11 June 2009

The Searchers

The Searchers Is My Favorite Movie of All Time
By Kristin Battestella

As you can see, I have very high film expectations-and frankly, I’m surprised at myself for taking this long to review John Ford’s 1956 western classic The Searchers. Truly, it’s not a question of if I like this movie and why you should, too; this spoily review is about how much time you have, as this is going to be a long one.

The Searchers is perhaps the first film I ever saw at about four or five years old. Well, I’m sure I saw some television and the like, but it was a big deal in our house when the VCR came along. I couldn’t get enough of epics like Gone with the Wind, Samson and Delilah, Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments-and I watched them repeatedly. The Searchers, however, was different. I thought it was so heavy and long and dark. For a kid, a two-hour movie is at best antsy and at worst agonizing. And yet, this western kept my attention. I couldn’t look away, in fact, and struggled to keep my eyes open. It was all in vain, of course, for I fell asleep before the film was over. The next morning, I jumped off the couch screaming, “Did he find her? Did he?” I watched The Searchers again from beginning to end and have loved it ever since.
My parents might remember it differently, but I quickly became obsessed with all things Indian after seeing The Searchers. My hair was always in braids, I had pipes, drums, rubber tomahawks, and moccasins. Lipstick makes great face paint, and I went through numerous construction paper feather headdresses. Years later, I carried on this tradition by teaching my nieces how to build teepees in the backyard-much to my mother’s dismay. All this imagination and delight from one viewing of an old western!

The Story
Confederate veteran Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to his brother Aaron’s (Walter Coy, Wagon Train) Texas homestead three years after the Civil War. Sister-in-law Martha (Dorothy Jordan, The Wings of Eagles) welcomes Ethan, as do the children Lucy (Pippa Scott, Jigsaw John), Ben (Robert Lyden, Man of A Thousand Faces), and little Debbie (Lana Wood). Adopted nephew and part Indian Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) is however, not a welcome sight to Ethan. Texas Rangers Captain and local Reverend Samuel Johnston Clayton (Ward Bond) comes to recruit the men, since Indians have stolen the cattle of neighbor Lars Jorgensen (John Qualen, Casablanca). Ethan takes his brother’s place on the ride, but once the men realize the cattle theft was meant to draw them out, it’s too late; the Comanche have taken Lucy and Debbie captive. Despite objections from Mrs. Jorgensen (Olive Carey) and her daughter Laurie (Vera Miles), Ethan, Marty, and Lucy’s beau Brad (Harry Carey, Jr.) set out searching for the abducted girls.
It’s one of my longer summaries and yet it doesn’t begin to say anything about The Searchers. I’ve actually never read the Alan Le May source novel for fear it would change my darling perceptions of the film. Screenwriter Frank S. Nugent’s (The Quiet Man, Mister Roberts, Fort Apache, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon) adaptation, however, goes beyond the written word. So many looks, glances, and gestures say just as much as the heavy plot and complex story. After observing sister-in-law Martha lovingly laying out Ethan’s Confederate jacket, my mother said, “What is she to him?” The subtle innuendo between Ethan and Martha brews throughout the film. She deflects him from speaking about his potential illegal business, and The Reverend Captain Clayton merely sips his coffee when Ethan kisses Martha on the forehead before he leaves. When the homestead is raided, its Martha that Ethan calls for upon his return. Is Ethan pursuing Martha’s daughters out of devotion for her?
The Searchers continues the familial relationships as the partnership between Ethan and Martin progresses. Ethan insists he’s not any kin to Marty-nor is Debbie blood to Marty. Despite his vocal disdain for the part Cherokee, it was Ethan who ‘found’ Martin as a baby; he makes a deal for Martin to run his cattle and work with Jorgesen and later writes a will naming Marty as his heir. Why does Ethan have such a mix of hate and love for Martin? Towards the end of the film, he tells Marty the Indian Chief Scar killed his mother. Well, how does Ethan know-and why does he care anyway?
Ethan Edwards also possesses a bizarre knowledge of the Comanche Indians in The Searchers. He knows which Army agencies the local tribes frequent; he speaks their language and knows their customs. How can he be so knowledgeable yet hate Indians so? Look carefully for a tombstone early in the film detailing the death of Ethan’s mother by a Comanche raid. Is this why he only knows the bad side of a Comanche? All these questions I’ve raised, and The Searchers doesn’t always provide a satisfactory answer. In contrast to some of its heavier and complex motifs, John Ford also makes sure there’s a fair bit of western humor. Mose Harper (Hank Worden, Red River) serves up just the right amount of charm, absurdities, and crazy old man. Other exchanges between Wayne and Ward Bond are funny, ironic, and even inappropriate racially. The wedding and subsequent fight between Mary and Charlie McCorry (Ken Curtis, Gunsmoke) is stupid and silly. In such a serious movie, one might think these humorous moments out of place. However, the lighthearted breaks are welcome against the darker scenes in The Searchers. It’s just enough of a tongue in cheek nod to the stereotypical western: “We be texicans!”

The Cast
He’s one of the stalwart personifications of the American Hero. When John Wayne got the bad guys onscreen in so many World War II pictures like Sands of Iwo Jima and They Were Expendable, so did we. When John Wayne put his own money into the overstuffed and overzealous The Alamo, we still watched. Even when John Wayne supported US action in Vietnam in the woefully out of place The Green Berets, we still loved him. In The Searchers, however, John Wayne is not a hero. He’s ambitious, maniacal, bigoted, and driven on a quest with very ambiguous intentions. We have no doubt he’d rather Debbie be dead then live with Indians, yet we root for his search to end. John Wayne, normally so cool, level, and badass ‘cause he’s the good guy, puts all those same skills into Ethan Edwards. We know Ethan knows his stuff and one would never want to cross him. Wayne steps these attributes up and darkens his performance with spitting shouts, quick actions, and dare I say it, evil glares. Like his earlier haywire turn in my second favorite feature Red River, Wayne is a force to be reckoned with and we best not stand in his way.
Jeffrey Hunter, however, does stand in John Wayne’s way. For every “That’ll be the day!” from Ethan, we have Martin’s contesting, “Not likely!” Seemingly cast as the young pretty boy most pictures seem to require, Hunter (His Christopher Pike from the original Star Trek pilot is my favorite and I love Sergeant Rutledge) is the idealistic antagonist to Ethan. According to The Searchers’ gospel, part Indian Marty’s thoughts shouldn’t matter against big, white Ethan. Nevertheless, Martin’s quest to stay with Ethan in order to save Debbie from her Uncle’s pathos is essential for the viewer. Hunter is the perfect sidekick to Wayne. He stutters as the illiterate Marty and begins the film quite naive and innocent. Hunter’s goofs with Vera Miles’ (Psycho) Laurie are timed perfectly. Meant to be the cute and leveled headed girl in a mostly boys picture, Miles adds feminine depth and dimension in The Searchers. She’s frustrated with waiting for Marty, and despite her education, Laurie eventually shows similar true colors to Ethan’s sentiment that Debbie is better off dead. It’s not exactly a flattering role for Miles, but such statement making female performances aren’t easy to come by.

Though billed nearer the top of the cast, Natalie wood (Rebel without a Cause, Splendor in the Grass) actually has precious little screen time. Her younger sister Lana (Diamonds Are Forever) is adorable as the younger Debbie, and both are by default beloved by the audience. After all, we are in effect waiting to see Natalie Wood. Her entrance nearer the final half hour of the film is one of my favorite scenes. Even if you somehow have no clue who Natalie Wood is-as I did the first time I saw The Searchers-you know Debbie when you see her. Likewise, The John Ford Stock Company charms the viewer. Veteran character actor Ward Bond (Sergeant York, Rio Bravo) is a delight as the unconflicted Ranger Captain and Minister Samuel Clayton, and Harry Carey, Jr. (She Wore A Yellow Ribbon) gives a fine performance as the disturbed love unable to cope with his Lucy’s death. Several visual tributes to his famed father are embedded in The Searchers, and we believe his widow Olive Carey (Two Rode Together) is every bit as tough as her Mrs. Jorgensen. Of course, John Wayne would name one of his sons Ethan in tribute to his character, but elder son Patrick Wayne (Big Jake, Young Guns) rounds out the family ties here as a young and ignorant cavalry lieutenant.

The Scenery
I don’t suppose there’s much I can say about John Ford that a master of film making, history, or viewing doesn’t already know. From The Iron Horse, Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, and How Green Was My Valley to The Quiet Man, Mister Roberts, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; John Ford entertained the budding motion picture generation and constructed the essentials of filmmaking that we rely on today. His direction here is harsh and wise. In some ways, The Searchers is not meant to be a pretty and charming picture. Yet, in others ways, how can it not be? Ford’s mastery of cast, cameras, and characters clicks on all cylinders. But of course, the incredible locations and vistas of Monument Valley is a character unto itself. The wide scopes and small people amid big mountainscapes were deliberately edited by Ford to heighten the wild danger in The Searchers. Ethan Edwards and his friends are unwelcome newbies to a land that does not wish to be tamed. The Texas frontier can break even the strongest; and The Searchers makes just as much case that the West should have been left well enough alone as it praises and honors our forefathers and pioneering spirit.

How out of place does the white washed Victorian farmhouse look against the shadowed red mountains? Old-fashioned blue and white china can’t bring civility to an uncivilized land. Ford films several charming indoor sequences, but the country warmth of the indoors is dark and small compared to the big and ambiguous outdoors. Multiple viewings are required to analyze all of Ford’s visual tricks. The film opens and closes with doorway scenes. Inside is still and dark, but the door opens to a beautiful and reckless country waiting to be explored. Moreover, why is it that John Wayne’s Ethan is always on the outside looking in on those shots? Is his own big and ambiguous nature so similar to the wilds? Can he also never be tamed by the simple, easy life?
One distinctly unique style of The Searchers is the deliberately minimal use of close ups. I never thought to notice this in other pictures, but it makes absolute sense here. There are only about a dozen medium close-ups, and although those zooms get closer to a characters’ thoughts and feelings, the lack of a true close ups represents the distance still between critical people and the people amid nature. Even when Ford takes his camera as close as we’re going to get, your eye is still drawn to everything else in the frame. There’s the famous zoom where Wayne turns to look at a crazy woman in an Army fort. He’s wearing such dark clothes amid a dark and cold cabin, his brim is over his face, but we still see his hardened eyes and five o’clock shadow. It’s as if Ethan’s hardened heart can stop the camera cold-or perhaps the camera represents the viewer who’s afraid to go further and accept Ethan’s deadly intentions.
Not to be outdone visually, The Searchers also boasts a fine score by Oscar winner Max Steiner (Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, Since You Went Away). I can’t help myself, I love the opening drums before the bittersweet titular song by Stan Jones (Rio Grande). Such pretty melodies carry us through the sentimental moments of the picture, but natural western sounds give us some harsh reality, too. Gunshots, horses, rocky slips, and Indian chants put us in a frontier state of mind. Strangely, the old hymn ‘Shall Gather at the River?’ is used for both funerals and weddings onscreen, and of course, if we’re a little slow on something, there are plenty of orchestral crescendos and booms for all The Searchers’ big drama and action.

Though still sensitive and easily scratched when over handled, my blu-ray viewing of The Searchers froze and skipped not. And, Sweet Jesus The Searchers on blu-ray may just be the finest thing I have ever seen. The exceptional views of Monument Valley are magnified tenfold-every jagged rock and layer of sediment is defined. The blowing sand, a horse’s sweat and flexing muscles, the detailed gingham and calico dresses and vests of old, the buffalo! Every depth of vision you can possibly imagine can be seen on blu-ray. I half expect the snow to continue from the screen out onto my carpet or the blue skies to burst out and color my walls. I always thought The Searchers was a Technicolor fifties bright and colorful production, but after years of small screen viewing and grainy VHS; I just can’t get over how blu-ray rejuvenates The Searchers. Even my DVD copy (from which the screen captures here were taken) can’t compare. Like my previous praise of the original Planet of the Apes, blu-ray makes an older picture seem twenty years newer. I hereby declare that all classics should be released on blu-ray!

The Statements
Despite its wonderful cast and visuals, The Searchers is not a western where the good guys where white hats and the bad boys are all in black. It’s reflections on racism, Manifest Destiny, and the Confederacy are clear enough to any modern viewer. From the first mention of Ethan’s allegiance to the South to Laurie’s final declaration that a bullet in Debbie’s brain is best, we know this picture says a lot more than most westerns or most of its McCarthy era compatriots. Not only commenting on its story material, The Searchers also says a lot about its time. There are no black actors in sight-and I’m sure if I researched enough I could find out that surely there were real American Indians involved in the production. Nevertheless, you can’t see any of them onscreen. Painted white actors- Scar actor Henry Brandon was born in Germany!-portray the stereotypical feather headdress wearing Injuns, and the Mexicans offered all wear sombreros. Today The Searchers doesn’t look dated; it simply looks like a film of its time that’s bravely commentating on a hundred years prior. Unfortunately, our nation’s true colors seem to have changed little in that time.
Like other John Ford pictures, The US Cavalry makes an appearance here. Instead of being the hero, however, The Searchers offers a somewhat underhanded treatment of the Army. First the Cavalry and its Indian Agencies interfere with Ethan’s search and provide little help. Later, Lieutenant Greenhill is made out to be a dumb, spoiled boy who doesn’t know what he’s doing-and he and his bugler are the only significant Cavalrymen in the picture. Some viewers think a brief scene in which Captain Clayton has an undisclosed rear end injury is out of place; however, I think he was stuck in the butt with Greenhill’s sword. He’s warned earlier by Clayton to take care with his ‘knife’, and to me the butt wound represents the pain in the backside that Northern interference and reconstruction was to the still proud South.
Also seeming to rub the wrong way in The Searchers is the juxtaposition of religion and violence. The local reverend is also the ranger captain for goodness sake, and he has no problem shouting Hallelujah after he’s shot a few Indians. Clayton also comments in the opening moments of the film that Debbie still isn’t baptized-does this mean she’s more susceptible to those Injun ways? Before a battle with Scar, Mose erroneously prays, ‘That which we are about to receive, we thank thee, oh Lord.’ Shortly thereafter, Martin has mixed feelings about his first Indian kill, but he quickly gets over it and continues firing. This observance of white hypocrisy parallels the relationship between Ethan and Scar, for both fights to avenge killed family. Ethan constantly refers to evil Bucks, non-human Comanche, scalping-he even shoots the eyes out of a dead Indian so the man will ‘wonder forever between the winds’.
Why don’t we think good of Scar-a man who has lost two sons-when he takes in a young and lost Debbie and raises her as his own? Are we to be pleased when Ethan scalps Scar? It’s not a question of if the situations were reversed, for in many ways Ethan and his Indian enemies are not that different. We’re supposed to like the white guys even if we know their ways are wrong and hate the Indians for their misunderstood violence. Although The Searchers has a feel good ending, the getting there is uneasy, complex, and complicated. The irony is that Ethan hopes to find Debbie and return her to the Jorgensen’s homestead. It’s not even really her home, merely neighbors from when Debbie was five years old. We are given the impression that she’s better off with an unrelated white family than Indians who raised her as their own. It’s never even considered that she might be better off staying where she’s acclimated. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Once Ethan sees Debbie as a full-fledged squaw, his sentiments that living as a Comanche isn’t worth the living are fulfilled.

The Legacy
Perhaps its no longer in the younger, mainstream media’s mind, but film schools, scholars, contemporary filmmakers, and movie historians are intimately familiar with The Searchers. Ford’s vision and Wayne’s performance have been imitated, studied, and written upon long before me. First released in several DVD sets and collections beginning in 2001, my now out of print single disc edition only contains an original trailer and the Warner Brothers behind the scenes shorts. When the blu-ray release came out in May 2009, I quickly moved it to the top of my netflix queue. Though affordable, I think my husband is trying to talk me out of buying the set and passing along my DVD copy to my Dad. My husband is not a fan of westerns or classic films, you see, and he knows I will beg and plead and somehow find a way of conning him into watching The Searchers. The blu-ray feature “The Searchers: An Appreciation” showcases directors Curtis Hanson, Martin Scorsese, and John Milius discussing why they love this film. Along with the Two Disc Anniversary DVD and the Ultimate Collector’s Edition, the blu-ray set has introductions by Patrick Wayne, commentary by Peter Bogdanovich, original trailers and behind the scenes recollections for the uninitiated viewer.
The Searchers’ numerous releases on DVD and now blu-ray; its preserved status with the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry; and its countless placing on numerous Top lists, critics’ choices, and American Film Institute countdowns should give you some indication as to how important this picture is to American cinema. Ranked as the number 1 western and 12th best film of all time by the AFI, you can’t consider yourself a fan of great movies unless you’ve seen this picture. Despite my praise, The Searchers is not a film one watches obsessively like others. It certainly takes more than one viewing to catch all its complexities, but The Searchers also needs time to germ and stew. There has to be time for you to forget, if possible, touching pieces or perhaps change yourself and thus your viewing perceptions. This film should be watched every few years or so and only in a proper viewing format-not cut up with commercials on television. The Searchers must be seen in its entirety every time for full effect-Ford’s epic vision demands it.

Sweet Jesus, I’ve spent 10 pages and over 3,500 words on The Searchers. If nothing else, that has to count for something!


Anonymous said...

Extremely well written review of this amazing classic, Ethan Edwards is possibly John Wayne's best portrayal of any character. This is also one of my favorite books, John Ford did a wonderful job. Thank you for the review it was great, very indepth and insightful.

Kristin Battestella said...

Hey there!

Thanks for stopping by- I didn't think anyone was reading my commentaries on the classics. Well, everyone ought to know a great movie when they see it!

Kristin Battestella said...

Just thought someone may like to know, I just picked up The Searchers on blu ray for a respectable $12! All classics should be rereleased on blu ray!