Saturday, January 26, 2008

Target #179: The Searchers (1956, John Ford)

TSPDT placing: #7
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Alan Le May (novel), Frank S. Nugent (screenplay)
Starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, Hank Worden, Henry Brandon, John Qualen, Olive Carey, Ken Curtis

At first glance, I almost dismissed The Searchers (1956) as being a standard-type “cowboys and Indians” adventure film, albeit a very good one. When Comanche Indians brutally murder his brother and sister-in-law, and kidnap their two daughters, heroic drifter Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) sets out in pursuit, not only to rescue his nieces but also to exact revenge on the American Indians responsible, namely a formidable leader named Scar. Shot in 35mm VistaVision, the film must surely have been a spectacle on the big screen, with cinematographer Winton C. Hoch perfectly capturing the vast expanse of the American desert, and the towering, dominant landscapes of Monument Valley, Utah {though the film is primarily set in the Llano Estacado region of Texas}. Many of the picture’s most memorable moments arise from the confrontations between the two clashing American cultures – a vulnerable family, through various subtle hints and images, sense an unseen foe circling their home; a search-party of Texan settlers suddenly find themselves surrounded by dozens of Indians on horseback. Taken just on face-value, The Searchers remains a highly-accomplished piece of filmmaking.

However, with the legendary John Ford at the helm, it’s apparent that there must be something more to the film. Indeed, I was astonished by the performance of John Wayne, who brings an incredible complexity and moral ambiguity to his character. Ethan Edwards boasts an overwhelming racial prejudice towards the Comanche Indians. Having lost his own mother to the native tribes {as can be briefly glimpsed from a seemingly-inconsequential tombstone prop}, and now the woman that he conceivably loved himself, Ethan’s prejudice is undying, and his commitment to attaining retribution unflinching. Young Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), throughout the arduous adventure, proves his most loyal companion, though, being one-eighth Cherokee, it takes the best part of five years before Ethan treats him with the respect he deserves. Though it stops short of humanising the Comanche Indians, the film makes clear the startling parallels between Ethan and Scar; our hero’s racist attitudes are not merely a product of their time, but rather Ford both acknowledges and condemns his prejudicial mind-set. Ethan remains the film’s unrivalled hero, but the audience is nonetheless offered a conflicting perspective on his morals and motivations.

Intertwined within this darkly-themed tale of obsession and prejudice is a somewhat awkwardly-placed romance between Martin and Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles), one that belongs in a lesser Western to this one. The selection of eccentric supporting characters, including those played by Ward Bond, Hank Worden and Ken Curtis, certainly provide some amusement for the audience, but ultimately detract from the murky themes that comprise the heart of the story, of Ethan’s endless search to retrieve his niece from the Comanches; or, otherwise, to purge her “pollution” through murder. As far as Westerns go {and, I admit, I’ve never been an avid fan of the genre}, John Ford’s The Searchers is one of the finest that I’ve seen, despite a few uneven patches. The film works equally well as both a brooding character study and an entertaining adventure, and that’s surely not a balance that could have been achieved easily. For now, I’ll maintain that my two favourite Westerns are The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and Little Big Man (1970), but I can’t wait to discover what other treats John Ford has in store for me.

Currently my #5 film of 1956:
1) Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox)
2) Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (Don Siegel)
3) The Killing (Stanley Kubrick)
4) Moby Dick (John Huston)
5) The Searchers (John Ford)


ressot3 said...

"The selection of eccentric supporting characters, including those played by Ward Bond, Hank Worden and Ken Curtis, certainly provide some amusement for the audience, but ultimately detract from the murky themes that comprise the heart of the story"

I've found this in all too many Ford films (not that I've even seen that many). You have it in this, Stagecoach, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, and who knows how many more. In this way, My Darling Clementine was a huge relief. You don't have any of those characters. It's also...not coincidentally, my favorite Ford film.

ackatsis said...

At this point, I've only seen one other John Ford film, and that's "The Grapes of Wrath (1940)," which really *is* a masterpiece.
Have you seen it? It sounds as though you'd like it.

J Luis Rivera said...

I'd take "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" and specially, "The Grapes of Wrath" as Ford's best films.

I think "The Searchers" is a tad overrated, but it's still a damn good Western (what can I say? I have loved all Ford's film I've seen). You know what would have elevated the film to the category of classic? If Ethan had succumbed to his demons, that would had been a killer (pun intended) ending.

I wonder if Ford, the rebel liberal, thought about it. I bet he did. I bet he smiled imagining his friend Wayne, America's hero, embodying the darkest side of American culture. Heck, now I love the film again... :P

You MUST watch "The Long Voyage Home", another Ford film I place over "The Searchers", and where I found Wayne's second best performance ever.