Quite possibly the greatest example of classical Hollywood filmmaking, not just the greatest western. John Ford’s masterpiece opens as it means to unfold, on a note at once rich with personal subtext and storytelling nuance, yet textbook in eloquent simplicity. A door opens onto the wild prairie dawn, the sun-soaked vistas of Monument Valley where Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) rides home. The embittered, ex-confederate soldier bristles at the sight of his adopted, half-Indian nephew Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), yet embraces his other kin, especially youngest niece, Debbie (Lana Wood). When Ethan and Marty accompany a band of Texas Rangers, led by blustery preacher-turned-captain Samuel Johnson Clayton (Ward Bond), to track down a Comanche Indian raiding party, they quickly realise they’ve been tricked into leaving their homestead defenceless.
Ethan rides back with Marty to find the Comanche have burned his homestead to the ground and killed his brother Aaron (Walter Coy), sister-in-law Martha (Dorothy Jordan), eldest niece Lucy (Pippa Scott), and nephew Ben (Robert Lydon). Even more distressing for Ethan, his beloved Debbie has been abducted by the ruthless Comanche Chief Scar (Henry Brandon). Thereafter, Ethan embarks upon an epic and perilous search for his missing niece while the accompanying Marty pens letters to his sweetheart Laurie Jorgenson (Vera Miles) recounting their progress. Over the ensuing years, Marty comes to fear ruthless Ethan is less intent on rescuing the now “Indian-tainted” Debbie (Natalie Wood), than he is on killing her…
It is impossible to overstate the importance of this landmark, multilayered movie. One could argue The Searchers laid the foundations for filmmaking in the latter half of the Twentieth Century, since Ford’s themes and visuals inspired an array of ingenious retellings, from Taxi Driver (1976) to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Star Wars (1977) which in turn went on to sow the seeds of contemporary cinema. Filmmakers like David Lean, Sam Peckinpah and most obviously, Sergio Leone drew upon Ford’s depiction of the American landscape as a mirror for his hero’s fractured psyche. The French New Wave drew upon the notion that something as seemingly lowbrow as horse opera could fuel a cinema of ideas, and that became the defining aesthetic of their golden age. Even beyond the realms of mainstream filmmaking, this film became a touchstone for auteurs as diverse as King Hu, Ramesh Sippy, and Park Chan-wook. John Wayne’s famous catchphrase: “That’ll be the day” inspired Buddy Holly to write his hit song of the same name, while Liverpool beat combo The Searchers drew their name from this movie.
Beyond its status as a pop cultural touchstone, The Searchers operates on a remarkable array of levels. It is at once an astonishingly faceted piece of entertainment, an artist’s personal testament to the genre he helped define, and an eloquent exploration of the anxieties and hopes wrought by the American West. To tackle that first aspect first - how does one quantify a truly great movie. It has to have something for everyone and on that count, The Searchers delivers in spades: gut-wrenching horror (the build-up to the attack on the Edwards homestead is as terrifying as any zombie movie); knockabout comedy (Marty’s hilarious stop-and-start brawl with Charlie Parker, or Capt. Clayton getting stabbed in the ass towards the finale); social commentary (Marty bitterly observes how innocent Indian women and children wind up dead in the cavalry raids); pictorial beauty (cinematography Winton C. Hoch renders Monument Valley alternately eerie or idyllic and captures an unforgettable journey through the snow); romantic comedy (Marty and Laurie’s long-distance courtship proves a source of endless mirth - especially his clueless letter home!); musical numbers (Max Steiner’s glorious score makes this almost an illustrated symphony, plus there’s that wonderfully warm theme tune, and doesn’t goofball Charlie Parker have a surprisingly lovely singing voice?); a remarkably honest dissection of American anxieties regarding miscegenation (those two giggling blonde girls, neither “civilised” nor “savage”, reduced to infantilism and facing an uncertain future); observational comedy (the bizarre codes and mores that govern the pioneer community, right down to Marty and Charlie’s fight); a wealth of unforgettable characters whether major (Ethan obviously), minor (Mrs. Jorgenson (Olive Carey) speaks the most sense throughout the whole movie), eccentric bystanders (prairie mooncalf Mose Harper (Hank Worden) forever dreaming of his rocking chair), or downright surreal (the Spanish dancer obsessively clacking her castanets); a legendarily uplifting scene of pure joy (even Jean-Luc Godard admitted to crying when Ethan takes Debbie in his arms); and plenty of wild west action.
Action that, uniquely, plays differently each time you see it. Our emotions are pumped so that the climactic raid upon Scar’s encampment plays as a rousing set-piece the first time we see it. Subsequent viewings leave you uneasy, realising what your seeing is tantamount to racial genocide. Then you’re left pondering how that’s any different from the Edwards’ murder, and so on it goes. In The Searchers, Ford calls on us to continually interpret and reinterpret action, whether individual or communal. Nothing is ever cut and dried.
It would be all too easy to peg Ethan Edwards a racist, yet he remains this film’s hero and considerably more complex than a simple bigot. His prejudice is certainly evident from verbal outbursts and his distaste over the captive white women (“They ain’t white… no more”). But it was Ethan who rescued the half-breed Marty when he was just an infant. It is Ethan who makes the climactic gesture that by proxy, redeems America. For someone who seemingly hates Indians, he knows an awful lot about Indian culture. Most characters in The Searchers are rooted in disparate worlds: women like Laurie are bound with hearth and home, decency and pragmatism; men like Capt. Clayton are bound to the law; then there are the lawless men and Indians whose ways are part of the landscape, untamed and alien to white eyes; and finally, “half-breed” youngsters like Marty and Debbie whose identity exists in a state of flux. Ethan is the only character able to move between these worlds and that is because he is educated. Not just in being able to read and write better than his companions, but being knowledgeable how to survive the wilderness, his understanding of Indian culture and the U.S. cavalry.
The disadvantage is that this leaves Ethan rootless. As the title song says he is born to wander, which ironically means he has more in common with disenfranchised Native Americans like Scar. His prejudice, far from being a defining characteristic, is symptomatic of this self-knowledge and loathing. Furthermore, Ford drops remarkably subtle and daring hints throughout the early scenes that Ethan’s blood-ties to Debbie go even deeper. It’s never explicitly stated why Ethan left home, but from Martha’s reaction to his return and the fact it is her name he calls when charging the ravaged homestead, we’re left pondering: could Debbie be his daughter? Either way his quest to recover Debbie becomes a mission to either eliminate or redeem a hitherto quashed side of himself.
As an actor, John Wayne is all too often underrated. Even though he had great roles in the past (Red River (1947), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1948), The Quiet Man (1952)) and still ahead of him (Rio Bravo (1959), El Dorado (1967), The Shootist (1976)), Ethan Edwards remains the most complex, the most faceted character he was asked to play and he imbues it with nuance and subtlety. Away from the star turn the beautifully written screenplay provides ample opportunities to savour the skill of Ford’s stock company of character actors, the vibrant amiability of Jeffrey Hunter and Vera Miles, the affecting fragility of the ever-beautiful Natalie Wood (who offended Native American extras by sunbathing topless between takes - but what do they know?), and a chance to see her real-life sister Lana Wood long before she grew up to be voluptuous Bond babe Plenty O’Toole (named after her father, perhaps?) in Diamonds Are Forever (1971).
Of course the most remarkable talent on display belongs to John Ford, who fashions a remarkably forward-thinking parable about America. This is especially apparent in the conclusion wherein the mixed-race Marty and part-Indian-reared Debbie cross the threshold into the American home, while Ethan - having done his duty like any western hero - is left to wander away alone, absorbed into the mythic fabric of the West.