The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)

“Some day this country’s gonna be a fine, good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.

Introduction

Watching the High-Definition version of The Searchers truly is an experience. The vast scale of the landscape between Utah and Arizona, known as Monument Valley, is simply breath-taking when you can see every detail. John Ford manages to capture, in his finest film, the isolation, beauty and threatening nature of this world. Set in 1858, Ford commands our attention from the unforgettable opening shot as Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) rides toward his brother’s house alone on horseback. He is, and remains, a wanderer – and this film reveals this man as a human who is racist and content with taking another man’s life. Though, we should despise him – Ford manages to portray him as heroic. This conflict is set-up within the first few minutes – already separating this film apart from films like Day of the Outlaw and the various ‘psychological’ westerns that appeared at the time.

A Tragic and Dangerous World

The set-up portrays Ethan staying with his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) – but clearly; his love is deeper with his sister-in-law, Martha (Dorothy Jordon). Uncomfortable moments show the Reverend (Ward Bond) witness Martha smell Ethan’s jacket, before handing it over, and lovingly look in his eyes before he plants a tender kiss on her forehead. Ethan then joins the Texas Rangers, taking the place of his Brother, as they check for Indians who’ve apparently stolen cattle – only to reveal that it was a ploy to draw them away from their loved ones. Ethan returns to find his Brother, Nephew (Robert Lyden) and Sister-in-law murdered – and the girls kidnapped.

The film takes an ugly turn as it is clear that Martha has been raped by the Comanches during the attack before she was killed. We are left to truly fear what has happened to the children. This moment is so shocking that it completely changes the mood of the film – this is not a positive film anymore and, as the impetus to move the film on, we are constantly brought back to realising how tragic this situation is. The teenage daughter Lucy (Pippa Scott) has a lover, Brad (Harry Carey Jnr), who joins Ethan in searching for the girls – whilst “half-breed” Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), who was raised by the family, additionally supports (despite Ethan’s racist attitude towards him). As the rangers begin their search, the horrendous moment is turned worse when Ethan returns after a walk within the mountains, that he found Lucy and clearly she had been raped and killed herself. This film is a far call from the white-clothed cowboys of the previous few years – Alan Ladd’s lead-character in Shane wouldn’t last long against these Indians.
 
A Quiet Man

Many documentaries, when discussing John Ford, often show the awkward interview Peter Bogdanovich had with the man. John Ford was a director alongside Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang who began their craft in the silent era. They managed to progress past the evolution of sound and dominance of colour – and in their twilight years, they managed to create masterpieces such as The Big Heat and Vertigo. It is strange to imagine the work-like attitude to filmmaking a director like John Ford had – the idea of discussing, analysing and deconstructing a film was not something he often demonstrated. His interview with Bogdanovich is a testament to that. As Martin Scorsese says in his documentary A Personal Journey…, most American directors at the time “never claimed to be artists” priding themselves on “holding their cards close to their chest”.

 
With this in mind, it is fascinating how much depth and quality of thought has gone into The Searchers. So many characteristics and situations that were chosen to hold further meaning than mere ‘entertainment’. Edward Buscombe, a Searchers ‘expert’ if you will, has written many books about the many layers of meaning that reside within the 120 minute run-time. The appearance of the film in this year’s Sight & Sound poll was the first appearance it made since its fifth position in 1992. The assumption is that Western films, as a genre, have grown in popularity due to films like 3:10 to Yuma and Seraphim Falls, and of-course the Westerns from the Coen brothers. It is more likely that John Ford’s “stock having risen higher than ever in the past decade”, according to Kieron Corless, is what has caused a small revival of the film. I would be tempted to note how the quality of films in the past couple of years may have factored into the vote – has anyone been able to see the beauty of Monument Valley to such a standard before now? Did John Ford himself ever view such a high-quality digital version? The answer is no – personally, as a second watch, I was amazed at the quality.
 
Multi-Layered

Akin to the many layers in the landscape, the film itself holds deeper meanings that are worth considering. Contextually, Ethan himself is an aging man – stuck in his racist and animalistic ways. Did he simply steal the money he hands to his brother at the beginning? The Searchers was released at a point whereby Westerns were changing dramatically. The multiple revisionist versions of the Western – whereby American-Indians were depicted more sympathetically and Spaghetti Westerns, whereby the landscapes were the deserts and world of Italy, were just around the corner. John Ford and John Wayne were many years away from their hey-day in films such as Stagecoach back in 1939. Does Ethan represent the out-of-date attitudes and approaches to the western genre – almost as if Ethan is the aging version of the heroes in the 40’s films. Now he is corrupted and deeply angry about the world that frowns down on his automatic disgust against Indians – there was a time that this was celebrated and supported. But he has no place in this world – and is almost a villain in his attitudes. But he believes his duty, initially to find – and then to murder – Debbie (Natalie Wood) is righteous and justified. We know it’s not, but there is a conflicted character – and a conflicted attitude as to how you as an audience, want the story to progress.

Edward Buscombe writes further, noting how “slowly we realise that the Comanche chief Scar (Henry Brandon) functions as kind of mirror image of Ethan. In raping Martha before he kills her, Scar has performed a horrific travesty of the act that Ethan secretly dreamed of committing. Ethans urge to kill both Scar and Debbie thus arises from his need to obliterate his own illegitimate desires.”
A fascinating interpretation that is supported by sequences whereby the Indians and Texas Rangers ride their horses in parallel, directly imitating each other almost as a mirror-image. Even the opening and closing shots similarity becomes more than mere symmetry – more reminding us of the many parallels in the story between characters.

That Closing Shot

Wayne holds himself, one arm across his body; one leg slightly bent. Two thirds of the screen is black – only the centre panel reveals the characters walking into the house leaving Ethan behind before he walks away. This is a shot that has been used so much now, it is difficult to even highlight the initial use of it by Ford. It is simply now ‘that’ shot . Up there with the’ Vertigo’ shot, used in Jaws.

Even the progression of the story is innovative – in one sequence we hear about Martin and Ethan’s search through multiple voice-overs as Martin’s lover (Vera Miles) reads a letter. The story, directly impacted on Star Wars, as Luke Skywalker’s family are murdered when he is away. Tatooine is a desert landscape and ‘that shot’ is used, when Luke’s Aunt calls him to the house.

This film represents genre, and the multiple-versions and attitudes towards genre. How a genre adapts and changes over time – how meanings and interpretations can alter in each generation. How characters, actors and directors manage to refine their trade and rather than becoming the same character, they become almost a reflection of the ‘truth’ of characters. I imagine Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven (even Adam Sandler in Funny People) preparing by watching John Wayne in The Searchers. Trying to be honest and depict a sense of the reality of their film-career. This is a personal reflection on what they have achieved – and what their characters truly mean. This is a brutal-film that critic Barry Norman manages to summarise effortlessly by stating how it is “a film of quite riveting power executed by a director who had no peer as a maker of westerns”.  I would even go so-far as to say that it was a film director who had no peer as a maker of genre-filmmaking as I cannot think of anyone else who refined a career so much within only one genre. The Searchers makes it all worthwhile.

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