In the harsh, dusty lands of the western, where men and women endure a harsh existence and America was still enduring awkward growing pains; one filmmaker is usually mentioned above all others when it comes to his work in genre.
I’m not talking about Sergio Leone (stunningly), although his agonisingly cool worlds of anti-heroes and cynicism make him an excruciatingly close second. I’m not talking about Clint Eastwood either, although his work in front of and behind the camera managed to give the western the respect it was lacking through the tougher, more modern times. No, I’m referring to John Ford, the man with four Oscars for directing, who was regarded by such people as Orson Wells and Ingmar Bergman as one of the greatest directors of all time and who gave us such rustic, yet thoughtful epics such as Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and – maybe his greatest – The Searchers.
After eight years away from the family homestead, crusty gunslinger Ethan Edwards returns to West Texas and calls in on his brother, Aaron and his kin. Ethan’s been busy during his time away, first fighting in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy (oops) and then in the Mexican revolutionary war, but wearily returning home is made worth it when he sees his nieces and nephew all grown. He’s less keen to meet Martin Pawley, a young man who’s been adopted into the family who is one-eighth Comanche, which clues us into Ethan’s mindset concerning his apparent distaste for Native Americans and the fact he refuses to take the Texas Ranger oath of allegiance when deputized to aid in the search for a fellow homesteader’s missing cattle shows he still embraces the old ways of the Confederacy.
Things start going incredibly South when the missing cattle turn out to be a ploy to lure the men folk away so a Comanche raiding party could attack and burn Aaron’s ranch to the ground, kill Aaron, his wife and his son and abduct the two daughters, one of whom, Debbie, is only eight years old.
Igniting a fire under Ethan, a man who’s hatred of Comanches in particular is as plain as the hat on his head, sets out to get the girls back with a posse formed of townsfolk and Martin, but after a run in with their quarry ends in a stale mate they return home empty handed with only Ethan, Martin continuing the search.
As time lopes by – and we’re talking years here – Ethan and Martin form a solid but volatile bond as they follow leads and rumours to find Debbie, but it soon becomes apparent that they both have very different motives for finding the missing girl. Martin just wants his adoptive sister back and safe, while Ethan’s reasoning are far more sinister – how far will his prejudices lead him to go when he would rather see his niece dead than saved.
In lesser hands, The Searchers could have been a mindless actioner that would have seen the tale presented as a simple revenge/rescue film; but in the hands of Ford it becomes a epic tale that contains an extraordinarily complex central role for The Duke himself, John Wayne. Back in the 50’s Ethan’s attitudes might have been seen as at best extreme and at worst necessary, but as times thankfully changed, the charscter manages to morph into a layered, flawed, bitter man whose hate and back to back stints of war has warped his values.
Yes, the movie’s portrayal of Native Americans is dated, reducing them to faceless fearsome savages, but Ethan’s overt bigotry, spawned by a brutal past would rather have him put down his own relative like an animal than have her be “the leavin’s of a Comanche buck” despite the fact she may be suffering Helsinki Syndrome. The only thing staying his hand is Martin, whose reason for going on the search in the first place slowly switches from saving Debbie from the chieftain Scar to saving her from a “mercy” bullet from her own uncle and it creates magnificent tension.
The fact that the search goes on for five years is also an inspired choice and the drawn out time frame allows life to pass by these unlikely partners as their relentless scouring of every nook and cranny of West Texas sees their relationships with the people back home strain. This extended period of time with Martin ultimately starts to gradually wear old Ethan down until he finally starts to accept him and makes all the character arcs much more believable.
Just as impressive as the complicated themes present here is The Searchers’ frankly stunning cinematography which proves that Ford’s vision of the old west is not only unsurpassed, but it goes to show how fiercely influential The Searchers really is – and I’m not just talking other westerns either. Martin coming across the burnt homestead of his adoptive family was stolen wholesale by George Lucas with the torching of the Lars farm in Star Wars, the brutal attack in Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes feels like a Grindhouse progression of the (unseen) assault on the Edwards property, S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk is just the result of blending The Searchers with Cannibal Holocaust and even David Lean confessed to studying Ford’s masterpiece to aid him shooting landscapes for Lawrence Of Arabia.
He’s picked a blinder too, because The Searchers is in for a good shout for being the best looking western every shot and the compositions, especially the open/closing shots of Wayne framed by a silhouetted doorway, are frequently flawless.
Aside for the treatment of Native Americans, if The Searchers has a flaw, it’s that some may find its payoff rather convenient with the 15 year old Debbie (played by Natalie Wood) suddenly changing her mind to wanting to be saved and that the middle if the film loses sight of the mission somewhat by going into Martin’s sweetheart (Vera Miles) getting married to someone else. But nevertheless, this is an epic movie – which Ford somehow manages to successfully convey dispute being under two hours long – that takes on challenging themes and complex, three dimentional characters to allow arguably cinema’s greated gunslinger (I said arguably, Clint’s no slouch either) to challenge his heroic legacy to stunning effect.
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