In July, 2015, the BBC released a list of the 100 Greatest American Films, curated by polling critics all over the world. I’m watching them and writing about them as a form of self taught film school. This week… we’re taking on number 5: The Searchers, directed by John Ford. As always, there will be spoilers.
This is going to be rough. John Ford’s 1956 epic Western, The Searchers secured a spot in the top five American films as ranked by the BBC critics. When the final shot finally washes away, I knew I had just seen something laden with overt racism and that I had also just witnessed masterful direction draped in front of stunning landscapes. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed this film, or that I was looking forward to articulating why.
I knew that the film is quintessential “classic American cinema” from the get go.
It was easy to picture all the shots from the movie that had been cut into “best of” montages over the years, vibrant and artful, there are moments of such elegant composition that the mind slips away from the plot and absorbs the scenery as it would a large scale mural in a museum, all consuming in its reach and execution.
These were the moments that evoked how I felt watching Barry Lyndon or Tree of Life. I became taken with the beauty of a single frame rendering me, and the characters, equally minuscule in our respective vastness, our stories and histories secondary to the landscape we’re enveloped within. In The Searchers these scenes are shamelessly manufactured, and gut wrenching in their temporariness — integrating the romance of an American west that would soon no longer exist with the simplicity those myths seek to endorse.
Let’s start with the disclaimer which cannot be stated more plainly, John Wayne’s character in this film, Ethan Edwards, is a racist.
Not only is he an entirely unapologetic Confederate veteran, he resents and abuses the adult version of the child he saved because he is one eighth Comanche, he unabashedly hates the American Indian tribes of the west, and he makes no bones about it.
One of the high points of the film is that it works in subtleties and nods to Ethan’s past without unnecessary exposition. We know he was a Confederate soldier who refused to surrender, he wandered for a few years before showing up at his brother’s doorstep, he gazes longingly at his sister in law, and somehow is a resident expert on the language and traditions of the local tribes. We see these loose threads alluded to and they add a richness to Ethan’s character that is desperately needed. As the movie continues, he and the “half-breed” he rescued, Martin, search for the lone survivor of the Comanche attack on his brother’s homestead — the young Debbie. However, at some point in the search, he decides he must find her to kill her, instead of rescue her, because she’s “one of them now”.
I turned to the shoulders of giants in an effort to understand why this film, with its disturbing fondness for a blatant racist, persists in American consciousness. While I couldn’t easily locate a Pauline Kael essay on the subject, I did read Roger Ebert’s “Great Movie” review, and, admittedly, it altered my impression of the story. This was the line in Ebert’s essay that changed my perspective, and provide The Searchers a saving grace:
Countless Westerns have had racism as the unspoken premise; this one consciously focuses on it. — Ebert
I remember hearing Jenji Kohan explain that she used Piper Chapman, the basic, white, rich, leading lady of Orange is the New Black, as a Trojan horse which allowed her to tell the stories of secondary characters at a time when the market for those narratives was limited as best. It is an appealing hypothesis to assume that The Searchers is Ford’s attempt to do the 1950s version of that backhanded exploration of race: portray a caricature of the hardened old cowboy, whose hell bent hatred is disturbing in many respects and embarrassing in many others.
Maybe this perversion of a hero would expose the toxicity of blind disrespect and bigotry toward a race of people if it was attached to the shell of a man so many had been groomed to universally revere. If it’s John Wayne, he’s the hero, and American men will relate to his cause regardless of its morality. By allowing Ethan to embody the classic cowboy archetype, and spotlighting the sinister scars on that frame, Ford could be attempting to hold a mirror in front of his peers to examine their own racism, all behind a facade of the beauty of the American west and the mythicism attached to that scenery. I’m not confident those were Ford’s goals, but it’s tempting to believe, especially given the fact that he would go on to craft works with openly sympathetic portrayals of American Indians. Even if his intentions were noble, it feels Ford may have overplayed his hand at times, and that the “warts and all” depiction of Ethan could also encourage audiences to dismiss their own racist tendencies as Ethan seemingly does without a second thought.
Ethan’s moment of redemption is one of the most beloved scenes in American cinema. We see him chase down Debbie, while Martin attempts to intervene and prevent him from murdering her. As Debbie runs from Ethan in terror, the music crescendos, and she collapses in a heap on the desert sand. Ethan picks her up and lifts her into the air, as he did years before in the homestead when she was a small child, holds her in his arms and says softly, “Let’s go home Debbie.” This scene gave me little solace, in spite of all it’s cinematic importance. The fact that Ethan stops short of killing his own, defenseless, entirely guiltless, niece does not restore this man’s goodness in my estimation.
The final shot comes closer to establishing a context for Ethan that feels more appropriate. He gazes on the few survivors of the movie, a man on the outside looking in at a future generation. His posture is resigned, awkward, unsure of itself. He’s a man who has clung to a hateful reality that was in the early stages of being dismantled, and is beginning to recognize that he does not belong in the new world where people will find it increasingly difficult to accept his treasured philosophies. And he already told us, he is a man who does not believe in surrender. So he’ll walk away in loneliness, unable to adapt enough to assimilate.
The other characters in the film are passively racist in the more traditional 1950s sense. For the most part, everyone sticks to their archetype, and this is especially true for the women in the film. They scream and look longingly out on the horizon, they are props that serve little purpose other than to dress scenes around the men. There are two notable exceptions to this, the respective wives of Martin Pawly. The first wife is a Comanche woman he accidentally marries and then abuses out of embarrassment. She briefly joins the trail with Ethan and Martin, and is the impetus for some of their more abhorrent behavior. This sequence aged especially poorly when viewed with contemporary lenses, partially because it seems to have been intended as comic relief.
We are introduced to Martin’s first wife through the narration of his second wife, Laurie Jorgenson, in a romantic subplot that has all the incongruity of a network note that came in after the director’s final cut. That said, the scene where Martin is bathing and Laurie storms in is one of my favorites, if only because it features a woman expressing free thought. It’s goofy and loosely sexual, a ray of levity in otherwise endlessly problematic slog through the vast sands of “Texico”.
From what I’ve read, the romance scenes are generally loathed by the film lovers who embrace the movie. A quick scan of the criticism around this film presents a polarized picture of its place in history. I saw a couple of references to how the “initiated” love the film and suggestions that this film offered a quick credibility test for cinematic gatekeepers to gauge how seriously they should take someone’s opinion. I hate that perspective, and find in some ways it parallels the ethos of Ethan’s shortcomings. The assertion that “if you fail to value what I value, or hate what I hate, I can choose to disregard your opinion as insubstantial” is one of the most toxic characteristics of staunch moral superiority that infect the imperfect hero of the film.
One aspect of the film’s greatness is easier to embrace — and that is the impact it has had on the works that followed it. Of the few articles I scanned, I saw all of these films referenced: Star Wars, Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, Punch-Drunk Love, Kill Bill, and Brokeback Mountain, in addition to the classic Buddy Holly song inspired by Ethan’s catchphrase “That’ll Be the Day”. That certainly is some good company to keep, although I question if we can credit the “search party to find a friend, daughter, or lover” narrative structure to this film (see the earlier reference to the Trojan War). And of course you could throw in a few less classically prestigious examples to that list including Taken or Romancing the Stone.
Ultimately, this feels like a film that was possibly well intentioned, and undoubtedly well executed, but like many artifacts of the past, fails to pass the timelessness test. It belongs in the annals of great films because of the beauty it inspired, and it’s efforts to push a static genre out of its well worn tracks.
As with every film on this list, and almost every institution in this country, race is inextricable from the content and delivery.
The Searchers deserves credit for making an effort to extract truth from the genre at a time when it wasn’t expected and that direct gaze on our most apparent shortcomings was a true risk
A.O. Scott, when reviewing the film, mentioned that Ernest Hemmingway said all American literature can be traced back to Huckleberry Finn and that maybe The Searchers is the cinematic equivalent. Ford inspired thousands of films, from some of our most beloved directors. The landscape in the film and the photographic direction is a bit of masterful sleight of hand, allowing us to absorb the beauty of the American west, and also witness how individuals lauded as patriotic heroes are also perpetrators, or enablers, of our most deplorable atrocities.