Opening Up a Treasure: The Searchers
U.S.A. / Warner Bros. / 1956 / Technicolor / 119 Minutes / Aspect Ratio: 1.75:1
In order to fully appreciate the rich complexity of what could be a deeply emotional perhaps life changing experience of watching this film, audience members must become "searchers" themselves. The closer one examines and identifies with the title characters and their quest, the richer its rewards become. This masterpiece pays off even more handsomely for those who can assimilate the story through director John Ford's visionary eyes. Witness the numerous stunning painterly images (Ford would say to his cameraman "that's a Lilly" when capturing those amazing shots), complex staging of the actions and realistic but engaging overlapping behaviour and dialogue. Included as well are some innovative cinematic storytelling techniques (most evident in "the letter" sequence) and a diverse range of highly distinctive characters with a surprising number of naturally occurring humorous and endearing moments between them.
I say "surprising" because this is a very dark story overall. It's full of a frontier life's extreme dangers and unpleasantness: unthinkable fear, revenge, hatred and racial intolerance. The Searchers tells of horrifically violent acts, their retributive responses, and goes even further by addressing the negative psychological effects of both. The film is not shy of surprises in these dire areas either. We see a house full of people we've come to care for burn to the ground after an unprovoked attack by Comanches. John Wayne's Ethan Edwards interrupts an otherwise sombre funeral, shouting "PUT AN AMEN TO IT", just so he can get on with hunting down those who are responsible for wiping out his brother and almost all of his family. We hear the sounds of a bugler's "white knight" Cavalry (previously idolised in the same director's She Wore a Yellow Ribbon), only to see the unnecessary killing of some, and unjust internment of other, Native American innocents in its wake. There's Edwards shooting out the eyes of an uncovered dead Comanche, then explaining to an indignant Reverend/Captain that the sacrilegious act may not betray any belief in the Reverend's book but to the Indians', will cause the spirit to blindly wander forever in the afterlife. By displaying such casual indifference, Edwards demonstrates his personal disrespect for both religions, further cementing the fact that his cold actions (unlike most of those on both sides of the conflict) will be guided by neither. Edwards attempts to conceal his shock at being shown the trophy scalps collected by his formidable nemesis: the marauding tribe's leader Scar. The anger that seethes within, which he will have to suppress, derives not only from Scar's offensive gesture but from the fact that one of the scalps on display belonged to his nephew's mother. Also worth noting in this scene is Scar justifying his violent responses by mourning the loss of his sons. Finally, there's a camera dolly (hardly ever used by the director) moving into a close-up (also infrequently employed) of Edwards' face. It's an astonishing cinematic moment, one that will forever brand the consciousness of those who truly see it. His chilling expression combining shock with repugnance comes after he witnesses the insanity of a few "surviving" young female white settlers rescued by soldiers from the Indians they grew up with... the same Indians who took them from their savagely murdered families.
John Ford and Company (including Max Steiner who created the rich emotionally binding score and Winton C. Hoch's majestically photographed imagery) have given a treasure trove of revelations to take in here. Ford's prior cinematic experience includes dozens of films made before 1924's western triumph The Iron Horse, and some of the medium's highest artistic achievements afterward including The Lost Patrol (1934), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), How Green Was My Valley (1941), My Darling Clementine (1946) and Fort Apache (1948). After some consideration, the wealth of powerfully engaging scenes in The Searchers is almost to be expected from this filmmaker. However, these past accomplishments, as significant as they were, cannot completely account for the gutsy determinism on display here. Upon directing this film, Ford would become legendary by presenting one of the darkest, most emotionally charged and conflicted characters ever portrayed in the history of the western genre: Wayne's Ethan Edwards. Equal credit must be given to the actor who delivers what is easily the most layered and compelling performance in his formidable career. In scene after fascinating scene, Edwards is alternately reviled and revered by the other characters and us. Soon after being introduced, he demonstrates his racial prejudice by making an off-handed half-breed remark (one of many offensive gestures he will commit) to his brother's adoptive son Martin Pawley (effectively portrayed by Jeffery Hunter). Yet Martin will accompany him on his long and arduous search for Debbie, Pawley's sister, who will turn out to be the lone survivor of his family under siege taken captive by Scar's tribe. Chief Scar has apparently decided that Debbie's youth and attractiveness were reason enough to spare her life.
The search will span more than a few years. Ethan's relentless tenacity (to find Debbie and settle a painful score with his arch rival) will not only compliment the director's perspective but will be mirrored in his adversary Scar. During the pursuit, Edwards must overcome many obstacles including a treacherous trader by demonstrating his resourcefulness and carrying out ruthless and decisive actions. Alternately, he must be flexible and even generous as he is when dealing with a Mexican middle-man who will introduce Edwards to Scar and open negotiations between the two. These talks advance further Edwards' willingness to adapt and act not just out of blind emotion as other important characters will do and suffer the consequences from. They are also suggestive of Ethan's intelligence. It's this character's sense of responsibility, delivered in full by Wayne and procured from his director Ford, that remains the primary reason this film is one of the top two westerns of all time and one of the ten best American motion pictures ever made.
Some criticism has been levelled at Edwards' "about-face" decision upon encountering Debbie for the second time. I would suggest these viewers haven't paid close enough attention. Although Martin asserts that Ethan will respond with deadly force after finding Debbie, his uncle only exhibits signs of actually following through this way upon discovering Debbie the first time. During this earlier episode, Martin pleads with her to return with him, but when she unequivocally states her intention to remain with the people who raised her (the murdering Comanches), it suggests the duo's many years of trial and hardships were wasted. Ethan has seen first-hand the psychotic and brutal effects of a life with one's captors. Debbie, by comparison, seems well cared for, indicating she really has become one of them, giving further reason for his impulsive murderous gesture. Of vital importance in understanding Ethan’s truer attitude toward his niece is his signing off on Martin’s wish to sneak into Scar’s camp and safely extract Debbie before a final attack takes place. Why would Ethan sanction this if his intention was to kill her? In their second meeting after the attack, Ethan chases and struggles with Debbie, finally carrying her up in his arms saying "Let's go home, Debbie." We realise what he does. Even if he still harbours some personal resentment, it's time for him to let go. He's taken his revenge on Scar. Debbie has surrendered and is helpless, a far contrast from her earlier attitude, providing Ethan with the only sensible and practical choice he can make. Still, this crucial moment of redemption is, as the famous French film director Jean-Luc Godard observed, extremely poignant. I would add transcendental, being a momentous opportunity for Ethan to demonstrate the compassion residing deep within and subtly shown numerous times throughout his journey.
This final act of kindness and his safe return of Debbie to a caring and loving home will not be enough to allow Ethan to comfortably join in and enter this sanctuary himself. He's the guy who does what's necessary. It's his raw negative aggression which fuels the unpleasant, decisive actions that gets the job done but there's simply no place for it in this peaceful setting. He must, therefore, pay the price for being what he is: an outsider. So Ethan silently stands outside the family's home, watching the others' joy at being reunited with their loved ones. Beautifully photographed from inside the house, this amazing "frame within a frame" shot begins the film as well when the door opens to reveal the backdrop of Monument Valley in all of its Vista-Vision grandeur. At the story's conclusion, Ethan stands back as Martin and his fiancée pass by, then turns and walks away into the wilderness with that customarily graceful John Wayne swagger. The door closes.
If one simply sits back and casually observes this film, with an inattentive or superficial approach (perhaps conditioned by the plainly obvious narratives we've come to expect from most modern-day movies), the viewer is apt to be disappointed. They'll miss too much important exposition such as the inferred affection between Ethan and his brother's wife or the markings on the tombstone Debbie hides near during the Comanche attack.
Ford effectively communicates throughout this extraordinary film Ethan Edwards' buried internal struggle. Ethan attempts time and again to not only deal with the horrors he's witnessed but to keep them from negatively impacting on those he cares for. Even at the story's beginning when he returns from the Civil War he's silent about them. This makes it necessary for the audience to participate in uncovering those concealed signposts of feeling along the way to help create that rich and rewarding experience its artists' intended. There are in fact so many revealing story and character developments to take in here, even a half-dozen viewings may not be enough to observe them all.
John Ford's accomplishment demonstrates a bold and complex maturity like "The Grange" of fine wines. When they begin their search, Ford's two principal characters are seeking a lot more than a missing person. They just don't know it yet. Thanks to Ford and Company, we can fully understand each one's realisation of a meaningful journey when their quest is over, while providing us with a deep meditation on life's transitory nature.
For those lucky enough to partake, The Searchers is similar to a magnificent investment opportunity. The more one gives, the more one gets in return.
The Searchers is a TCM Treasure of the Month. It is scheduled to air (updated) Thursday, July 4 at (early morning) 4:15am PST.