"As for movies, I was a perverse muddle...I'd seen dozens by Godard and Truffaut, and never one by Howard Hawks or John Ford (Lethem 3)."
Despite my being able to use youth as an excuse, I often look back to my days as a college film critic and, to put it bluntly, wonder how the hell I ever kept the job. Granted, there are literally hundreds of "influential" films by dozens of "respected" filmmakers, so getting caught up can take someone an understandable amount of time. But my lack of knowledge and personal screenings at the time should have come to haunt me a lot more than it actually did (this was manifested by my occasionally poor writing skills, but that's another long topic). As I began reading the Jonathan Lethem essay collection The Disappointment Artist, which opens with the essay "Defending The Searchers," I was struck by two realizations. One, I had never seen a John Ford film; two, I had purchased a DVD copy of The Searchers years ago, but had never screened it. These kinds of admissions are embarrassing, yes, but I've long asserted that everyone, no matter how culturally-savvy or educated, has their own glaring gaps in various mediums.
At first, I was going to screen the film before reading Lethem's essay, but instead I decided to do the screening with his thoughts fresh in my mind. Afterwards, I was pleased to find that "Defending The Searchers" worked as both a companion piece as well as a philosophical sketch of a film that is equally admired and frowned upon. I've written about controversial films before, with a much more blatant example being D.W. Griffith's 1915 film The Birth Of a Nation. For all of the great acting, directing, and cinematography, the 1956 work is marred by its sometimes misogyny and much more consistent racist views of American Indians. While The Birth Of A Nation is much more distinct in its balance of landmark filmmaking alongside white supremacy, The Searchers does present a few grey areas, and I write this not to soften the thematic problems, but to expand on them in the context of contemporary film studies.
The film opens with Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returning to his brother's Texas farm in 1868, and the dialogue establishes that 1.) Edwards fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, and 2.) he very well may have engaged in some illegal activities following that conflict, since he's elusive about his coming home with lots of Yankee gold coins. However, his nieces and nephews are in awe of his stature, and the above shot both highlights his closeness to the family and foreshadows his future interactions with his niece Debbie.
The "searching" in the film takes two meanings. Above, the initial search is for the Comanche band that has stolen a head of neighboring cattle, which was actually a decoy operation--while the men are away, the Comanches burn the home down, kidnap the nieces, and murder and rape Ethan's sister-in-law. The first search, and subsequent scenes following, highlight the staggering beauty of Monument Valley, where The Searchers was filmed. The setting works wonders on a few levels. Even for audiences with no clue of the plot can look at the title to understand what part of the film will be about. The sheer size of the area would make searching for anything next to impossible. As Lethem writes, there are other, more intangible suggestions made by the continuing shots of the vast valley.
"A homestead on the open range--no, hardly the range. This family has settled on the desolate edge of Monument Valley, under the shadow of those baked and broken monoliths rendered trite by Jeep commercials. You think: they might as well try to farm on the moon (Lethem 2)."
Once the "official" search of the film begins, the audience sees John Wayne in his iconic get-up: a wide black cowboy hat, bandanna, and a continuing glare. It goes without saying that Wayne's cowboy image has been reproduced, imitated, copied, saluted, and critiqued for decades, but the image hides the fact that, despite his character's racism and faults, Wayne gave one of his greatest performances, if not his best.
"Wayne's character, Ethan, is tormented and tormenting. His fury is righteous and ugly--resentment worn as a fetish. It isolates him in every scene. It isolates him from you, watching, even as his charisma wrenches you closer, into an alliance, a response that's almost sexual. You try to fit him to your concept of hero, but though he's riding off now, chasing a band of murderous Indians, it doesn't work. No parody had prepared you for this. Wasn't Wayne supposed to be a joke? Weren't Westerns supposed to be simple? The film on the screen is lush, portentous. You're worried for it (Lethem 3)."
As the film progresses, audiences today will struggle between the superior direction and the film's misguided label of Indians as savages. In the aftermath of the Comanche raid on the Edwards home, Ford sets up a stunning, emotional shot of Ethan, in complete silhouette, looking at his sister-in-law's raped and mutilated body. Thematically, this highlights the middle of the film, as the beginning and the ending of the film are marked by Ethan in the middle of a doorway: coming, searching, and then leaving. The above screencap shows one of the most famous scenes in the film, with the Rangers and Comanches walking parallel, both sides resisting an urge to ambush the other, and creating tension that's blatant, in full daylight, a polar opposite of hidden, unseen dangers in the dark of night. Again, the beauty of Ford's direction is marred by the insinuation that the Comanches are evil killers. Modern audiences naturally see the dated notions, and any writing on the film would insult modern intelligence by having to state the obvious: "Indians were NOT savages; they were members of a complex society and civilization." However, returning to Lethem's essay, there's still an instinct to try and defend the negativity without tolerating it. Lethem recounts a scene in which he watches the film in the company of an old girlfriend's drugged-out, unforgiving roommate.
"I began a defense and immediately contradicted myself, first insisting that the Indians weren't important as real presences, only as emblems of Wayne's psychic torment. The film, I tried to suggest, was a psychological epic, a diagnosis of racism through character and archetype. The Indians served as Wayne's unheeded mirror. Then, unable to leave my research on the shelf, I cited Ford's renowned accuracy. Maybe he knew a few things about Comanche battle ethics--
D. scoffed. For him it was impossible to honor Indians by showing them mowed down in a senseless slaughter (never mind that senseless slaughter was historical fact) (Lethem 8-9)."
The above scene is haunting, and represents, even for a few minutes, the range of Wayne's acting ability. Brad, Lucy's fiancee, believes that he has seen her amongst a nearby group of Comanches, not knowing that Ethan had actually buried her dead body earlier, being so shaken by the act that he can't talk about it. When he finally tells Brad, he becomes enraged at his constant questions, warning him to never ask him about it again. The scene is jarring, as Wayne shows a man completely overcome with emotion, almost near tears, a contrast to the usual assumption that Wayne only played strong, silent types. The film is not perfect; there are scenes in the film played poorly, or for comic relief. However, Ethan's revelation that he buried Lucy is near-perfect, and one of the film's many emotional lows.
Scar, the leader of the Comanche tribe, is the main villain. He's only featured in a few scenes, but is difficult to forget in his warrior makeup and silent, brooding personality. Assuming that Lethem is completely correct in his assessment of Ford's accuracy, Scar looks authentic; there's nothing about his presentation that smells of stereotype or caricature. However, stereotype and misogyny are fully manifested when Martin, Ethan's main companion in the searching, accidentally barters with an Indian and comes away with an Indian "wife." She's submissive to her "husband" and to Ethan, who constantly derides her and pokes fun at Martin's new partner. This leads to one of the film's most embarrassing moments, especially given that it's supposed to be comedic. The Indian woman beds down next to Martin, who's so angered and embarrassed that he literally kicks her away.
"The scene is odious. The chance that Wayne might be some kind of hero, that the filmmakers might redeem him, or themselves, is pissed away (Lethem 6)."
The scene in which Ethan and Martin are shown a string of scalps is stereotypical, but is undeniable in its creeping possibilities and presentation. Their possible fate is literally right under their noses, and even Ethan, as tough as he is, looks intimidated. However, after years of journeying, they've found a grown-up Debbie, who's now one of Scar's wives.
Casting Natalie Wood as the adult Debbie, in today's context, seems like a poor choice. She was a fine actress, but, especially coming on the heels of the previous year's Rebel Without a Cause, it seems like a cameo at the wrong time. In modern films, cameos are usually played for in-jokes (Stan Lee comes to mind) or homages (Fay Wray died before filming a cameo in Peter Jackson's King Kong). She adds nothing to Debbie's brief appearances, except for standing out as an obvious white woman in the midst of the Indians. Costume aside, she obviously has not integrated herself into Comanche culture, despite having lived with them for years.
This adds another layer to Ethan's psychological makeup. When she intially doesn't want to leave, he wants to kill her on the spot, claiming that she'd be better off dead than being a Comanche. However, Ethan somewhat redeems himself in the final showdown, rescuing her and completing his duty, returning her home. With his job done, Ethan leaves to complete the next chapter in his life, whatever that may be.
Again, ideology aside, The Searchers has its share of stumbles. As Roger Ebert notes in his "Great Movies" essay on the film, some of the comedic scenes are grossly out of place, both weighing down the film as well as contextually harming the flow and climaxes. Ford's direction is phenomenal, but some of the editing seemed shaky to me. The audience knows that the search goes on for years, but some of those years are presented without any transition, leading to an initial confusion as to when a given scene is taking place. A separate essay could be written on Debbie's psychological state. Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves depicts how someone could be completely immersed in a new culture at a young age and find it difficult to remember what life was like beforehand. Granted, the audience at the time was happy--Ethan did his job and saved the girl.
Jonathan Lethem's notion of "defending" the film is honorable. It's an undeniably influential piece of American film history, and while today's audiences will rightfully scoff at the dated interactions and generic "Cowboys vs. Indians" motif, there is a lot of beauty to defend. This was the acme of the Ford-Wayne partnership, and in acknowledging the horrible depictions of Indians and women, one can honor a great film despite its imperfections.
Lethem, Jonathan. "Defending The Searchers." Published in The Disappointment Artist. Copyright 2005 by Jonathan Lethem.