Written by Frank S. Nugent
Based on the novel by Alan Le May
Directed by John Ford
The movies at their best can be a sort of time machine, giving us access to times and places that we could never visit, providing through moving image a immediacy that text and other forms of media cannot provide. That The Searchers provides this service is not in doubt -- the technical qualities of this film are above dispute, and the film is widely considered one of the greatest films of all time for its portrayal of racism. But to modern audiences it has new shades of meaning, for placed in a twenty-first century context we are not quite sure if we are looking at the racism of 1868 or that of 1956.
The image that everyone who writes about The Searchers is duty-bound to include
Let's take a step back. I was born in 1980, and the western has not been a commercially viable genre in my lifetime. Oh, we get westerns here and there today, but they tend to be small pictures made by individuals as passion projects. Whereas in the time that John Ford was putting the finishing touches on this film, the western was a thriving medium for expression whose popularity had barely waned during the entirety of film history to that point, and one that had exploded over the still-new medium of television. Good westerns, bad westerns, kid's westerns, silly westerns... I suppose it's something like the proliferation of cop/mystery shows on television now, in that the basic structure of the genre is used to hang character drama, social commentary, etc cetera, by a wide variety of creative artists under a wide spectrum of skill levels.
And if the Western was the king of movie genres in the fifties, John Ford was the undisputed master of the Western. He had made dozens of them dating back into the silent era, and his collaborations with John Wayne were legendary on both a critical and a box-office level. So when The Searchers premiered, many critics overlooked its quality, understanding it merely as just another Ford/Wayne collaboration.
They were wrong, for this film is one of the finest films of its era, not least because in a sense it marks the end of its era. A decade later Sergio Leone would be making his now-classic spaghetti westerns (not the least of which is Once Upon a Time in the West), using a more modern sensibility of camerawork and performance, and a generally revisionist attitude towards the genre. In contrast, The Searchers is very much a product of its time technically, with broad performances, a mostly-static camera, cinematography that looks like a watercolor painting, and a general feel that reminds one of the proscenium. Not that any of that is necessarily bad, but the dated look and feel helps to explain why my generation is more familiar with the Eastwood westerns than with Wayne's.
I realize that I've gone several paragraphs without really talking about the plot. Wayne is Ethan Edwards, a man with a disreputable past who comes back to his brother's home in Texas after the Civil War. Three years after the Civil War, actually. What's he been doing all that time? The film doesn't give us easy answers, but we gather vaguely criminal activities in Mexico. Edwards is a racist, especially towards the Comanche Indians, and when there is an Indian raid on the family home, he swears vengeance. Two daughters of the family have been kidnapped by the Comanche, and much of the run-time of the film is devoted to Ethan and "half-breed" Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) searching for the lost women.
Early on we learn that the older daughter has been killed, and it takes the two men years to track down the younger. Years in which life goes on in the homestead, and the woman that Martin loves betroths herself to another man. If this seems out of place in my summary, it's equally out of place in the film -- the sequences back on the farm are comedic, meant to lighten the mood for the darker themes of life on the trail. Ethan's hatred of the Indians knows no bounds, as in a scene in which he kills several buffalo needlessly, just so that there would be fewer buffalo to feed the Comanche.
The Searchers does not agree with this perspective, to be sure, but it is still problematic. The Comanche chief named Scar, who leads the tribe that kidnapped the girls, is portrayed by Henry Brandon, whom I learn from Wikipedia is actually German. Most if not all of the Indians in this film are white actors wearing crazy makeup, which is why I have taken to calling them "Indians" in this review -- why soften the film's attitudes towards Native Americans by using a politically correct term that the film predates? In the cinematic world of 1956, Indians were generally unambiguous villains; our more modern sensibilities fill in some of the blanks that Ford's film leaves out, and Scar is perhaps a more sympathetic character to us than he was to audiences upon the film's release.
Or does Ford intend him to be sympathetic? This is a difficult question, for while the film provides us with a happy ending for the missing girl, we're not quite sure how she feels about the whole situation. Was she happier as one of Scar's wives than she would be living with what remains of her family? (This ambiguity was famously used by Paul Schraeder in his script for Taxi Driver, only one of many films that have been inspired by The Searchers.) Ethan believes he is doing the right thing in bringing the girl home, and in fact is portrayed as having become more tolerant than we suspected (his original intention being to kill the girl, on the logic that living like a Comanche is a fate worse than death), but pieces are missing in the psychology of these characters, pieces that would bring the themes of the film to a clearer focus.
I realize that I've gone on and on about the problems of the movie without really talking about the great qualities. It's technically superb, filled with amazing performances, and as a genre piece there are few better. It's tough for modern audiences due to the differing cinematic language of the fifties and today, but that's not something that should be held against it. Most importantly, The Searchers is never boring, and some sequences are brilliant by any standards.
This is a must-see for anyone interested in the history of film, particularly in the history of the Western. And if you're only going to see one Western from the fifties, you should probably make it The Searchers.