Watching it is like finding money in the pocket of a coat that you haven’t worn in years.
John Ford's “The Searchers” contains scenes of magnificence, and one of John Wayne's best performances. There are shots that are astonishingly beautiful. A cover story inNew Yorkmagazine called it the most influential movie in American history. And yet at its center is a difficult question, because the Wayne character is racist without apology--and so, in a less outspoken way, are the other white characters. Is the film intended to endorse their attitudes, or to dramatize and regret them? Today we see it through enlightened eyes, but in 1956 many audiences accepted its harsh view of Indians.
The film is about an obsessive quest. The niece of Ethan Edwards (Wayne) is kidnapped by Comanches who murder her family and burn their ranch house. Ethan spends five years on a lonely quest to hunt down the tribe that holds the girl Debbie (Natalie Wood)--not to rescue her, but to shoot her dead, because she has become “the leavin's of a Comanche buck.” Ford knew that his hero's hatred of Indians was wrong, but his glorification of Ethan's search invites admiration for a twisted man. Defenders of the film point to the famous scene where Ethan embraces his niece instead of killing her. Can one shot redeem a film?
Ethan's quest inspired a plot line in George Lucas' “Star Wars.” It's at the center of Martin Scorsese's “Taxi Driver,” written by Paul Schrader, who used it again in his own “Hard Core.” The hero in each of the Schrader screenplays is a loner driven to violence and madness by his mission to rescue a young white woman who has become the sexual prey of those seen as subhuman. Harry Dean Stanton's search for Nastassja Kinski in Wim Wenders' “Paris, Texas” is a reworking of the Ford story. Even Ethan's famous line “That'll be the day” inspired a song by Buddy Holly.
“The Searchers” was made in the dying days of the classic Western, which faltered when Indians ceased to be typecast as savages. Revisionist Westerns, including Ford's own “Cheyenne Autumn” in 1964, took a more enlightened view of native Americans, but the Western audience didn't want moral complexity; like the audience for today's violent thrillers and urban warfare pictures, it wanted action with clear-cut bad guys.
The movie was based on a novel by Alan LeMay and a script by Ford's son-in-law Frank Nugent, the onetime film critic who wrote 10 Ford films, including “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” and “Wagon Master.” It starred John Wayne, who worked with “Pappy” Ford in 14 major films, as a Confederate soldier who boasts that he never surrendered, who in postwar years becomes a wanderer, who arrives at the ranch of his brother Aaron (Walter Coyt) and his wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan) under a cloud: He carries golden coins that may be stolen, and Sheriff Sam Clayton (Ward Bond) says he “fits a lot of descriptions.”
It is clear from the way Ethan's eyes follow Martha around the room that he secretly loves her. His hatred of Indians flares the moment he meets Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter): “Hell, I could mistake you for a half-breed.” Martin says he's “one-eighth Comanche.” Ethan rescued young Martin when his family was killed by Indians, and left him with Martha and Aaron to be raised, but it's clear he thinks one-eighth is too much. When Martin insists on joining Ethan's search for the captured Debbie, Ethan says “I give the orders” and treats the younger man with contempt. In a saloon, Ethan pours out drinks but snatches away Martin's glass, snarling “Wait'll you grow up.” Martin at this point has been a ranch hand, is engaged to be married, has been on the trail with Ethan for years. Does Ethan privately think it's dangerous for a “half-breed” to drink? One of the mysteries of “The Searchers” involves the relationship between Ethan and Martin on the trail. Living alone with each other for months at a time, sleeping under the stars, what did they talk about? How could they share a mission and not find common cause as men?
Martin's function on the trail is to argue for Debbie's life, since Ethan intends to find her and kill her. The younger man also figures in a romantic subplot awkwardly cobbled on to the main story. He is engaged to marry Laurie (Vera Miles), the daughter of friendly Swedish neighbors. Ford goes for cornball humor in scenes where Martin writes to Laurie only once in five years, and in that letter makes light of having mistakenly purchased a “squaw bride.” Martin returns on the very day when Laurie, who never expected to see him again, is scheduled to marry Charlie (Ken Curtis), a hayseed, and the men fight for the women in a sequence that would be more at home in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” than in an epic Western.
“The Searchers” indeed seems to be two films. The Ethan Edwards story is stark and lonely, a portrait of obsession, and in it we can see Schrader's inspiration for Travis Bickle of “Taxi Driver;” the Comanche chief named Scar (Henry Brandon) is paralleled by Harvey Keitel's pimp named Sport, whose Western hat and long hair cause Travis to call him “chief.” Ethan doesn't like Indians, and says so plainly. When he reveals his intention to kill Debbie, Martin says “She's alive and she's gonna stay alive!” and Ethan growls: “Livin' with Comanches ain't being alive.” He slaughters buffalo in a shooting frenzy, saying, “At least they won't feed any Comanche this winter.” The film within this film involves the silly romantic subplot and characters hauled in for comic relief, including the Swedish neighbor Lars Jorgensen (John Qualen), who uses a vaudeville accent, and Mose Harper (Hank Worden), a half-wit treated like a mascot. There are even musical interludes. This second strand is without interest, and those who value “The Searchers” filter it out, patiently waiting for a return to the main story line.
Ethan Edwards, fierce, alone, a defeated soldier with no role in peacetime, is one of the most compelling characters Ford and Wayne ever created (they worked together on 14 films). Did they know how vile Ethan's attitudes were? I would argue that they did, because Wayne was in his personal life notably free of racial prejudice, and because Ford made films with more sympathetic views of Indians. This is not the instinctive, oblivious racism of Griffith's “Birth of a Nation.” Countless Westerns have had racism as the unspoken premise; this one consciously focuses on it. I think it took a certain amount of courage to cast Wayne as a character whose heroism was tainted. Ethan's redemption is intended to be shown in that dramatic shot of reunion with Debbie, where he takes her in his broad hands, lifts her up to the sky, drops her down into his arms, and says, “Let's go home, Debbie.” The shot is famous and beloved, but small counterbalance to his views throughout the film--and indeed, there is no indication be thinks any differently about Indians.
John Ford (1895-1973) was Hollywood's greatest chronicler of American history, and there was a period when his “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940) and not “Citizen Kane” was cited as the best American film. He worked on his first film in 1914, and was directing by 1917. He had an unrivaled eye for landscape, and famously used Monument Valley as the location for his Westerns, camping out with cast and crew, the company eating from a chuck wagon and sleeping in tents. Wayne told me that making a Ford Western was like living in a Western.
Ford's eye for composition was bold and sure. Consider the funeral early in the film, with a wagon at low right, a cluster of mourners in the middle left, then a diagonal up the hill to the grave, as they all sing Ford's favorite hymn, “Shall We Gather at the River” (he used it again in the wedding scene). Consider one of the most famous of all Ford shots, the search party in a valley as Indians ominously ride parallel to them, silhouetted against the sky. And the dramatic first sight of the adult Debbie, running down the side of a sand dune behind Ethan, who doesn't see her. The opening and closing shots, of Ethan arriving and leaving, framed in a doorway. The poignancy with which he stands alone at the door, one hand on the opposite elbow, forgotten for a moment after delivering Debbie home. These shots are among the treasures of the cinema.
In “The Searchers” I think Ford was trying, imperfectly, even nervously, to depict racism that justified genocide; the comic relief may be an unconscious attempt to soften the message. Many members of the original audience probably missed his purpose; Ethan's racism was invisible to them, because they bought into his view of Indians. Eight years later, in “Cheyenne Autumn,” his last film, Ford was more clear. But in the flawed vision of “The Searchers” we can see Ford, Wayne and the Western itself, awkwardly learning that a man who hates Indians can no longer be an uncomplicated hero.