Lost in the Movies: The Favorites - The Searchers (#27)

The Favorites - The Searchers (#27)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Searchers (1956/USA/dir. John Ford) appeared at #27 on my original list.

What it is • Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to his brother's homestead in Texas after a stint in the Confederate Army...three years after the Civil War has ended (Wikipedia picks up on clues that he spent that extra time fighting against the French interventionists and Emperor Maximillian in Mexico). In other words, he is established right away as a rootless wanderer, most notably in the infamous opening shot of a woman opening a door out into the wide open plains, shielding her eyes from the light as a figure rides up on a horse. The ending mirrors this shot, with Ethan turning to walk off the porch and back out into the wilderness as everyone else gathers inside, the door framing his exit as a retreat from civilization. The framing device might suggest that he remains at home in the interim, an oasis of domesticity in a life of exile, but the title gives the game away: Ethan is actually wandering for almost the entire film. There is a difference to the time the film covers: Ethan is searching, not just drifting at random. His very clear goal is to track a Comanche chief (Henry Brandon) so he can avenge the rape and murder of his brother's family and find - perhaps "mercy-kill" - his kidnapped niece (played by siblings Lana and Natalie Wood, as a child and adolescent, respectively). Ethan is a mess of conflicting impulses and signifiers: redeemer of virtue and revenge-obsessed madman, tender uncle and bigoted/misogynist hater of race-mixing, stalwart defender of white civilization and outcast from that same civilization. The movie both embodies classical western forms and subtly subverts them, drawing on the genre conventions that Ford and Wayne helped create while pointing toward the revisionist decades to come. Receiving decent reviews and perhaps turning a modest profit, The Searchers proceeded to disappear for a while; it didn't get much distribution and other Ford films were more frequently celebrated. By the seventies, however, most notably in Taxi Driver, the film had become one of the most influential works of American cinema. Its tough-guy antihero not only shaped the lonely, angry protagonists of New Hollywood but - directly or indirectly - the brooding men of cable TV's Golden Age. In terms of psychological impact alone, it has certainly earned its consistent place as the most acclaimed western of all time.

Why I like it •
After watching How Green Was My Valley, I wrote one simple comment on IMDb: "John Ford's films are so beautiful it hurts. Just had to get that off my chest." If I was picking a Ford film based purely on iconic beauty, I might actually go with one of his black-and-white works. The Searchers is often gorgeous but also, in both story and style, a bit messy at times, and color exposes some of the shortcomings that already looked a little dated in 1956; Bosley Crowther humorously noted that "some of those campfire scenes could have been shot in a sporting-goods store window." But many images, especially those infamous opening and closing shots, belong among the most powerful visuals in Ford's career. The Searchers, however, ranks so highly based on more than its iconographic qualities - character and theme also resonate, and I even have some affection for the qualities that many considered glaring weaknesses. Yes, the film is unafraid to indulge in Ford's hokey, corny side in a romance subplot (with the very appealing Vera Miles) and some drunken frontier fistfights. Almost by definition, the narrative is episodic; when I ranked another Ford film slightly higher on this very Favorites list, commentator Stephen M. concurred: "I love both films and Ford in general, but The Searchers is one of Ford's most imperfect films, and [Young Mr.] Lincoln one of his most perfect." I have to admit both qualities appeal to me in their own ways - The Searchers' messiness reflects Ethan's own boiling-over rage while Lincoln's calm composure reflects its subject. The film can even find itself the target of condemnation for stereotypical portraits of Native Americans (frequently using white actors) and the recipient of praise for its nuanced, disapproving portrait of white supremacy and colonial violence; Ford, who ten years before this film was a New Deal Democrat and ten years later was a hawkish Republican, had his own ideological tangles to work through, but he did so honestly. I first saw a clip from the movie when I was a little kid and was angered by what I saw as the shoot-'em-up action sequence of cowboys gunning down big bad Indians - in the post-Dances With Wolves era I instinctively identified with the Comanche. As a teenager, I watched the entire film for the first time on TCM introduced by Martin Scorsese, who presented it as a painterly masterwork, an antiracist meditation on bigotry. Now more than ever, in an America defined by the confused cross-section between an admirable anti-authoritarian individualist ethos and a, well, deplorable fear/contempt for outsiders (informed, as in The Searchers, by actual violence but extrapolated far beyond that source and devoid of larger context)...The Searchers remains relevant.

More from me • I wrote a full review of The Searchers for my "The Big Ones" series in 2011. A clip appears at 3:35 in "An International Era", a chapter in my "32 Days of Movies" video clip series.

How you can see it • The Searchers is available on blu-ray/DVD from Netflix and for digital rental/purchase on YouTube, Amazon, and these sites.

What do you think? • Is The Searchers John Ford's masterpiece; if not, what is? Do you see the film as dated, ahead of its time, or something else in its depiction of the West? Of all the films The Searchers has influenced, which one do you think most interestingly interprets its spirit?

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