“Which movie is the hardest to discuss in this week-long John Ford series?” is a question with a lot of answers, but I think his 1956 picture The Searchers might edge through for the individual reason that – as the film widely considered Ford’s best – it seems like every single thing worth saying has already been said by far more intelligent and articulate film people than myself. It doesn’t help that – as I’m sure you’ve guessed with this being a series exclusively dedicated to what I consider Ford’s masterpieces – I’m not really set to go against conventional wisdom. It’s also the case that The Searchers has been getting the mildest drop in reputation over the past few decades, some of which is understandable if also ungenerous.
Understandable on a thematic sense that is, but we’ll get back to that. On an aesthetic sense, however, I don’t get how anybody couldn’t find it overwhelming. It is Ford’s EPIC in a way that no other picture by him could be, with cinematographer Winton Hoch given the expanse of the VistaVision widescreen film to capture the most out of the Western horizon and then make it feel tired on the part of the washed-out coloring without losing one detail of that rocky and sandy expanse. And this matters all the more so when Jack Murray cuts the sequences with every bit of slack to stress that we are feeling the years pass the characters by on a journey that feels… OK, maybe this is something lost once you have seen the movie but it’s a journey that doesn’t promise any particular satisfaction at the end of it.
I’m getting ahead of myself. What is this journey that the scope in structure and image is in service of? Frank Nugent’s screenplay – adapting the 1954 novel by Alan Le May – begins with Confederate veteran Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) riding into the Texas homestead of his brother Aaron (Walter Coy). This arrival is certainly to the pleasure of the children Lucy (Pippa Scott), Debbie (Lana Wood – played later in the film by her sister Natalie), and Ben (Robert Lyden) but less so in the case of Aaron and his wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan) for some unspoken reason. It might be because Ethan did not reach out in three years since the Mexican Revolutionary War he was fighting in ended, it might be the romantic tension between Ethan and Martha, it might be the quiet hostility Ethan shows to their adopted son Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) specifically because he resembles his Cherokee descent*. In any case, the elders are not jumping for joy to see Ethan back and when the Law shows up in the form of the Reverend Captain Clayton (Ward Bond) and his posse, there’s even further a friction between Ethan and authorities that are mostly there to recruit help for investigating a cattle theft.
That theft – which Martin accompanies them on as well as Ethan after making a point to NOT swear in – turns out to be a trap, not for the men but for one of their unsuspecting homes. And unfortunately that turns out to be the Edwards’ home, desolated in the wake of a raid and leaving the bodies of Aaron, Martha, and Ben with Debbie and Lucy missing. Something which enrages the already hardened Ethan to go on a search for the two girls with Martin in tow, but it takes very little to scratch the surface and see he’s mostly looking for blood and not for the girls.
In any case, this is a journey that spans over a decade for the two searchers and that timespan takes its toll on both of them, Ethan much more severely as he grows bitter and nastier to Martin in denying him his relationship to the Edwards’ and holding him at a distance compared to the rest of their companions that hop on and then drop off throughout the film (some of whom drop off violently). Which is where Murray’s editing does the most work to slow the flow of momentum. The Searchers doesn’t stop completely but it’s more of a grind under Nugent’s structure and the story’s shape. Certainly one can already call to mind how the iconic opening and closing shots of the movie involving the long empty desert behind a moving door, but there’s also how much of the middle is taken up by a fragmented frame narrative involving the one letter Martin sends to his beau Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles) as well as how cyclical the movie’s treatment of hot yellow summers crossfading into soft white winters at least twice before it feels like the few clues Ethan and Martin have (a Comanche Chief named Scar has been seen with Debbie) are finally leading them somewhere. The Searchers is not a very long movie – just a minute shy of 2 hours – but it makes it all felt and then some.
And then there’s still the fact that we are spending it in the company of Ethan, a role embodied by Wayne’s single most caustic performance, not above smiling or having a laugh when he’s under the roof of someone (there is a lot to be said about the dichotomy between Ethan’s domestication and savagery) but whose default manner appears to be a firm scowl under the bright desert sun or the shadow of his brim (this particular rewatch having a close-up round the middle of the film truly catch my eye as a moment where Ethan looks so very vicious, not to mention being a great example of what the VistaVision 35mm does to close-ups as it brings out all the stubble and lines on an old face like Wayne’s). His antagonism towards all the many people he will encounter in that long journey within Hoch’s vista (and particularly being dwarfed by those vistas in pointed ways, just as Ford loves to do to his drama visually) is a big part of what makes The Searchers feel so dark as a story without having to try so hard.
Ethan as a character is only one such way that the movie introduces a cynical attitude about what the Western as a genre yields. Conventionally speaking, The Wild Bunch is considered the first revisionist Western and being that The Searchers was still made in the later end of the 1950s, there was only so much violence that the movie could portray. But the implication of the brutality feels so much stronger than any bloodbath could provide: just look at the wide shot revealing what’s left of the Edwards home, the blackened smokey fire in the middle of nothing. It’s not gruesome but it gives us a chill down our spine just the same in its dark fatalism. Violence is what sobers The Searchers most, whether from the things the characters refuse to say or let others see or how three instances an off-screen death that brings further exhaustion to the mission. And particularly in the manner it frames Ethan’s meting of his own violence. One of his earliest moments on this search is to desecrate a found Comanche corpses as a low-angle shot, deliberately in a manner most offensive to the Comanche beliefs. Later, we have a middle shot witnessing Ethan about to commit a heinous act of desecration mirroring an taunt displayed to him just before by Scar himself (Henry Brandon).
Which brings us to the matter of racism and The Searchers. It seems to be a continuing question brought up by both apologists and critics of the film alike: Is The Searchers commenting on racism or is it just plain racist? Not to be too flippant, but I feel the movie makes itself explicitly clear on this matter: Ethan Edwards is a bad person who does not belong in any sort of society (a hell of a reversal on the first big Ford and Wayne collaboration Stagecoach condemning society). But even the Comanche is given the sense of civilization from their organization once we see them and the part-Cherokee Martin plays as a voice of reason and understanding against Ethan’s brutal tactics and philosophies, most often when the possibility of Lucy and Debbie’s miscegenation among the Comanches is brought up and Ethan determines death is a preferable fate for the girls. When they finally meet Scar face-to-face, Scar turns out to be very eloquent and has no trouble communicating his anger towards Ethan and his people with an attitude that feels rather of a kin to Ethan’s rancor (this is maybe the only area where casting a white man as Scar feels like it pays off, otherwise one of my only two issues with the movie besides the intolerable wise fool character giving undeserved comic relief). In nearly every aspect of Ethan’s characterization, he is wrong and the manner with which the film makes the shape of shadow (from the cowboy hat) on Ethan’s face more solid than any other movie Wayne made with Ford is impossible to ignore.
But Ethan is still not just some two-dimensional surprise villain and I think it’s the ending of The Searchers that most appears to complicate its tone as well as Ethan’s character logic in a major final decision, where Max Steiner’s previously weighty score (another area of projected exhaustion from The Searchers) makes a 180 over to this soft idyllic cue that transforms to melancholy in the final moments. And it just all fits, even despite giving us no indication to expect The Searchers to go that route and if anything preparing us for the opposite by having it play as the aftermath of one of Ethan’s most vicious actions. But it still effortlessly swings into those tones of relief and sadness in the last few minutes in an emotionally consistent way before we watch that famous shot of Ethan looking through the doorway but turning around and walking away from us as it closes. Maybe it’s that humane complexity about Ethan that causes everyone to feel like it undercuts its pessimism up to that point. I don’t agree though…
… Because it still marches towards the same final observations The Searchers about the Western and its place in the world anymore. That it idealizes a lone hero who is in fact just a violent bully, that it romanticizes a landscape that has no blatant feeling of the drama within it (Hoch’s cinematography being more realist in its mythic iconography than anything Ford made before or since), that it vilifies a race and enemy that has its own pain and its own establishment and agency. Not too long ago, I was faced with someone dismissing The Searchers with the claim that “I’m sure it was subversive for its time” but I absolutely don’t subscribe to liking movies for being “subversive for their time”. The Searchers is still subversive now in 2021 deconstructing and critiquing elements of storytelling mythology that is used to this day (plus I mean… I love The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, but it’s not like we stopped having movies portray Native Americans as “savages”) and it’s a wonder that even if you’re not willing to accept how insightful it is as an amalgamation and examination of everything Ford accomplished in his career to that point, you can’t help surrendering into the shadow of a never harsher vision of that long surviving horizon in the American Southwest.