This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.
Usually when we say a film starts "in media res" we mean that we're plopped right down in the midst of action, with the plot already begun. That's not the case in The Searchers, which follows a conventional story arc. Beginning with Ethan Edwards' arrival at his brother's homestead, the film waits the requisite ten or twenty minutes before introducing the "inciting incident" in screenwriting terms: a Comanche attack on Ethan's relatives, killing the parents and son, raping the older daughter, and kidnapping the little girl. Only after this does the central action of the story begin, with Ethan and his part-Indian stepnephew, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) trailing the Comanche war party for five years, hoping to either rescue little Debbie or put her out of her perceived misery, as her teenage years will bring a dreaded miscegenation. Then the movie follows an episodic course, cutting between accounts of Ethan's and Martin's hunt and the "homefront" where Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles) pines after Martin and considers her other options. So no, The Searchers doesn't start "in the middle of things" as that Latin phrase would have it and yet in a sense it does: a whole world, historical, social, psychological, stretches out before the film even begins and the movie itself almost seems like the tip of the iceberg floating on waters which conceal its vast depths but let us imagine what lies beneath.
In this sense, I suppose, all films start "in media res" but few highlight this quality, or rely on it, as much as The Searchers does. Think about it: in the first scene, few of the characters are meeting each other for the first time. Debbie might be too young to remember Ethan, and Martin might not be recognized by Ethan (despite the fact that Ethan rescued him as a baby) but even their relationships extend beyond the opening of the film. A contrast with Shane is telling; there the iconic arrival of the stranger precipitates the whole story - we know all we need to know about the family's history in a few gestures and asides, and the conflict between ranchers and homesteaders speaks for itself and doesn't need to have any past articulated within the movie. Shane himself is an enigma whose past remains purposefully shrouded, to the point where it seems more like a set-up than a genuine history. But the very bedrock of The Searchers is its sense of lived-in time and space, of a murky past that still has a strong hold on the characters, and an uncertain, difficult future.
Laurie's mother articulates this perfectly in a speech which Ford treats with both sincerity and sly subversion (having Mr. Jorgesen remark in his Swedish accent, "She was a schoolteacher you know," a line which is not in the screenplay):
Now Lars!... It so happens we be Texicans... A Texican's nothin' but a human man out on a limb... This year an' next and maybe for a hundred more. But I don't think it'll be forever. Someday this country will be a fine good place to be... Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come...But we don't need a speech to bring this sense home: it's present in Ethan's prodigal homecoming, in which the children chatter around him, the wife casts fond glances in his direction, and the brother implies a discomfort with Ethan's presence. It's in the references to the Civil War, which Ethan still seems to be fighting (both in the historical sense, given his lingering loyalty to the Confederacy, and a more metaphorical sense, fighting the different sides of himself and sticking to the image and actions of a confounded rebel). And it's in all those cryptic and allusive asides, gestures, and silent moments, like the brother's astonishment at Ethan's freshly-minted money (implying he got it illegitimately) or the child's innocent question about why Ethan waited so long to come home if the war's been over for a while, or the pointedly "I'm minding my own business" reaction of the Reverend (Ward Bond) to Ethan's flirtation with his sister-in-law.
These touches gives us a present which is both more immediate than it would otherwise be (since the characters are continually struggling with facts and challenges that have been there for a while, they are more prone to react than reflect or anticipate). But they also suggest a brooding sense of the past and a dimly hopeful sense of the future, neither of which are as real as the immediate present but which exert an almost tidal pull on any given moment. Most of all, they create a rich texture which makes The Searchers feel like more than just an interesting story unfolding over two hours - it feels like a world we enter into, one which extends beyond the frame and between the scenes. Just off the top of my head, other films in this series which create a similar sense: Casablanca (aided by but not limited to its flashback), E.T., Rear Window, The Rules of the Game, The Seven Samurai, The Third Man, Tokyo Story - all of these movies are riding a wave, the wave being an offscreen history which the sensitivity of the direction, the details of the screenplay, and the depth of the performance suggest. And then there's Citizen Kane and It's a Wonderful Life, which pack extensive backgrounds within the running length - showing instead of telling or hinting at backstories and motivations. All of these movies have characters who are coming from, as well as going, somewhere, and while this quality is rarer than you might think, it can be one of the key ingredients to craft a masterpiece.
The Searchers has its flaws, and for many viewers these have proven insurmountable, along with qualities that may or may not be flaws: Ethan can be unlikable, the film - while critical of racism in some aspects - indulges in some old-fashioned stereotypes, there is a lot of corny humor, the storytelling is all over the map, and some of the plot mechanics seem a little convenient (why doesn't Scar kill Ethan when he has the chance, why is it so easy for everyone to attack the Comanches in the end?). To me they only heighten the flavor; the cruelty of the characters (especially towards the poor native bride) offsets tendencies towards righteousness, the virulence of Ethan balances out his more stoic qualities, and the domestic humor creates a perfect counterweight to the tense, man-in-wilderness adventure sequences (my favorite being a gorgeous day-for-night sequence with Ethan overlooking the Indian camp below). Also, for whatever reason, I don't find the characterizations or dialogue as grating as others - while a similar folksiness brings down Way Down East for me, I think by Howard Hawks' dictum that "a great movie contains three good scenes and no bad ones" The Searchers survives; none of the goofy, somewhat corny scenes bother me much (I kind of like some of them) and the good scenes are really, really good.
Despite its attention to dramatic texture and its controversial balancing of tones and narrative approaches (many are frustrated by the fact that The Searchers isn't an intense, streamlined chase film), The Searchers' legacy relies most heavily on a few signature moments: particularly the beginning, the ending, and the climax that comes just before. When the film opens, a door opens and as Ethan's sister-in-law steps out on to the porch to see who's coming, we move out with her, in one of the most subtly graceful camera movements in cinema history. A great deal of its power relies on its use of the widescreen image: when the door opens, we are looking at vertically rectangular frame, with darkness on either edge - the composition could easily be in the standard Academy ratio of 1.33:1. But then, as we glide out and the doorframe disappears behind us, the screen stretches out on either end to embrace the whole desert vista, and it's a stirring a moment as any in Ford's canon.
Then there's the ending, a similar shot, except that this time the characters are moving indoors, taking rescued hostage Debbie (Natalie Wood) inside with them and temporarily forgetting about Ethan, who stands outside gripping his arm (in Wayne's silent tribute to old-time cowboy actor Harry Carey, Sr.). Then Ethan turns and walks away, and the door closes behind him. Here there is new camera movement, backtracking as the characters enter the home, so that now the edges are engulfed in the shadowy, mysterious domestic world, a world which Ethan is exiled from. When he turns his back and walks out toward the horizon, the camera does not move with him, it stays fixed in place and lets the door cut off the view (like that door at the end of The Godfather, except in this case it is the person with too much knowledge, too fully aware of the role of violence in protecting the family, who is shut out).
Best of all, perhaps, is that climax - controversial (many have wondered at Ethan's sudden shift, without any seeming motivation) but deeply powerful. The very fact that few can explain it in conventional character or story terms makes the moment almost magical, on par with the the miraculous resurrection at the end of Ordet in which the material world is shot through with some sort of spiritual significance, which even the participants in the scene barely understand. The moment has emotional truth, even if it doesn't make "sense"; it's a risk, but at sixty-two and forty-nine, Ford and Wayne are game for the challenge. Who can say why we do the things we do, why we can be raging beasts one moment and kind angels the next? The western genre always feeds off this enigma to a certain extent, because it puts characters beyond the reach of conventional law or societal pressures, leaving them to fend for themselves, challenging their codes and creating conflicts between different values. In the end, they discover who they truly are in the only way possible: leaping into the abyss and seeing what happens. The Searchers' grasp of this human mystery, fed by its attention to context and detail but ultimately timeless and universal in its evocation, is its enduring strength, and why it stands tall, fifty-five years later, as one of the greatest westerns of all time.
The Searchers appears at 3:55 in "An International Era", a chapter in my video series "32 Days of Movies".