The Searchers ()

directed by John Ford
featuring John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood

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If John Ford is the greatest Western director, The Searchers is arguably his greatest film, at once a grand outdoor spectacle like such Ford classics as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950) and a film about one man's troubling moral codes, a big-screen adventure of the 1950s that anticipated the complex themes and characters that would dominate the 1970s. John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a former Confederate soldier who returns to his brother Aaron's frontier cabin three years after the end of the Civil War. ...


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Apr 16, 2020

Watching The Searchers During The Pandemic

I have been using the stay at home time resulting from the pandemic to watch several classic American westerns. The genre was highly popular through the 1950s, fell out of favor in the 1960s, and have experienced a renewal of interest of late. The best of these films, together with novels in the western genre, may help Americans think about and learn something of their country during these difficult times.

"The Searchers" is a 1956 film directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne as Ethan Edwards, a Confederate veteran, a loner, and a wanderer who returns to the west Texas home of his brother and family in 1868. The film was successful upon its release and in the following years it achieved near-iconic stature. It is routinely included on lists of best westerns and best films. I don't remember seeing the film before watching it during the pandemic.

The film immediately makes clear the abrasive, harsh character of Ethan Edwards. The Confederate veteran is unrepentant, ornery, quick with his fists and with insults, and most apparently, a racist in his attitude towards Indians. Immediately upon his return home, a group of Comanche Indians burn his brother's home to the ground killing the family with the exception of the two daughters, Lucie and Debbie (played by Natalie Wood) who are abducted. Edwards and a young man, Martin Pawley, (Jeffrey Hunter) are away at the time as the Indians have attempted to divert attention from their planned homestead burning by stealing a neighbor's cattle. Pawley has been raised by Edwards' family and has Indian blood. He becomes subject to Ethan's prejudice and ridicule. When Ethan and Pawley return, they and others in the community organize a search party to punish the Indians and to recover the young girls, if possible.

The rest of the film focuses on the search, which becomes a five-year quest throughout the southwest by Edwards and Pawley. Edwards is more than willing to go on the search alone but reluctantly accepts Pawley's company. Pawley feels responsible for his adopted sisters and, more importantly, fears that Edwards will harm the girls when he finds them. Strong feelings of rape and of white women keeping company with Indian men pervade the film.

The cinematography of the film is extraordinary in showing the expanse and beauty of the American West and in encouraging a love for the land. The story of the search has an immediacy to it over the long years and is easy to follow. The film is highly problematic in the questions it raises about racism and in the relationship between the settlers and the Indians. Ethan Edwards is in many respects shown throughout much of the movie as a highly flawed, biased individual.

I was first puzzled and intrigued and then moved by this film. With the stature "The Searchers" has come to enjoy, the film has provoked a great deal of commentary. I took the opportunity to read some of the accessible comments to supplement watching the film. Many viewers still critique the film for what they see as its overt racism towards the Comanche. Other acknowledge the racism but find that the film itself critiques it and that Ethan Edwards gradually changes during the five year search shown in the film.

The high regard in which the film is held should not blind the viewer to its ambiguities. Especially at the outset, the film may be disturbing in the attitudes of Ethan Edwards and, to a degree, of most of the other settlers. I found the movie worked for me in part because it is ethically problematic and encourages reflection by its viewers. In addition to the relationship between the settlers and the Indians, the film explores the life of a loner and probably an outlaw in the settlement of the west, as exemplified by John Wayne's character, and juxtaposes it with the path towards settlement and community. The story of the development of a common life, as compared to the life of a wandering loner, is a strong theme of the film. The cinematography and the ever-present music add to the passion this film encourages for the country.

Lists of the best films, or the best of anything, have little significance. "The Searchers" both moved and troubled me. For those at home during the pandemic, watching "The Searchers" is an excellent use of time.

Robin Friedman

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