Sunday, April 20, 2014

Film Review: THE SEARCHERS (1956)

The Searchers (1956)

Director: John Ford
Producer: Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney
Story/Screenplay: Frank S. Nugent; based on The Searchers by Alan Le May
Music: Max Steiner; Stan Jones (title song, "The Searchers")
Cinematography: Winton C. Hoch
Editing; Jack Murray
Starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, Hank Worden

MPAA Rating: NR

Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures

***** (5/5)

"That'll be the day." — Ethan Edwards, The Searchers

The Searchers is a truly popular film, even as it is 58 years old to date (in 2016 it will be its 60th anniversary). The American Film Institute named it the greatest Western of all time in 2008, one of the top 100 greatest American movies ever made in 2007 and 1998, and held by critics, fans of Western movies, cinephiles and almost everyone as not only one of the greatest Westerns of all time (and maybe THE greatest Western) but also one of the all-time great movies. Despite it not receiving major Oscar nominations upon its release, it was a commercial success and ultimately a popular and critical success, not only then but also now. This is especially important, as Westerns are often written off by most serious folks as being mindless exercises in violence and racism and nationalistic jingoism. Often that is true, especially among some of the older B-westerns and even in some acclaimed Westerns. However, even many who normally don't think very highly of Westerns per se are very fond of The Searchers, mainly in part due to the cinematic qualities that Ford and all involved placed in the film, and also how it manages to not succumb to the typical problems that plagued most Western films before this film came out. 

For example, whereas racism was often viewed lightly and even condoned in previous Western films, The Searchers departed from this route, even as it was still a classical American Western movie. Yes, it did not take a politically correct view of the Native Americans or the Comanche, but neither did it subscribe to the gung-ho Manifest Destiny doctrine that many a Western would subscribe to before.

And I was very impressed by the film, considering that this was the first Western I have watched. I was impressed not only by the depth and filmmaking quality of this movie but also its many other merits. But I will get to that later on.

The Searchers centers around the story of former Confederate war hero Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), who returns back to Texas three years after the Civil War ended. He returns to his brother Aaron Edwards's (Walter Coy) home, as well as to his wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan) (whom many consider to have had a previous relation with John Wayne's character). And his character is established as a racist who doesn't like Indians—this is established when he mocks his young relative Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter)—and who is a wanderer that has no stable place to settle. Later on, it turns out that the Comanche Indians raided the cattle of Lars Jorgensen (John Qualen), and eventually it is found that the whole thing was a decoy for the parties involved to leave their homes undefended and prone to Indian attacks.

And it turns out that Indians do attack the homes (led by war chief Scar (Henry Brandon)), and especially Aaron's house. His wife Martha is dead (even raped, which is definitely not depicted on-screen but surely implied). However, Debbie (Lana Wood) and Lucy (Pippa Scott), Ethan's two nieces, come with him, as well as Mose Harper (Hank Worden), Captain Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond), Martin, and Lars's son Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey, Jr.) (who had some romantic relations with Lucy). But due to certain events, the rest of them leave the journey, with Ethan, Martin and Brad alone to continue the journey. However, it turns out that Lucy, one of the girls, was raped and killed by the Comanche kidnappers and left out there. Brad, grieved by this, runs out and is killed as a result by the Indians.

This leaves Ethan and Martin now to find Debbie; however, through the span of five years, many interesting events happen, including one with Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles), who desperately wants to fall in love and has her eye set on Martin. However, Martin's adventures hinder him from responding to Laurie's claims, which anger her even more (a very strong running point in the film).

Another subplot comes in with regard to Ethan's racism toward Indians, particularly Comanche (who killed his mother a long time ago). It is revealed that his racism is so strong that it spills over into cultural bias; he even harbors a hatred for former white victims of Comanche raids that were brainwashed—he even wants to consider murdering Debbie (Natalie Wood) due to her having assimilated into the Indian ways and Indian culture. This leaves for another layer of development that set The Searchers apart from not only previous Westerns but also previous John Wayne performances. 

While this film definitely is celebrated and a hallowed piece of Americana in American cinema, it still does have a fair share of detractors, who argue that the film takes a hypocritical stance on racism; they argue that while The Searchers does have anti-racist themes, it does wallow in racism throughout the film, as Indian-related stuff is often related to either evil things or awkward John Ford humor. I would respond that the treatment toward Indians is not flawless and it does have tinges of racism; even so, the anti-racist theme remains powerful, especially in the second half.

Normally in an old Western, the white man would be depicted as the undisputed hero and the Indian as the undisputed villain. Yes, The Searchers retains some of that classical trapping in its structure, with the Indian characters being the villains and the white people being depicted as the protagonists/heroes. However, added to this film is a thought-provoking and excellent layer of moral ambiguity and unsettling power that distinguishes this movie. Ethan Edwards is at once depicted both as a courageous war hero looking out for his only living niece and a culturalist/racist who hates Comanches and whites brainwashed by Comanches. The film skillfully juxtaposes this and uses the other protagonist, Martin Pawley, as a foil to Ethan's virulent racism, which offends even his closest friends.

What made The Searchers a towering masterpiece is not just all the great technical achievements (directing, acting, mise-en-scene, cinematography, writing, creative uses of flashbacks, beautiful shots and memorable sequences, etc.), all of which deserve the honors they receive, but the moral ambiguity that is prevalent in the film. 

Roger Ebert's interesting essay on this film sums up quite nicely:

Ethan Edwards, fierce, alone, a defeated soldier with no role in peacetime, is one of the most compelling characters Ford and Wayne ever created (they worked together on 14 films). Did they know how vile Ethan's attitudes were? I would argue that they did, because Wayne was in his personal life notably free of racial prejudice, and because Ford made films with more sympathetic views of Indians. This is not the instinctive, oblivious racism of Griffith's “Birth of a Nation.” Countless Westerns have had racism as the unspoken premise; this one consciously focuses on it. I think it took a certain amount of courage to cast Wayne as a character whose heroism was tainted. Ethan's redemption is intended to be shown in that dramatic shot of reunion with Debbie, where he takes her in his broad hands, lifts her up to the sky, drops her down into his arms, and says, “Let's go home, Debbie.” The shot is famous and beloved, but small counterbalance to his views throughout the film--and indeed, there is no indication be thinks any differently about Indians.
Steven D. Greydanus also rightly notes: "The film’s complexity and ambiguity extends even to the famous climax, in which two central characters make choices that could be viewed as changes of heart, but could also be viewed as differing responses to changing circumstances. Do the characters change and develop, or is the truth about them simply more clearly revealed? The Searchers offers no clear-cut answers, not even to the question in the theme song."

While such a film can easily become preachy and heavy-handed, The Searchers brilliantly avoided this trap and gave us not only a great masterpiece of cinema but a film that can be appreciated by almost anybody, even one who likes Westerns as a shoot-em-up genre. Everything has a purpose and is used skillfully by Ford, even the often awkward comic humor and romantic subplots, which show the contrast between humanity and Ethan's wandering nature.

John Wayne gives one of his greatest performances, which also happens to be one of the greatest roles in film. His Ethan Edwards is one of the greatest anti-heroic protagnoists in film, contrasting his most admirable bravery with his despicable and twisted racism and hatred of the Commanches which is infused by a statist and quasi-totalitarian desire to not only kill Commanches but also those who were integrated into this culture. Jeffrey Hunter is also brilliant as Ethan's foil, Martin Pawley, and Hunter's performance infuses humanity into the darkness of this film. And the rest of the performances are also superb, including that of Hank Worden's Mose Harper, Ford's comic-relief character that actually helps the film a lot in many ways more than one. For example, Jason Fraley's in-depth essay notes: "Thus there’s almost a humorous significance to Mose’s constant cries of, “My rocking chair! I want my rocking chair!” The rocking chair is a symbol of domestic moral stability, swaying back and forth, but in the end, holding its ground. It’s a visual idea that was perhaps growing in Ford since Henry Fonda memorably rocked in that chair in My Darling Clementine (1946). How fitting that Mose sit in such a chair at the end of The Searchers donning a top hat, yet another symbol of the civilized world." The rest of the cast is great, including Natalie Wood as the grown-up Debbie (however brief her role is) and Vera Miles as Laurie, who is madly in love with Martin. Even though Miles's performance does annoy me in many ways, I don't deny that it is a good character portrayal and very understandable considering the circumstances of the film. After all, Martin goes off with Ethan on this long quest and often ignores Laurie, leading her to go with another guy (which serves as another point of comic humor near the climatic moments of the movie). 

The visual shots themselves are magnificent and truly cinematic, and they really shine on the Blu-ray Disc for this film. Ford really had an eye for the West and his skill shows in how masterfully and meaningfully he crafts the shots, from the opening mise-en-scene sequences with Ethan and Marth to the wide VistaVision shots of the setting to the other various iconic shots that many films after paid homage to. Also, Ford manages to capture brutality without showing us in-your-face gore and violence, another great skill courtesy of the best classics of olden times (though graphic violence isn't necessarily a bad thing, from my personal point of view; just don't use it in excess and where it is not needed). This thing impressed me throughout the film, and not only that, Max Steiner's epic music score is perfect for the film, ranging from the thoughtful opening song to the wonderful melody to the haunting tunes and finally to the famous "Searchers" song that plays at the iconic ending scene.

Many others have delved further into the brilliance of this movie, so the best I can conclude with is: The Searchers deserves and rewards repeat viewings, and I probably will want to delve into this film again. 5/5