The Searchers

The Searchers (1956) movie poster

(1956) dir. John Ford
viewed: 05/10/09 at the Stanford Theater, Palo Alto, CA

One of the greatest Westerns ever made (my personal favorite) and perhaps one of the greatest movies ever made, John Ford’s awesome film, The Searchers was totally awesome to see on the big screen.  Playing as a double feature at the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto with Fort Apache (1948), I actually got myself down to the peninsula for only the third time to this terrific theater to catch one of their awesome shows.  Incredibly well worth it, too.

I’d initially seen The Searchers when I was living in England, a time that I hearken back to with some frequency.  Being 1995, the BBC and Channel 4 were doing great retrospectives of world cinema and The Guardian newspaper offered insightful descriptions of the films, leading me into a number of terrific discoveries.  The Western had not been a favorite of mine growing up, and though I was getting to like watching many Westerns while there in England, it was The Searchers that totally sold me on the genre and on John Wayne.

I, like many, always think of Wayne as the symbol of American manliness that so many came to perceive him: upright, strong, tougher than hell, the savvy one in the bunch, the ass-kicker among shit-kickers, and noble, forthright and true.  Whether he is or was or even represented any of this stuff isn’t so much the point, as much as he symbolized and embodied that for not just a generation, but enough to be as iconic as any Hollywood star ever will be.  But with that, there is the oppositional aspect, the part that rebels against such authoritative figures, symbols that belie themselves, hide the ugly beneath the veneer of good, and lack the complex nature of reality.  Of course, in true experience, Wayne is startlingly more deep and powerful than any one single image can stand.  And The Searchers is his personal masterpiece.

The film is the story of a pair of men, Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter, a young mixed-race adopted member of the family, who set out on a five year long trail of an abducted girl, kidnapped as a child and raised by the Comanches that stole her.  Vengeance is the driving factor, for the murdered family, and for the ruination, as Wayne’s character Ethan Edwards sees it, of the child.

Edwards is a ruthless tracker, seething with hatred for Native Americans, namely the Comanches, whose blood boils at the quietest of times and whose vitriol is demonstrated in his disfiguring the corpse of one of the fallen Comanches, shooting out his eyes, because Edwards knows that the Comanches believe that without their eyes, they will not be able to enter the spirit world.  He hates them beyond this world, he hates them into the next.  And while at first he hopes to rescue to abducted, his mission evolves into one of killing.  The audience is shown the madness to which abducted “white women” fall into after long captivity in this alien culture, no doubt coupled with rape and other suggested horrors.  Debbie, the stunning Natalie Wood, the abducted niece, is no longer human in his eyes, but a creature below contempt, like the Comanches themselves.

The racism in Edwards is the complication of the hero.  His nobility and know-how, returning to the family after years in the Civil War and other mysterious campaigns, has tainted him.  It is Hunter, the adoptive nephew, who stays doggedly by Edwards’ side, knowing what Edwards intends to do, and hoping that he can save Debbie from her rescuer.  It’s a complex portrait of Edwards, who knows more about the Native Americans than does Hunter’s Martin Pawley, despite the fact that Pauley has Native American blood in his veins.

The film is stunningly beautiful, filmed in Utah’s Monument Valley, among the incredible rock formations and hills and desert, against the vast, open skies.  It’s an epic landscape, Ford’s West, a dramatic background for this haunting, gripping drama.  The film is almost blunt about the implied rape and tortures that signify the ruin of the female characters at the hands of the “savage” villains.

This film is amazing.  If you have never seen it, it is well-worth the time.  It’s a true masterpiece, an iconic, tremendous film, still standing high, fifty years since it was released, and a total, absolute pleasure to see on the big screen in a wonderful theater.


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