Saturday, 12 July 2014

Movie Review: The Searchers (1956)

A visually spectacular and contextually challenging western, The Searchers is a grim saga of a years-long search for a white girl abducted by Indians. It is also a journey through the lost soul of the man obsessed with finding her for all the wrong reasons.

Three years after the end of the Civil War, confederate soldier Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) unexpectedly returns to the secluded Texas home of his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) and his family: wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan), daughters Debbie and Lucy, and son Ben. But soon after arriving, Ethan leaves again to join a posse organized by the Reverend Captain Samuel Johnson Clayton (Ward Bond) to chase after Indian cattle rustlers. It’s a ruse. With the posse away, the Indians attack the household, killing Aaron, Martha and Ben, and abducting daughters Debbie and Lucy.

Ethan commits to finding the girls. He is joined by Lucy’s fiancĂ© Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey, Jr.) and Debbie’s adopted brother Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter). Lucy is soon found dead, and Brad is blinded by rage and dies in a suicidal one-man assault against the Indians. With Debbie still missing, the trail runs cold. Ethan and Martin will be searching for years, putting a strain on Martin’s relationship with sweetheart Laurie (Vera Miles), while Debbie (Natalie Wood) grows up as part of the Comanche tribe of a Chief known as Scar (Henry Brandon).

One of the most commanding collaborations between director John Ford and star John Wayne, The Searchers is an inflection point in the history of the genre. The film introduces a central character of dubious moral standing and compromised ethics, the type of man much more likely to have tamed the west compared to the scrubbed white hat of the genre's mythology. Ethan Edwards is an unsavoury hero with a murky and less than stellar past. He drifts in and out of the lives of his family members with nary a thought for their feelings, and is either hostile or condescending to friend and foe alike.

Prone to extreme violence, and harbouring deep-seated racist attitudes towards Indians, his quest is not so much a rescue mission as an opportunity for revenge, and Ethan does not hide his motives. Most relaxed when he is inflicting maximum damage on the Indians, he kills their buffalo out of spite, continues to shoot at a group of Indians when they are in full retreat, and desecrates a dead Indian's corpse just to torture his soul.

The Searchers finally finds the darkest corner of Ethan's psyche when it becomes clear that he actually may just rather destroy Debbie, his search over many years twisted in his mind into a mercy killing mission. To him, she has become one of them, and "living with the Comanche ain't living." Blinded by his racism, Ethan may believe that the best way to rescue Debbie is to violently release her from the only adult world that she has known.

Ethan's heroic attributes are his courage, doggedness and willingness to act; his attitudes, methods and chosen causes are a lot less heroic. Wayne plays Ethan with an honesty towards the material. This is not a film where the hero will see the light and change his ways, and Wayne's performance remains consistent in playing a man tolerated for his toughness but little else. In creating a most dubious protagonist, Ford and Wayne prepare the template that Leone and Eastwood will exploit in the coming decade.

And to add to the shifting psychological sands and further set the stage for the anti-hero out for personal gain, Ethan's self-assigned mission may be a lot more personal than at first appears. There is an undercurrent of eerily silent tension between Ethan, Aaron and Martha, and the soft gestures and unspoken words between Ethan and Martha suggest intriguing possibilities about who exactly is Debbie's father.

Ford filmed The Searchers in Monument Valley, and the VistaVision colour cinematography by Winton C. Hoch is wondrous, with almost every frame a landscape masterpiece. With the rock formations and wide open vistas serving as a backdrop, Ford plays with silhouettes, framing and juxtaposes the small human scale with the magnificence of imposing terrain.

Stunning in its style, depth, and audacious willingness to seek new territory, The Searchers is one of the all-time great westerns.

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