With the exception of Stagecoach and Winchester 73 and Destry Rides Again, maybe one or two others, the western genre hasn’t done much to make me a fan or even to rid me of the wary sigh with which I sit down to each one, convinced as I am that I’ll be turned off by the color palate of desert beige and dead spruce (and there’s no redeeming a movie you don’t want to look at), but something about the technicolor in The Searchers, the colorful wardrobes and such, makes it immediately eye-catching and beautiful. I think it’s because it looks like a very high-quality Hollywood picture of the 1950s while feeling like something out of the ‘30s or ‘40s. There’s also a new vibe about John Wayne, how he towers over everybody. He looks like a bull in a china shop. Gives the same uneasy impression as those videos from the 1970s from the family that domesticated a couple of full-grown lions. You wanna tell the good people on screen that they shouldn’t have this thing in their house.
The movie’s also catching because it was directed by John Ford, a study-worthy maestro on his own, and because it’s so particularly favored among the Hollywood New Wave of filmmakers, namely Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma and Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, all or most of whom have said rapturous things about it—Scorsese himself (always the most effusive of the bunch) having serenaded the movie and its makers over and over, in print and on screen, citing its natural artistry and brutality but also appreciating it within three different narratives: the development of John Ford as a filmmaker, of John Wayne as an actor, and their chemistry as collaborators (we’ve seen them work together, on the List, in Stagecoach, Rio Grande, and The Quiet Man).
It’s also generated a bevy of thinkpieces about, like, filmic depictions of the American west (head shit) and video essays on YouTube from casual movie buffs and a bunch of high-brow retrsopectives from institutions…
The Searchers is a movie to contend with.
And it feels like a one-two punch on my side of your computer or phone screen, wherever you’re reading this, because The Searchers is immediately preceded, on the List, by The Ten Commandments, which was scary to write about because I know that, for lots of newcomers to the site, it’s up there with like The Wizard of Oz and Citizen Kane as the first thing they’ll read to see if mine is the kinda writerly voice they want anything to do with—whereas The Searchers, by that standard, is more like Meet Me in St. Louis or The Magnificent Ambersons: a title that a more staunch and discriminating movie buff will go to.
So I’ve got these heavy back-to-back posts…
Anyway: the plot, real quick, has John Wayne in the role of a fiercely racist and vengeful uncle of Martin Pawley (Ethan Edwards), whose family has just been slaughtered by Comanche Indians—the same who terrorize the civilians of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, one of my favorite novels, whose own seven foot-tall albino villain, Judge Holden, is eloquent and brutal and powerful and might be modeled, if only slightly, on Wayne’s performance in The Searchers as an anti-hero whose hatred is described, by Scorsese, as “poetic,” something that’s driven him to actually study his enemy’s culture, as we see when he turns over the corpse of a Comanche and shoots it through the eyes so that, in accordance with the culture’s beliefs, he won’t go to paradise but will be condemned, instead, to some kind of endless purgatorial wandering.
All but one member of the family has been murdered: Debbie (Natalie Wood). Another sister is missing, the youngest, and as Wayne and Edwards embark on their rescue mission we’re made to hope at first that the two will be found safe together.
But no. The younger sister, who sought shelter during the raid by hiding at her grandmother’s burial site, has been subject to a death we’re left to imagine by the look on Wayne’s face when he walks out from the cavern in which he finds her. Then his famous remark about it, when asked if she’d been raped: “Don’t ever ask me about it. Long as you live don’t ever ask me more.”
It’s also one of relatively few movies that’s got a single famous shot, which shows Wayne, framed by the dark interior of a doorway, as he walks off into the desert (reminiscent, I think, of how Chaplin’s Tramp walks off in The Circus and Modern Times), and we feel the weight of all the demons and trauma he’s carrying off into the future with him—and but it also echoes the troubled swagger he sported at the film’s outset, and we realize that this whole hideous bloody fiasco has been just one of several he’s probably endured, and tha this hatred of the Comanche has been forged out fo horrors.
It’s the emotional weight of the shot that distinguishes it from a couple of similar ones, earlier in the movie, that peer out, at the same level, from the openings of caves onto some kind of desert horror.
In the way that Hitchcock’s late-1960s and early-‘70s movies show just how brutal and disturbing and forthright his earlier films might have been had mid-century censorship been less strict, The Searchers also gives us that idea about John Ford.
The Searchers is a straightforward visceral pleasure if you’re looking for something to watch n a Friday that’s got modern allure with a touch of that old time religion, but it’s also a tree that gives lotsa fruit if you’re looking for a way into film studies.