Dir: John Ford
Why is this on the syllabus?
I like to think, when it comes to cinema, that I've got a very solid knowledge base. I may not have seen everything, but I've at least seen some of everything. However, over the past two decades I have avoided one major genre; the Western. It just never really appealed to me (less so after doing the Old West in GCSE history, which was astoundingly dull compared to the history of medicine). I've seen, and love, a lot of films that modernise some the ideas of the genre (Badlands and No Country For Old Men, for instance), but the appeal of the classic Western has eluded me.
The thing is, the Western is one of the most important genres in cinema, and I can't really pretend to be a fully rounded film fan or critic without having seen a good few of them, nor indeed a good few films starring John Wayne and/or directed by John Ford, who are both, it's fair to say, somewhat important figures in cinema history. To me it seemed that their most renowned and best loved collaboration had to be my jumping off point for the genre.
What did I learn?
That there's much, much more to John Wayne than the endless 'Say Pilgrim...' parodies suggest. Though a massive star in his day, Wayne has never really been regarded as much of an actor, and seems to be viewed more as a walking persona. Obviously I need to see more of his films to really come down on a side of that argument, but on the face of it his work in The Searchers feels like a good rebuttal to those charges; embodying many of the film's darker and more morally complex themes.
That's another thing that surprised me about this film; I'd always envisioned the classic Western, perhaps incorrectly, as a genre where the morals were simple; good guys and bad guys easily defined and the tone one of a slightly wistful romanticism about simple times past. That's not this film, and it's all the better for it.
The story sees Wayne's Ethan Edwards return, years late, from fighting for the Confederacy. He goes to stay with his brother's family, but is quickly called away to investigate suspected cattle rustling by local Indians. It soon becomes clear that the cattle were a cover for a murder raid by the Comanche, and Ethan returns to find most of his Brother's family dead, and the two daughters missing. Ethan and his adoptive nephew (Jeffrey Hunter) set out to find the women and kill their kidnappers, embarking on a search that will take five long years.
In any other film this dedication would be pure, making Ethan the unambiguous hero of the picture and Jeffrey Hunter's Martin little more than a sidekick, but, happily, The Searchers is much more complex than that. Frank S. Nugent's dark screenplay (from a novel by Alan LeMay) paints Ethan as an unrepentant racist. He repeatedly tells Martin that they aren't family, not because Martin is adopted but because he's an eighth Cherokee, but that's really just the start. Ethan isn't on a rescue mission, he's out to kill, and not just the Comanche who killed his family. When they finally find Debbie, the niece who survived (played at 15 by an 18 year old Natalie Wood), Ethan and Martin discover that she has lived with and become part of the tribe, rather than been their prisoner and the idea that has bubbled under the entire film and been the reason that Martin has stuck so close by Ethan comes to the surface. As we've heard Ethan say earlier, prisoners who have lived within the tribe for so long aren't white any more, and he plans to kill Debbie along with the rest of the tribe, rather than take her home.
I wonder how this played in 1956, what it was like both to have Ethan be this way and to have movie refuse to treat him as a hero because of it, back in pre civil rights era America. I can't say, but certainly now it's a shockingly dark choice and the movie gains much complexity from the way it treats Ethan. Much of this comes from the relationship between Ethan and Martin, which remains suspicious throughout, and injects a great deal of tension into the film. In a mid-movie sequence Ethan appears to leave Martin alone and without a horse as he sleeps, and then draw a rifle on him. On this occasion, it happens, Ethan defends Martin (though he's also using him as bait), but there's never any doubt that if the younger man ceased to be useful, Ethan would have no compunction about killing him, or that, as much as he wants to rescue his adopted Sister, Martin is there largely to try to keep Ethan on a leash.
There are lighter things happening, namely the sub-plot about Martin and the girl (Vera Miles) who wants to marry him but is disappointed by his long absence hunting for Debbie. Miles is excellent and pretty affecting, but frankly this storyline just ends up taking away from the quest narrative and the dynamic between Ethan and Martin, especially in the long wedding sequence towards the end of the film, which stops the film's momentum at a critical point. A better handled lighter note is a misunderstanding that leads to Martin getting an Indian wife. Ethan's amused reaction to this gives us a glimpse of a lighter side of Wayne (though he never lets the continuity of character slip, Ethan's amusement is mean and racist) and it also powers the main narrative, and leads to a resonant moment later in the film.
Throughout the film both Wayne and Hunter are excellent; their terse and distrustful relationship rings true and powers the film and each plays the complexities of his character with credibility and conviction. The rest of the cast are a little overshadowed - though there are no real weak links performance wise - but Vera Miles is appealing as a woman surprisingly modern for 1868 and Natalie Wood makes an impression in her handful of scenes.
John Ford is a director whose work I hadn't previously seen, except in clips in documentaries, this won't be the last of his films I watch. Ford's direction makes this dark tale an incredible and accessible spectacle. He revels in the outstanding vistas that his settings (Monument Valley being the most recognisable) allow him, with many beautiful wide shots that communicate just how vast the task facing Ethan and Martin really is just in finding Debbie in the first place. However, Ford also finds beautiful and resonant shots in smaller and more personal moments. The justly famous bookends of characters framed in doorways spring to mind, each reflecting Ethan's place (or lack of it) in this more settled world. It's not just the still moments that Ford shoots beautifully though; this is a film full of action, and those sequences are beautifully realised. In fact, a lot of today's action filmmakers could learn something here; the gunfights are exciting and have real impact, but the cutting is still measured and the geography of the action sequences is clear. I can't stress how much more enjoyable action is when it's intelligible (Bay, are you listening?)
I think I'm several viewings away from getting everything I'm going to get out of The Searchers, as moments and shots are still lingering with me from last night. Ultimately, isn't that what defines a great movie; the knowledge that the next time you watch it you'll not only take away something more, but you might even take away something different?
If you buy The Searchers from one of these links you'll get the film and help out 24FPS at no extra cost. Awesome!