unnecessary comic-relief scenes, but even if he throws too much in, all of the things John Ford leaves out of this movie are what make it so close to an American masterpiece, a shattering dream of color and darkness, regret and growth.


[The above essay contains elements from my original 2007 review of this film. I felt quite differently about it then; you can read what I had to say here.]

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