One of the greats
You may argue whether John Ford’s The Searchers is the greatest Western of them all. Western buffs, certainly, will often put this film at the very top of their lists, and many sane human beings too rate it very highly. In 1989, it was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress. The American Film Institute rates it as the twelfth greatest American film ever made and the best Western. Many opinion polls and surveys put it at the top.
For me, ‘the greatest Western of all time’ is rather a pointless discussion. It implies there is a ranking, a competitive table, which there isn’t. There is no objective standard. And how do you compare a motion picture of one era with another of a completely different one?
But ‘the greatest’ or not, its influence was certainly huge. Later film makers were moved to imitate or cite it. It is said, for example, that David Lean watched it repeatedly to learn how to shoot landscape, and desert scenes in Lawrence of Arabia illustrate that. Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese (whose 1967 film Who’s That Knocking at My Door features a sequence in which the two primary characters discuss the movie), Steven Spielberg, Wim Wenders, Jean-Luc Godard and George Lucas have all spoken about how it influenced them (Godard compared the movie’s ending with that of the reuniting of Odysseus with Telemachus in Homer’s Odyssey, but then Godard would). The Rough Guide to Westerns makes the point that Ethan’s obsessive mission inspired Paul Schraeder’s screenplay for Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, in which “the hero is a loner driven to violence and insanity by his quest to rescue a young white woman who has become the sexual prey of those he regards as sub-human.” Schrader’s own Hardcore later had George C Scott tracking down his daughter in the sleazy underworld of porn movies, a contemporary Ethan Edwards indeed. Buddy Holly used Ethan’s catchphrase That’ll be the day for a song and a British rock band called themselves The Searchers.
It has been, as Michael Coyne says in his book The Crowded Prairie, “overanalyzed” (before he goes on to analyze it) but hell, this is a Western blog, right?, and I can have my ten cents’ worth. So I’m analyzing it too.
The picture did quite well at the box-office, grossing $4.8 million on its $3.75m budget in 1956, though this was hardly stunning. That year The Ten Commandments took $80m, Around the World in 80 Days $42m, and Giant $30m. In the Western genre (not counting Giant as a Western) it was beaten at the box-office by the Elvis vehicle Love Me Tender. The Searchers was one of the first films to get a making-of ‘plugumentary’ on TV but that doesn’t seem to have helped all that much.
Nor did it win prizes at the time. It was pretty well ignored by the Academy Awards. It got a ‘Most Promising Newcomer – Male’ Golden Globe for Patrick Wayne. Sorry, but big deal. The Directors Guild of America, USA nominated Ford for ‘Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures’, but he didn’t even win it. It was all very faint praise.
Film critics, too were lukewarm rather than full of praise. Bosley Crowther, the hugely influential New York Times reviewer, called it “the honest achievement of a well-knit team” (not exactly glowing) and noted two particular faults, as he saw it: “Episode is piled upon episode, climax upon climax, and corpse upon corpse … [t]he justification for it is that it certainly conveys the lengthiness of the hunt, but it leaves one a mite exhausted, especially with the speed at which it goes.” And secondly, “The director has permitted too many outdoor scenes to be set in the obviously synthetic surroundings of the studio stage…some of those campfire scenes could have been shot in a sporting-goods store window.”
Variety said that it was handsomely done in the manner of Shane and “The John Ford directorial stamp is unmistakable. It concentrates on the characters and establishes a definite mood.” But the review added, “It’s not sufficient, however, to overcome many of the weaknesses of the story.”
The Monthly Film Bulletin also put it in the same league as Shane but qualified that: “Though it does not consistently achieve the highest Ford standards, The Searchers is surely the best Western since Shane.”
There were more positive reviews. The Hollywood Reporter declared it “undoubtedly one of the greatest Westerns ever made”. The New York Herald Tribune termed the movie “distinguished”. Newsweek deemed it “remarkable”. Look described it as a “Homeric odyssey” (maybe they’d been talking to Godard). The New York Times praised Wayne’s performance as “uncommonly commanding”. Yet it seemed that everyone had a ‘but’.
Director and critic Lindsay Anderson, in many ways a great admirer of Ford, had a long list of objections to The Searchers and he summed up his views by calling it “a handsome film … self-conscious and unconvincing.”
So not everyone thinks The Searchers a great work.
Nowadays, however, The Searchers is regarded by many as John Ford’s masterpiece and John Wayne’s too. Roger Ebert found Wayne’s character, Ethan Edwards, “one of the most compelling characters Ford and Wayne ever created”. In 2010, Richard Corliss noted the film was “now widely regarded as the greatest Western of the 1950s, the genre’s greatest decade” and characterized it as a “darkly profound study of obsession, racism, and heroic solitude”. Brian Garfield in his outstanding guide Western Films wrote of it, “The Searchers is undeniably, and wonderfully, a masterpiece.”
From the famous (and very beautiful) opening scene of Monument Valley framed by the doorway of the homesteaders’ cabin to the similar final view, we, on the inside looking out, see Ethan Edwards (Wayne) as the outsider, the man excluded from family and society.
And indeed throughout this powerful film, he is exactly that. In probably his finest – certainly his most powerful – performance, Wayne shows us a complex character. The article in The BFI Companion to the Western calls Ethan, “Ford’s first antihero.” He is the true Westerner: he is strong, individualistic and self-sufficient. Yet he is brutally racist, probably criminal (his illegal activities after the war are hinted at), and seeks an almost crazed revenge. He is one of the most savage Western heroes in any film. He is capable of slaying wild animals just so that Indians starve or shooting out the eyes of an Indian corpse so that “his spirit wanders forever between the winds” and he finally scalps his quarry. His aim is not really to recapture the white girls (one has been killed; the other ‘contaminated’) but to get his mad revenge.
He is actually very like Scar, his Indian enemy (Henry Brandon). When they face off and trade insults they are alike. They speak each other’s languages and have suffered from each other’s brutality.
“When I looked up at Duke during rehearsal,” remembered Harry Carey Jr, “it was into the meanest and coldest eyes I have ever seen. I don’t know how he molded that character. Perhaps he’d known someone like Ethan Edwards as a kid. … He was even Ethan at dinner time. He didn’t kid around on The Searchers like he had done on other shows. Ethan was always in his eyes.” We don’t think of Wayne as a method actor but in The Searchers he came close to that.
And yet, and yet… Ethan Edwards is also an enormously sympathetic character, full of courage, ability and even nobility. He is implacable yet curiously vulnerable.
There is, too, the theme of repressed sexuality. When Ethan finally comes back three years after the war it is clear that he loved and loves his brother’s wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan). But he can’t break up the marriage any more than Shane could that of Marian. This too keeps him out of the home. Has he even cuckolded his brother in the past and might Debbie (Natalie Wood) even be his own daughter? There are only hints in the film but enough to make you wonder.
Ethan invades the social rituals of which Ford was so fond. He interrupts the wedding and brutally cuts short the funeral (“Put an Amen to it”) so that praying can give way to vengeance. On both occasions he turns “the Reverend” (Ward Bond in one of his finest ever roles) back into the Captain of Texas Rangers.
Ethan is the classic Western loner. He rides with the other men but unwillingly, and finally says, “Well, Reverend, that tears it! From now on, you stay out of this. All of you. I don’t want you with me. I don’t need you for what I got to do.” You can’t get more ‘Western’ than that.
But it is Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), an eighth Cherokee (Ethan says, “A fella could mistake you for a half-breed”) who is the most civilized of all the men and who kills Scar in legitimate defense of himself and Debbie. The killer is not, finally, Ethan, and the killing not for blood revenge.
At the end Ethan excludes himself and it is he who is condemned to wander forever between the winds.
The story is thus subtly woven and interesting. The characters are immensely strong. The Frank S Nugent screenplay (his sixth for Ford) from the 1954 Alan Le May novel (from a Saturday Evening Post serial The Avenging Texan), written with Wayne specifically in mind, is powerful, memorable and carries the action along skillfully – no easy feat to telescope years of pursuit into 120 minutes. The Nugent screenplay is available to read.
The novel was said to have been inspired by real events: in 1836 the Comanches abducted one Cynthia Ann Parker, who became the mother of Quanah Parker.
One interesting change that Nugent and Ford made, and a key one for the motion picture, is that Le May’s central character and hero was Martin Pawley, who had no Indian blood. Le May’s Amos Edwards is ‘softer’, much less dark and driven. Ford and Nugent invented the idea of Ethan wanting to kill the ‘defiled’ Debbie, and Le May’s Debbie is Scar’s adopted daughter, not his wife.
Ford was captivated by the novel and very eager to make another Western. After a prolific period of five Westerns in three years, 1948 – 50, he had concentrated on his beloved project of The Quiet Man and a series of less-than-wonderful pictures like Mogambo. But he loved Westerns: “I’ve been longing to do a Western for quite some time,” he wrote to a friend. “It’s good for my health, spirit, and morale.” He shot the first scenes, the snow ones in Alberta, in early 1955 and began filming in Monument Valley in May. JA Place, in his fine 1974 evaluation The Western Films of John Ford, says, “Monument Valley is used in nine Ford films, but never so expressively as in this one, in which the deeper meanings of the desert are so much in evidence.”
It’s maybe a bit over-intellectual and verging on the pretentious but not too much, and I think it’s worth quoting Place’s paragraph as follows:
“The grandeur, beauty, and larger-than-life proportions necessary to an epic tale are offered by Monument Valley. Ford uses it as Homer used the sea [Bloomin’ Homer again]. It is rather like the sea in its changes, its colors, its moods. Like the sea and unlike lush plains or green mountains, it is resistant to human efforts to shape it, to make it serve them. The most they can do is to match its endurance by refusing to quit, and such perseverance alone is enough to raise them to heroic proportions when a troop of rangers or a line of Indians crosses the screen with the silent monuments behind them. With its immutable timelessness, the valley exorcises men of petty ambitions and individual concerns.” OK, a bit grandiloquent, I agree, but I think he had a point.
At one point Ford was stung by a scorpion and there was a panic that he might die. Duke checked on him and emerged saying, “John’s fine, it’s the scorpion that died.” A good line. (One is reminded of Oliver Goldsmith’s “The dog it was that died.”) Ford was at his most professional, concentrated, single-minded, subtracting dialogue, doing fifteen to twenty set-ups a day, often single takes, and with an eagle-eye that took in every detail, no matter how small.
Camera movement is limited and there is nothing flashy about the shooting. Ford preferred to put a camera in the right place and leave it there. So when he tracks rapidly in to Ethan’s face, for example, we really notice it. And there we see the face contorted with hatred. It was the obverse of the famous shot which introduced a boyish and optimistic Wayne in Stagecoach back before the war.
Visually, this film is majestic. Its VistaVision epic grandeur really should be seen at a wide-screen movie theater (when Covid allows). Even our new big-screen TVs don’t do it justice. Every frame designed by Ford and Winton C Hoch (who had won an Oscar for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Ford’s only other color Western to date) is flawlessly created and full of subtle imagery. The decision to shoot a West Texas story in Monument Valley was thoroughly vindicated. Some of the cinematography was stunningly good, though the Academy snubbed it, maybe thinking that Hoch had already got an Oscar, and it was anyway ‘only’ a Western.
The original music by Max Steiner, said by The BFI Companion to the Western to be “among Hollywood’s best”, swirls and rolls around the buttes. The melody behind the opening credits is Lorena, written in 1857, a song best known for being favored by Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, while the tune playing as Wayne approaches at the beginning of the film is a slow version of The Bonnie Blue Flag, which, along with Dixie, was an ‘anthem’ of the Confederacy. These establish Ethan as a Confederate finally coming back from the war.
There are weaknesses to the movie. The performances and script of Vera Miles as Laurie and Natalie Wood as Debbie are pretty banal. Ford’s usual low and rather clumsy comedy interludes do detract from the quality of the picture. Ken Curtis’s part, for example, is irritatingly gauche and overdone. One reader of this blog, Bob, wondered if his guitar-toting role “was a dig at Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, et al…? It seemed so to my initial, youthful viewing.” Actually, Ford didn’t care for Curtis much (his son-in-law for some time) and told Nugent to write in a part for him “but not too good”. To me, Curtis is one of the major weaknesses of the film. The fight between the rivals is dreadfully slapstick.
The treatment of Martin’s Indian wife Look is coarse, unfunny and actually rather nasty. For such a liberal and tolerant man in many ways, Ford could also be unpleasantly racist.
Roger Ebert said, “The film within this film involves the silly romantic subplot and characters hauled in for comic relief, including the Swedish neighbor Lars Jorgensen (John Qualen), who uses a vaudeville accent, and Mose Harper (Hank Worden), a half-wit treated like a mascot. […] This second strand is without interest, and those who value The Searchers filter it out, patiently waiting for a return to the main story line.”
Of course, as Place says, without humorous interludes, “The Searchers would be an unbearable tragedy.” And I guess standards of humor change. What is downright hilarious to one generation leaves another cold.
Still, these episodes aside (and maybe you even like these) certainly nowadays most agree that the frailties can’t seriously damage the sustained power and fury that carries this film along. Ford gave us the conflict between wildness and settlement like never before, and this is so often the central theme of the Western movie. Ethan Edwards is a character far more complex than we are used to in Western heroes. The Searchers is a really grown-up Western, and it’s a film rather than a movie. You can watch it again and again (I have!) and see something new and wonderful each time. John Ford made some perfectly splendid Westerns, pictures as good as the cavalry trilogy and especially in my view (see our last post) My Darling Clementine, but The Searchers stands with those – and you may think exceeds them.
But here I think we better put an amen to it.