Saturday, March 15, 2008
100 Days, 100 Movies: The Searchers (1956)
Director: John Ford
Starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Natalie Wood
Westerns in general fight an uphill battle because there exists an attitude towards them that they’re “B” movies, films made for entertainment and not as art. This is especially true of John Wayne movies, even though he made most of them with one of the greatest artists of his own or any other time: John Ford. I know people who’ve avoided John Wayne movies, thinking that they’re all the same, that they’re “genre” films in the most confining sense of the word. I myself was one of them until I saw The Searchers. Anyone who doubts the ability of a Western to really mean something – and anyone who doubts John Wayne’s ability to act – should see this film.
The story centers on Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), a Civil War veteran who returns home shortly before most of his family is murdered in a Comanche raid. The only survivor is his niece Debbie (Natalie Wood), who has been kidnapped by the Comanche, and whom Ethan and his pseudo-nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) will spend the next decade searching for. As they finally come near to finding her, Martin realizes that Ethan is planning to kill her because by now she’s been assimilated and become one of “them.” He (and we, the audience) doesn’t know what will ultimately happen when Ethan and Debbie are finally reunited.
John Wayne is generally thought of as an archetypal all-American hero whose films framed him in the same way, even thought the evidence doesn’t always support that. Ethan is the protagonist and he is a hero in the classical meaning of the word, if not in it’s more modern meaning. By classical I mean heroes of the type found in Homer and Virgil, the Greco-Roman archetypes who fought as heroes, but were deeply flawed as human beings. In many ways he fits the archetype of the classical hero. Like Odysseus, he returns home from war years after the fact and is at once an insider and an outsider (note the way the film consistently frames him in doorways – he belongs “out there” not “in here”). By modern conceptions of the terms “hero” and “villain,” this is a character that skews more toward the latter than the former. He’s racist and cruel and hateful (one of the most memorable scenes in the film is him shooting out the eyes of a dead Comanche because, he says, they believe that without their eyes, their spirits are destined to forever wander the earth). But what’s important about this film is that it knows that about him. If the film wasn’t commenting on Ethan’s racism, it wouldn’t stand out so much. He’s not a perfect character, he’s not “good” in a traditional sense, but that doesn’t automatically mean that he isn’t a hero or that he isn’t capable of doing good.
There is a lot of complexity to the character of Ethan, and Wayne shades it in nicely. When he returns home (his brother’s home), it is clear that he’s in love with his sister-in-law – Wayne makes it clear through his eyes, the feature of his to watch in this film. When the family is murdered, he and Martin are off with a posse. From a distance, they can tell that all is not well at the Edwards home and everyone rides back towards it except Ethan. He knows it’s too late, that they’re too far away to help, and he stays behind to rest his horse for the long journey back. You can see everything written on his face in this scene.
Adding to the complexity of Ethan is his relationship with Martin. Martin was raised by Ethan’s brother and sister-in-law, but Ethan refuses to let Martin call him “Uncle Ethan” like the other children do. Martin is part Native American, enough to make him one of “them,” and Ethan treats him that way through most of the film. But what, exactly, is it about “them” (Martin included) that Ethan hates so much? There’s a sexual connotation to Ethan’s racism made explicit by his determination to kill Debbie once he realizes that she’s become a concubine to the Comanche Chief Scar (Henry Brandon). But there’s also a sexual connotation to his relationship with Martin. Consider this: in his meeting with Scar, Ethan comments that he speaks English well. When Ethan says something in Comanche, Scar comments that he speaks that well. If the implication is that Scar learned English from Debbie, then who are we to suppose that Ethan learned Comanche from? And why is it that Ethan’s brother and sister-in-law took Martin in and raised him as their own? If Martin is Ethan’s son by a Comanche woman, Ethan’s racism takes on a new dimension, stemming at least in part from his own self-loathing for having engaged in something he thinks taboo.
The Searchers is both literally and figuratively a journey. It’s a journey across the West to find Debbie, but it’s also a journey of the soul for Ethan, who travels from being a man would kill his niece after she’s lived as one of “them,” to being a man who can take that same girl in his arms, saying, “Let’s go home, Debbie.” But, ultimately, for Ethan there is no home. He doesn’t fit – or he’s not fit for – home and it’s not long after he’s brought Debbie back that he goes away again, back to the wide-open spaces of the American West. It’s the perfect ending to a film that is unequivocally a masterpiece of this or any genre.