The Searchers (1956)

Directed by John Ford

The Searchers 08-Low Angle

The Searchers is a highly influential Western.  It’s the 12th collaboration between director John Ford and star John Wayne, and the cowboys of this era are like the Tony Starks of our era.

In this film, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) searchers for years to find and bring back his niece, Debbie (Natalie Wood) alongside his nephew, not by blood, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter).  Early in the film, Debbie as a young girl is kidnapped by the Comanches, presented as ominous and villainous and, most notably, completely exotic to our cowboy heroes.

I watched this film because I kept seeing it on lists as one of the better films ever made and also because it feels like a classic western, the type of films Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns reacted against.  In The Searchers, John Wayne is the classic hero, even as he’s getting up there in age.  He has been out on ‘the road,’ for years when we reunites with his family, mistaking one daughter for the other because it’s been so long.  He’s revered by the family, he’s stubborn, and he’s always right.  He’s the epitome of masculinity at this time.

But Ethan Edwards hates the Comanches.  His complete and utter disdain for them feels extremely racist, particularly today, but it’s understandable given where he’s coming from.  The problem, if there is one, is that the film glorified Ethan and thus glorifies his prejudice.  Ethan lives in the frontier, away from home for years at a time.  He has to be on guard at all times because this is a violent landscape, and all anyone is trying to do is survive.  Ethan has lost family to the Comanches, according to a tombstone we see early in the film, and his pursuit of Debbie, as it unfolds, starts to feel much less about saving her as it is about enacting revenge on a group of people he’s wanted to hurt for a long time.

Now, Ethan doesn’t hate all Native Americans, by any means, but he seems to either hate them, Chief Scar, or ignore them.  Ethan is a soldier, and these are the enemies.  He’s so built up by his own pain and hatred that he hardly seems able to carry on a normal friendship with anyone.  Martin, for example, might as well be Debbie’s sister, but they’re not related by blood.  When Ethan observes that Martin is 1/8 Native American, as he says, it’s enough for Ethan to treat him without respect throughout the movie, even as they travel together for years looking for Debbie.

The dynamic between Ethan and Martin is one of the more fascinating and entertaining aspects of the story.  Martin looks up to Ethan because, well probably because he’s John Wayne, so Martin’s perspective of him mirrors the audience’s.  We expect to revere John Wayne and to idolize him, and even as he’s gotten up there in age, he saunters around the soundstage like a deity.  He’s John Fucking Wayne.

But this isn’t just a Western vehicle for Wayne to star in.  It’s a movie that feels surprisingly subversive.  As I read a little about Sergio Leone’s dislike for certain Western movie tropes and cliches, influencing how he undercut them in his own films, I began to expect that a film like The Searchers would feel today like a Lifetime movie.  The music would swell, characters would fall in love, they’d ride off into the sunset, and the whole thing would feel like a melodrama on horseback.

But in addition to Ethan’s own clear prejudices, even beyond those already ingrained into the film (White = good, Native America = enemy, etc.), there is plenty of humor, both making fun of Martin’s masculine ambitions, a young cadette’s eager loyalty near the end of the film, and even a brief, unintended marriage between Martin and a Native American woman which is played for laughs.

It’s an entertaining story with a lot to say, in other words, and not just an exercise in manipulating the audience’s emotion.  The focus of a lot of this is on Martin.  He wants to prove himself to Ethan, but he also seems to want to prove to himself that he’s not a coward.  When Ethan decides he wants to pursue Debbie alone, Martin insists on coming with him.  Even when Martin is presented with a woman to marry, Laurie, he turns her away in favor of his mission.  Martin is somehow both a fool and heroic.

Eventually he finally returns to Laurie, after five years have passed, on the night she is to be married to another man.  In one of the funniest scenes of the film, Martin and the other man, Charlie, get into a very physical fight while the audience watches and Laurie smiles.  It’s a scene all about the pressures of masculinity, as Martin perceives them, and the pointlessness of the conflict.  When Laurie asks Ethan to do something, he smiles and tells her that she started it.  These aren’t ideal heroes, and Martin’s and Laurie’s romance isn’t presented as some cinematic heaven.  He’s sloppy and jealous, and she relishes in their battle for her affections.

It all seems to make fun of the day to day lives of people away from the front lines of the war between cowboys and Indians.  There is a pretty stark contrast, actually, between these family scenes and the ones involving war which are ferocious and quick, with dozens shot down, their horses collapsing into sand or into rivers.  These are the scenes that I picture kids in 1956 acting out in the streets after seeing the movie.

But the family scenes and the humor, those are the aspects that I think might be more easily forgotten, and they make up most of the film.  The Searchers deals with a lot of effort that goes to waste.  Hell, years pass, and when they finally find Debbie, she’s nearly a grown woman, insisting that she doesn’t want to leave her new life with the Comanches.  Ethan groans to Martin that Debbie is beyond saving, she might as well be dead.

Martin, of course, doesn’t accept this, but the quickness with which Ethan acts to write off Debbie’s fate suggests either an understanding of the grim realities of life in the frontier or an emotional detachment from any and all loved ones because that’s the kind of attitude you need to survive.  People are brutally slaughtered in this film, though most offscreen, and your loved ones might be gone years at time for a simple mission.  Life out there ain’t easy.  Ethan is the one who accepts this and now seems to bask in it, almost proud of his tough guy act like he’s as smitten with his cowboy costume as the audience is.  But Martin is young and naive, and with that naiveté comes hope.

He knows Debbie isn’t really too far gone, and he still has plans to marry Laurie even if he has been gone five years.  Ethan is the character so disenchanted by what he’s seen on the front lines that he can’t bring any of himself back home to family, even when he physically shows up.  He’s like the soldier suffering from PTSD who can’t sleep well at night.  But Martin can.

The final sequence of the film, the final battle, is pretty awesome.  Gone are the sound stages (which occasionally popped up in the film) and in come the racing camera movements, trying to keep up with Wayne and his horse as they whip across the desert, firing his rifle.  The whole sequence is well put together, and all the action goes down quickly.  Then Ethan pursues Debbie, and you think he might kill her, seeing her as the enemy rather than family.  By this point we have already seen Debbie and Martin embrace, suggesting she is ready to come home.  While this scene works out a little too well and too quickly (she had already told them she didn’t want to come home, so why the sudden change of heart?), it establishes a sense of hope which we expect to be quickly shot down by Ethan’s hand.

He finds her, though, and picks her up, intending to take her home.  It’s an ending that feels more appropriate if Martin is the one to rescue her, but this is a John Wayne picture, and our hero has to be the guy who carries the damsel in distress back home.

The Searchers is loud and funny and occasionally a bit scary.  It presents Scar, the Comanche chief as a villain, something like Scar from The Lion King mixed with Darth Vader.  But even Scar is given a scene in which he explains his own perspective towards the white intruders.  His two sons, he says, were killed by a white man.  Both he and Ethan have lost someone to a conflict neither has any interest in solving.

The result is physical violence.  Though Ethan and Scar can communicate through enough of a shared overlap in language, for the most part the White settlers and the Comanches can’t even speak to each other.  This only adds to the distance between them, and rather than working together, if that could ever be possible given the death and destruction in the middle, they are determined to fight.  Their bravery, then, is detrimental to both sides.  We see the Comanches ride into a barrage of bullets with admirable bravery, but foolish strategy.  It’s the same bravery brewing inside of Martin which manifests itself in other foolish ways, particularly the fight with Charlie.

So this is a harsh world, populated by brave men with weapons, but the bravery can only take either side so far.

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