Milestone Movies : The Searchers (1956)

John Wayne, antihero

by Gordon Campbell

For 30 years – from the 1960s until the late 1990s – The Searchers left a substantial mark on a whole generation of film makers. Homages to John Ford’s film have been paid by almost every major American film director who followed in its wake. Yet for all the overt love, this peculiar film is one of a kind. Today, it would be almost inconceivable for any current star – Brad Pitt? George Clooney? – to choose to play a bitter racist like Ethan Edwards, the cruel and obsessive loner that John Wayne dared to portray here.

Easy enough to trace the impact this film had on the likes of say…Martin Scorsese. The entire Jodie Foster subplot in Taxi Driver was a tribute to The Searchers, and Foster’s big city pimp even dressed like an Indian to make the point clear. (In Mean Streets, Scorsese simply used a clip from Ford’s film.) In the first Star Wars movie, George Lucas has Luke Skywalker return in dismay to his burned out family home on Tattooine, just as John Wayne returns to his brother’s burned out home after it has been hit by Chief Scar and his Comanches.

It goes on, and on. In O Brother Where Are Thou, the Coen brothers’ treatment of Holly Hunter’s sneaky suitor is very much like Ken Curtis playing Jeffrey Hunter’s goofy romantic rival in The Searchers. John Milius named his son after Ethan Edwards and claimed to include a Searchers reference in every film he directed. Even Steven Spielberg, who claimed not to have been influenced by The Searchers, looked as though he had been in Close Encounters – another film that features a child abduction and a guy on a crazed quest, and who finds his answers amid scenery very similar to Ford’s beloved Monument Valley. (Stuart Byron once compiled a list of the major Searchers homages in this New York magazine article.)

Beyond the movies, the German writer Peter Handke – he co-wrote Wings of Desire – published a novel in 1972 called Short Letter, Long Farewell* about a a woman who pursues her estranged husband right across the continental US with the intention of killing him, before the couple finally meet up and discuss their relationship with….John Ford himself. Finally and famously, Buddy Holly borrowed John Wayne’s growled epithet in this film – “ That’ll be the day” – and turned it into a hit song.

Buddy Holly aside, greatness didn’t attach itself to The Searchers overnight. A decent enough box office hit at the time – it was the eleventh biggest box office success of 1956 – the film wasn’t showered with critical praise, and it took decades to be regarded as Ford’s masterpiece. By 1962, it was still nowhere to be seen on Britain’s influential Sight and Sound magazine’s list of the ten best films of all time.

By 1972 though it was #18, by 1982 it had reached #10, and in 1992 it peaked as the fifth best film of all time, before dropping out of the list again in 2002. The Americans took even longer to catch on. Rated only #96 in the American Film Institute’s Best Films list in 1997, The Searchers leapt to #12 in the AFI’s most recent countdown.

Oh, did I mention that the film is also something of a mess? As if alarmed by the disturbing content, Ford threw in what he clearly hoped were several episodes of comic relief. Without exception, the comic interludes are utterly terrible. The list of shame includes the Shakespearean halfwit played by Hank Worden, the yokel played by Ken Curtis and a Swedish neighbour who seems to have wandered in from an Elmer Fudd cartoon.

Worst of all is the ‘comical’ subplot involving a marriage-by –mistake between Jeffrey Hunter and an Indian squaw who is mocked and kicked down a hill (a) because she’s an Indian (b) because she’s a woman and (c) because she’s fat and unattractive. (She finally gets slaughtered in a massacre.) As film critic Roger Ebert once wrote : “Those who value The Searchers filter [the comic relief] out, patiently waiting for a return to the main story line.”

Right. Yet typically, even the worst part of The Searchers has been influential as well. The squaw marriage–by-mistake subplot turned up again a few years ago in Joss Whedon’s science fiction Western series Firefly, in a segment called ‘Our Mrs Reynolds’ – an episode which, among other things, gave the world a memorable introduction to Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks.

So, how has The Searchers come to cast such a long shadow over American cinema? The plot is simple enough, in outline. After a brief homecoming by veteran Confederate soldier Ethan Edwards to his brother and family – long enough to establish without a word being said, that Ethan and his brother’s wife Martha are in love with each other – Scar and his Indians manage to lure Ethan and a local posse off on a wild goose chase. The Indians circle back and kill Martha, her husband and son, and abduct the two female children.

Eventually, it takes years of wandering for Ethan and his companion Martin Pawley (played by Jeffrey Hunter) to locate the Comanche camp that contains the surviving girl, Debbie, who is now a teenager. Martin comes to realize that Ethan’s real motive is not to rescue Debbie but to kill her – for being sexually defiled by the same Indian who raped and killed his brother’s wife, the woman he secretly loved. The film’s depiction of racism, and its equation of racism with patriarchal sexual jealousy still packs a lot of power. It is a theme represented with malignant force by Wayne but is also echoed in a speech by Pawley’s long suffering sweetheart, played by Vera Miles – who is seething with resentment at what this insane expedition is doing to her own chances of happiness.

The fact that The Searchers is such a mixed bag of the great and the terrible has made it easy pickings for any hack wanting to take it down a peg.

The more interesting point is that most of the great movies of the 1950s have a similar unevenness – it is part of what makes them such fever dreams of repression and obsession. Take Vertigo for instance – currently rated the second greatest film of all time. Vertigo too, has an absurd storyline, plot holes aplenty and some ridiculous over-acting ; yet ultimately, none of that matters at all. Same with Kiss Me Deadly, Rear Window and the Douglas Sirk melodramas. And it is very much the case with The Searchers.

To appreciate what Ford and Wayne managed to accomplish it is only necessary to turn to the Alan LeMay novel on which the film is based. In the novel, Edwards is not the main character – Martin Pawley is, and it is he who finishes the novel alone with Debbie, lost out on the plains between the warring worlds of white men and Indians. Ethan – in the novel he is called Amos – has been killed in the final raid on the Indian camp, when he rides down a squaw that he mistakenly thinks is Debbie, and she turns and shoots him.

In other words, Ford and his screenwriter Frank Nugent re-adjusted the story in ways that bring Ethan to the fore. The film adds Ethan’s thwarted love for his brother’s wife and his patriarchal fury at Scar for raping Martha and making Debbie his concubine – and this raging jealousy becomes the engine that drives the entire film. As others have pointed out, Ethan is something of a chronic loser. The Confederacy he fought for lost the Civil War. He returns home to the woman that he lost to his brother and then unwittingly exposes them and their family to harm. And at the film’s end, he is shut out of civilization altogether in the famous closing shot that – literally – slams the family door on him.

As Paul Schrader once complained in the 1970s, the most sorely missed element in the film is that there is no scene between Scar and Debbie, alone – a scene that would have established what she truly feels about the Indians from whom she is about to be ‘rescued’ regardless. Such a scene would have clarified her feelings about Scar in particular, who is Ethan’s moral double.

The reason for this omission is pretty obvious – it would have capsized the film, and pointed it in directions that Ford (and movie audiences in 1956) did not really care to consider. Ford was never much interested in (or comfortable with) the inner lives of his female characters. As a result, the film entirely ignores the life that Debbie has made with her Comanche family – while it sentimentalises the nuclear family that had locked Martha into marriage with the wrong brother, that was willing to marry off the Vera Miles character to a buffoon, and that shuts out Ethan at the end of the story.

That aside, there is so much to admire. This is a beautiful looking film, shot amid some of the most stunning desert scenery in the world. and Martin Scorsese – in the extras to the DVD version – has pinpointed a couple of the cinematic highlights. Two examples : near the end of the film, there’s a scene at the fort where Martin and Ethan meet up a few deranged female captives who have been rescued from Indian abduction. As the two searchers leave the room, Ford zeroes in on Wayne for a close-up ( it is weirdly akin to the close-up that helped to propel the young, amiable Wayne to stardom in Ford’s movie Stagecoach, nearly 20 years before ) and the look of disgusted hatred that Wayne summons up is bloodchilling. (The Stagecoach scene is at 7.15 here )

Much has been made of the opening door that commences the film and the closing door that ends it. Note should be also made of the gesture – left hand grasping right elbow – that Wayne adopts in the final sequence, a mannerism associated with his old friend Harry Carey Snr and which was intended by Wayne as a gentle signal to Carey’s widow, Olive.

It is John Wayne’s greatest performance. In this film, he sacrificed his easy charm and likeability onscreen for something far darker and formidable. For all his hippie baiting and flag waving during the 1960s and 1970s, Wayne is impossible to dismiss in The Searchers. Anti-heroes are generally seen as being a relatively recent convention – a few years ago a lot of people gushed over Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, hailing it as an anti-Western that had de-mythologised the genre. Yet as Village Voice film critic Georgia Brown once said about the comparison, maybe they should take another look at this film’s anti-hero, and see what they make of John Wayne’s ‘terrible, terribly lonely rider.’

* Footnote : Hat tip to Georgia Brown again, for the Peter Handke reference and for her commentary on The Searchers ( Village Voice ( May 18, 1993)