23 August 2008

The Searchers (1956)

d. John Ford / USA / 119 mins.


As you watch John Ford's epic 1956 western The Searchers, if you find yourself admiring it but not really getting it, the best thing you can do is put it back on the shelf, watch a handful of other westerns, wait a couple months, and try it again. It's a film that gets deeper and more beautiful the more you've seen other westerns struggle to achieve the power Ford seemed to produce so effortlessly.

The film has many fine qualities, all of which are very apparent, and any list much begin with the wonderful composition and photography. The film opens with a gorgeous shot of Dorothy Jordan – playing the matriarch of a family in the late 1860s – silhouetted in the door frame of a darkened house, looking out into the countryside with the camera pushing forward as she steps out into the light. (If you've seen The Searchers, you're probably closing your eyes and picturing the utter beauty of this unexpectedly complicated shot.) The film closes with a visual echo, an equally gorgeous shot of John Wayne standing contemplatively and holding his right elbow as the camera pulls back into a darkened house. In between these memorable shots, Ford demonstrates for two solid hours his innate talent for staging scenes and his magnificent eye for capturing the natural beauty of the West in stunning Technicolor.

Wayne's Ethan Edwards is probably his most complicated character (his Tom Dunson in Howard Hawks's Red River might be on par in terms of complexity). Edwards is a callous, isolated Confederate veteran who spends the film obsessively seeking his niece, kidnapped as a young girl by Comanche Indians. I should say that word one more time: obsessively. The film spans years, and Edwards's motives are not pure; he loves his family but is openly racist, and clearly hates the idea of what has "become" of his niece as a taken member of the Comanche tribe – so much so that, in his twisted love, he considers her better off dead.

Or does he? Wayne performs superbly, an ace blend of villainy and determination. But it isn't so easy to summarize Edwards's views. Roger Ebert notes, quite perceptively I think, that it seems Ford and Wayne – who were not known to be racists themselves – knew what they were doing when they inflated the morally despicable characteristics of Edwards. (It's bee further noted that many westerns invoke racism consciously and subconsciously, but The Searchers embraces it as a central character element.) Even if Edwards as a character is essentially the same in the end, the film can rise above it.

Although it is frequently lauded as the genre's best (and sometimes as one of the greatest films ever made), I'm not ready to go that far. I have seen The Searchers three times – possibly more viewings than I've given to any other western – and each time it has improved in my eyes. Perhaps its greatness awaits me later in life. It wasn't widely admired upon its first release, but it experienced a critical revival due to the film school generation of directors – Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola – who have not only cited it as among their favorites but have made films clearly influenced by or referential to The Searchers. Its climb among critics has been astronomical as well. In 2002 it barely missed inclusion in Sight & Sound's decennial top-ten poll, tying with Seven Samurai for 11th place. When the American Film Institute revised its top 100 a few years ago, The Searchers had the largest leap, going from 96th to 12th.

While beautiful, well-acted, and influential, the film has a story that is not constructed perfectly. Many scenes achieve greatness, but the film loses a large amount of dramatic steam in the middle due to its wildly uneven comic relief and the utterly bizarre subplots of Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), Edwards's adoptive nephew and searching partner who is one-eighth Cherokee. In one subplot Martin falls in love with his neighbor's daughter (Vera Miles), and in another, accidentally buys a Native American wife, providing the film with so-called comic relief. Ultimately neither uniquely advance the plot.

As westerns go, The Searchers is among the dozen or so really good ones, even considering its unsubtle faults. Personally it's not my favorite western, and I don't think it's even John Ford's best; his Stagecoach (1939) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) work much better as complete films in the genre, and out of the genre, The Grapes of Wrath (1940) is a superior examination of (at the time) more modern life in the western United States. But it's also not hard to see why so many people are inclined to cite The Searchers as a great film.

3 comments:

Tony Dayoub 23 August, 2008  

-I have trouble seeing why you would categorize "The Grapes of Wrath" as a western.

-"The Searchers" is definitely among the best westerns, particularly for the way it inverts expectations. It might not seem as shocking in recent years because of the endless succession of "revisionist" westerns that have been released since. But at the time of its release, it must have seemed shocking to most.

John Wayne, already a star western hero, is a racist(!) intent on capturing his niece, not to save her, but to execute her. And it's beautiful Natalie Wood, of all people. His character does change significantly by the end of the film. Ethan at the beginning of the film would have killed his niece. The Ethan at the end recognizes his own prejudicial limitations, and retreats from society, either to rehabilitate himself, punish himself, or protect society from his own poisonous personality. He cedes the mantle to half-breed Pawley.

In many ways, this is a transitional film for Ford. As he would go on to invert expectations and explore prejudices again in films like "Sergeant Rutledge", "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance", and "Cheyenne Autumn".

T.S. 23 August, 2008  

You're right. I would not classify The Grapes of Wrath as a western in the sense of the genre and did not mean for the original text to imply such – thus the caveat that the three films I listed simply explored life "in the western United States." I see now how that could be construed to suggest I meant they were all westerns and should have been written much better. Thanks for pointing that out; I've edited the text to reflect, more clearly I hope, what I intended.

Furthermore, I appreciate your assessment of The Searchers as a film, a racial text, and an installment in Ford's oeuvre, although I would contend that his decision not to kill Lucy is not a miraculous and moralistic leap toward tolerance on his part. He saves her, strengthens the bond of the family, but there's little evidence that he thinks differently from his racist views. His extremism has been blunted, but not erased. His moral position is enforced as relatively stationary (with the exception of moving slightly more toward the center) while the film as a text can move largely and subtly.

MovieMan0283 23 August, 2008  

I agree that The Searchers is not perfect, but I find myself so moved by the beauty of those shots you described, and the power of Wayne's performance, and that palpably dark, driving, but expansive mood of the film that I am willing to call it a masterpiece.

It definitely belongs with those late 40s and 50s movies (from The Best Years of Our Lives and It's a Wonderful Life to Vertigo) which expanding the tonal range of Hollywood films within the stylistic conventions of postwar American filmmaking. That period has a special place in my heart, along with late 50s to late 60s European cinema and 70s New Hollywood - it just connects with me on an emotional level, in a way that today's movies don't even come close to.

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