The Great Wall
Unlike any American blockbuster you've seen, a conservative movie with action set pieces that are actually inventive and thrilling enough to be worthwhile.
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.