Archive for the ‘Westerns’ Category

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“The Searchers,” dir. John Ford

October 29, 2009
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Martha Edwards (Dorothy Jordan) sees her brother-in-law, Ethan (John Wayne)

Despite its canonization, The Searchers has had its share of detractors, and I always felt that the skeptics outnumbered the devotees in my generation. Compared to many of the Westerns made in the past 20 years (the revisionist Unforgiven, the off-beat Dead Man, the politically correct Dance with Wolves), I can understand how someone can dismiss it as “off-putting to the contemporary sensibility.” But such a statement betrays some historical arrogance in one’s taste.

The first time I saw The Searchers, it looked uneven – I thought there was too much shlock, and I believed Ford’s approach was too broad. When I saw it again a few years later, and again a few days after that, all those alleged flaws appeared deceptive, and that’s when I really noticed a subtlety in craft that was powerful as it was economical. The build up to Lucy’s terror, the traumatic moments that are never seen but completely felt, the hatred conveyed in one chilling close-up…Ford knew how to get under your skin without any emotional bullying. But Ford could also be sentimental without crossing the boundaries of taste, and The Searchers can be surprisingly moving. One of the most tender scenes comes near the beginning, when you realize what’s there between Ethan Edwards and his brother’s wife, Martha. A silent, understated miniature, it’s all the more poignant in the way Sam Clayton chooses to witness it. Classic Hollywood has always been lauded for its “invisible style,” an approach to editing and composition that doesn’t draw attention to itself, but this scene is an extraordinary example of this.

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Unfortunately, films with a reputation like The Searchers are often burdened with misguided expectations of perfection, and to be fair, there are some awkward moments in The Searchers. (The wedding near the end comes to mind.) But the biggest mistake you can make is to count the number of flaws instead of appreciating the weight of its merits. For me, it’s one of the first great depictions of racism in a Hollywood film – ambiguous but unflinching and accurate in its complexity. Some critics have even accused the film of racism, a credit to the film’s lack of didacticism.

The story of two men who look for a girl kidnapped by Comanches, The Searchers makes it clear that if she’s alive, the Comanches will probably make her one of their own. As the picture shows the lengths some will go to preserve what’s acceptable in civility, the division between what’s savage and what’s civilized appears more and more precarious.

That wedding may have been clumsy, but it leads up to a startling confrontation between Laurie Jorgensen, arguably the sweetest character in the whole picture, and Martin Pawley, the adopted brother of the kidnapped girl. One-eighth Cherokee, Martin and Laurie are/were lovers, and it’s all the more disturbing that she would say those things to Martin considering who he is.

If there’s anything else I’ve grown to appreciate about The Searchers, it’s John Wayne’s brilliant performance, proof he can be great despite his limitations. No one else could have brought the same weight to Ethan Edwards, one of the most fascinating, enduring characters in cinema. He’s the embodiment of everything mythic and virulent about the Old West – every bit the alpha male while flirting with psychosis.

But when the film ends, he appears unexpectedly vulnerable. Ethan and Martin put everything on the line to find Debbie, sacrificing years without knowing how many more would be spent. They’re the ones who restore their family, but unlike Martin, Ethan can’t be a part of it. He’s always known it, that this was a way of life could never be his, but that doesn’t stop him from ever wanting it. That one small gesture, grabbing his arm before he turns and leaves, tells you everything you need to know. Not many people would consider it a desolate ending – he’s found some measure of peace – but it always seemed tragic to me. Ford films it beautifully, mirroring the beginning, and I don’t think any film has ever had an opening and closing shot more perfect than The Searchers.

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