Directed by John Ford
Starring: John Wayne, Jeffery Hunter, Vera Miles, Natalie Wood
The American Film Institute ranked The Searchers as the best Western of all time and the 12th best movie ever made. The Searchers’ cinematography inspired Lawrence of Arabia and Star Wars while its main character inspired Taxi Driver.
After adoring High Noon, I thought that my grandpas might’ve been onto something with this genre, so I gave the quintessential John Wayne film a try.
Ethan Edwards is an ex-Confederate General who has come to his sister’s homestead after the Civil War. After reacquainting himself with the family, he finds out that their cattle has been stolen by local Native Americans. Once Ethan and his nephew Martin catch up with the cattle, they discover that the theft was a ruse: the main target was the homestead. Upon return, Ethan discovers everyone dead save for his two nieces who have been kidnapped. Even worse, the kidnappers are a ferocious Comanche tribe lead by a cold-blooded killer named Scar.
After rounding up a posse, Ethan finds the tribe as they ford a river. Ethan and his men kill as many as they can, but afterwards, Ethan finds the older niece’s dead body, raped and tortured. Here, he vows to never stop searching for the other niece—not to rescue her, but to kill her before Scar and his band rape the humanity out of her. Martin tags along, to Ethan’s chagrin, in order to save his only remaining family and convince Ethan to do the same.
You’re better off letting this one ride off into the sunset. My gut reaction to this film was utter loathing, even with the “of its time” metric taken into account. Ethan Edwards, upon seeing his nephew Martin Pawley with a tan, calls him a “half breed,” remarking upon the character’s 1/8 Cherokee heritage. Later in the film, white women who were raped by Comanche men are too horrified to speak or act normally.
Martin remarks to Ethan that, “it’s almost like they ain’t even White anymore.”
“That’s ‘cause they ain’t,” is Ethan’s response.
Fun flourishes like this come easy and often during the two-and-a-half hour movie, sometimes even played for laughs! Greatest Western? “That’ll be the day!” I thought.
Afterwards, I did some research on why this movie currently gets so much praise. Here, the picture gets murkier. For some, Ethan Edwards’ character is actually the villain, and Martin is trying to save his soul. Early on, because his hate for Comanches is so profound, Ethan shoots the eyes out of a warrior’s corpse so that he’ll “wander the fields forever.” The last shot of the film shows Ethan’s niece reuniting with her family while Ethan stands alone outside, retreating into the desert scenery. Ethan, like the Comanche he shot, is a warrior, but a disgraced one, so he too must wander the fields forever. Part of me feels humbled that I didn’t catch any of this upon viewing, but another part of me feels like maybe it was all too subtle.
Therein lies the problem. I have been on the other end of the “it’s too subtle” argument. When I was in college, a friend of mine watched Fast Times at Ridgemont High frequently, remarking that he wished his life was just like the movie. The first time I watched Fast Times, I was a little unsettled by my friend’s reaction, seeing as most of the characters have low or no morals, and the men in the film are borderline predatory. A couple of years later, I watched Fast Times again and noticed that the movie also thought the characters had low morals or leered at teen girls. To my surprise, I gained a deep respect for the film.
My friend sure didn’t pick up on any of this, though*. I have to wonder, then, how many people watched The Searchers and want to emulate a vile Confederate general? Does the film have an obligation to spoon-feed its message to those people? Certainly not. But in 2021, who is this for? Racists aren’t going to change their minds watching this movie; they’ll probably miss the point and embrace it. Many, like me, will be turned off by the ugliness of the characters. Those who do understand what the film is trying to say, though, probably weren’t racist or worshiping Confederate generals to begin with. In my opinion, there are better John Wayne movies (The Shootist), there are better John Ford movies (The Grapes of Wrath), and there are better Westerns (Unforgiven). Leave this one in the dust.
*My friend is an excellent human being, and this was over a decade ago.