The Searchers is a landmark Hollywood western from John Ford, probably the best of the bunch. It’s a Technicolor marvel in shades of psychological grey, a revisionist take on the myth of manifest destiny. It’s full of savagery and tragedy, blood and thunder. I know this because I’ve read all about it and this made me feel I knew the film in advance. But either the critics were wrong or I had bamboozled myself. The Searchers was my all-time favourite western until the moment I saw it.
Ford’s 1956 film casts foursquare John Wayne in the role of foursquare Ethan Edwards, a civil war veteran on the trail of murderous Comanche. Edwards is in pursuit of his niece Debbie (Natalie Wood), who was abducted as a child and now lives as a squaw of Scar, the chief. Except that it turns out that Edwards does not want to rescue Debbie, he wants to murder her, because what she has done so offends his sense of decency. “Living with a Comanche ain’t living,” he says. And just writing this paragraph, I find that I’m excited all over again.
Edwards searches for Debbie for years and years; I searched for The Searchers for 12 months or so. The more I read about it, the more I wanted to find it. The plot sounded tremendous and everyone else seemed to love it. The Searchers is one of Martin Scorsese’s favourite films. It influenced David Lean and Steven Spielberg (and latterly the final episode of Breaking Bad). Jean-Luc Godard hailed it as “a Homeric odyssey”, while the critic Greil Marcus likened Ethan to Captain Ahab, an American hero gone mad. In pursuing the monster, he becomes the monster himself.
One Sunday afternoon I found a film called The Searchers and it bore a passing resemblance to the film I’d been chasing. But it was as if The Searchers had died on the trail and then been boiled down and made into a soup. Here was John Wayne just being John Wayne, waddling through the action with none of the nuance or conflict that Ethan is meant to embody. He says he wants to save Debbie. Then he says he wants to kill Debbie. And then he says to Debbie, “Let’s go home.” But he might as well be reading his lines off a cue card. I don’t think he understands the man he is playing or the story he’s telling.
Worse, I’m not entirely convinced that the director does either. Ford, of course, was one of the great myth-makers of the wild west. He “printed the legend” and mapped out the frontier (on screen if not physically). As a young man, he played a KKK horseman in The Birth of a Nation and typically viewed US history as a war against barbarism, the taming of the wilderness. The white men were the good guys; the people of colour the beasts.
On The Searchers, significantly, he tried something new. For perhaps the first time, Ford entertained the possibility that the settlers and the Native Americans might be as bad as each other – or, to put it another way, that by scalping his victims, angry Ethan Edwards was no better than a Red Indian savage. That’s progress of a sort, although the journey is shuffling, conflicted and doesn’t go far enough. It’s fine for Ford to be ambivalent about the material; ambivalence can lead us to fascinating places. In this case, however, the confusion serves only to dampen the drama. Wayne is all wrong and the tone is a mess. It feels as if Ford is cooking the right kind of movie with the wrong set of ingredients.
So what happened next? My suspicion is that critics and fans stepped in to complete the film for him. They saw the direction The Searchers was going and rushed to convince themselves that it had achieved what it set out to do (or at least what they believed it had set out to do). They misinterpreted a tentative shuffle-step as a giant leap forward and hailed the film as a revisionist masterpiece as opposed to a stumbling reconnaissance.
When we sit down in a cinema, we are often watching two pictures: the picture on screen and the one we want it to be. Sometimes the picture on screen surpasses our expectations; it blows off the roof and lifts us up with it. But other times it does not. When I tracked down The Searchers I truly wanted to love it; I believed that I would. But I had read too much and thought too much, to the point where I’d dreamed up a whole different movie (possibly one scripted by Cormac McCarthy). So if Ford’s film felt like a let-down, that’s not really its fault. I’m blaming the critics: they spoiled The Searchers for me. the Gvardian .
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