Review of The Searchers, Directed by John Ford
By PAUL D. MILLER
The Searchers (1956) is a John Wayne western made in the 1950s, which might immediately suggest to you a certain kind of movie: an all-American hero fighting outlaws and Indians with a six-shooter, a pack of one-liners, and a grinning swagger. Wayne did plenty of those movies—this isn’t one of them. Not by a long shot. Instead, think of a western directed by Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, or Ingmar Bergman.
The Searchers doesn’t belong in the 50s. It feels like the sort of movies that came out of the 70s. It is far darker, morally ambiguous, complex, and troubling. Critics, who love morally ambiguous films, really love this one. It is the 12th, 7th, or 241st greatest film of all time, depending on whether you want to consult the American Film Institute, the British Film Institute, or IMDB.com.
The Searchers follows Ethan Edwards (Wayne), a former Confederate soldier, as he hunts a tribe of Comanche who murdered his brother and sister-in-law and kidnapped his nieces. The set-up is perfect for an uncomplicated cowboys-versus-Indians western, in which the former are good and victorious and the latter are bad and doomed. All we need is the same John Wayne who showed up in The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) or The Green Berets (1968).
Instead, we get the John Wayne from True Grit (1969), except meaner, sober, and without humor. And throw in some virulent racism. Whenever challenged, Wayne growls back a line he made famous by this movie, “That’ll be the day.”
Rarely have we seen a less sympathetic protagonist. Ethan is a repellant man. He mutilates corpses, massacres buffalo to deprive Indians of food, and, in a shockingly brutal act for a 1950s-era film, hacks the scalp off one dead Indian to satiate his bloodlust. Most disturbingly, his quest to save his niece turns into a hunt to murder her when it becomes clear, years into the chase, that she has gone native and adopted Indian ways. He also loathes Indians, even to the point of having contempt for his fellow searcher, Martin Pawley, because he is one-eighth Indian.But Ethan is a complex character. He hates Indians, but he respects them enough to learn their language and religion, emulate their wilderness skills, and study their battle tactics. He isn’t a loner or a rebel; he knows how to take orders and respect authority. He never apologizes for the Confederacy, but he rides with Union cavalry in the finale. He is rough and rude to Martin, but ultimately yields on the one thing most important to him.
If the film were made in the 1990s, all of these reconciliations would be over-done, unsubtle, and hyperbolic—thus preachy and condescending. In the 50s, there are only the barest of hints, perhaps not enough. Ethan can be seen as a picture of incomplete conversion, or the seed that fell amidst the thorns. Does Ethan grow as his quest progresses? The film is strangely ambiguous as it nears the end. It is not entirely clear why he makes the choices he does; it is as if he knows what the right thing is, and does it, even as it makes no sense to him.
[Spoiler alert] Having done one good deed, he abandons that path. The final shot of the movie is poignant. Having returned to civilization, Ethan watches as everyone else goes indoors together. He stands outside for a moment, turns around, and walks away. There is no place for him inside. Should we feel pity for him? Relief that he goes? Both?
A chorus sings as the credits roll, “A man will search his heart and soul / Go searchin’ way out there / His peace of mind he knows he’ll find / But where, oh Lord, Lord where? / Ride away, ride away, ride away.” The film captures the sense of being morally lost, and it is achingly sad.
Incidentally, the film is a lesson in how storytellers used to talk about things like murder, rape, and massacre without showing them onscreen. Some scenes in The Searchers are gut-wrenchingly disturbing—not for what they show, but for what they don’t. After Ethan admits that he found and buried one of his nieces, a man asks “Was she…?” Ethan bellows “Do I have to draw you a picture?” Filmmakers today might ask themselves the same question.