Ever since it was discovered people would pay to see movies, Westerns have been popular in one form or another with many towering American actors willing to strap on a pair of six-shooters and ride into the sunset. I have a preference for Clint Eastwood’s movies, but John Wayne can definitely boast being the king of the genre. His politics off-screen became too far to the right for many audience members as time went on, but he remained an American screen hero until his dying day. In The Searchers (1956), one of many films he made with master director John Ford, Wayne does not play a hero or a straight-up villain, but rather a man caught in between because of his intentions and quest for vengeance. This is what makes this John Wayne movie a great movie whether you like Westerns or not.
Some movies are so good you could write essays on them, which is exactly what I did with The Searchers while spending a semester at the University of British Columbia in 2009. The class was Hollywood Cinema from 1930 to 1960, and it allowed me to watch classics from those decades and write about their themes and characters. How’s that for a homework assignment? In addition to helping me gain some university credits over the summer, the course allowed me to discover classics, and in the case of The Searchers prepare me for the ending of Breaking Bad season 5. Series creator Vince Gilligan admitted in an interview that creatively speaking the show writers are thieves, but they steal from the best.
Despite setting the film in Texas, Ford shot the movie in Monument Valley, Arizona/Utah, one of the best places to shoot a Western due to its scenic beauty. Ford makes good use of this landscape, opening the film with Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards riding towards the house of his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) in the hope of a better life after violent times. His dreams of a peaceful life are quashed after a group of Comanche raid and burn Aaron’s home killing everyone inside. The only survivor is Ethan’s niece Debbie (Lana Wood) who has been taken alive. Along with Debbie’s adopted brother Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) Ethan sets out to find her and kill anyone who will stand in his way.
Ethan and the younger Martin make for an uneasy pair. Whereas Martin is focused on rescuing Debbie, Ethan seems intent on inflicting as much pain as possible on the Comanche, going as far as shooting the eyes of a Comanche corpse so that he will wander the spirit world blind. Their search takes them to snow-covered forests, dust-filled valleys, and the scorching desert. Eventually they learn their prey is a Comanche leader named Scar (Henry Brandon) who has a great name for a villain, but by the time they get to him in New Mexico, Ethan has done things that are not exactly worthy of a hero.
Complicating matters even further is the fact that the search has taken so long that by now Debbie is a teenager, played by Natalie Wood, who actually feels more at home with the members of Scar’s tribe than with Ethan and Martin. To Martin’s horror Ethan decides he would rather kill her than let her live as an Indian. Did they really travel this far and for so long just to murder a member of their own family?
Apart from some awkward pauses in the search to focus on Martin’s relationship with the feisty Laurie (Vera Miles) there is little humour in The Searchers, but it is definitely beautiful and thought provoking. By today’s standards it is not very violent, with the bloodiest of Ethan’s actions happening off-camera, but it was a bold story for the times.
The film’s final shot says a lot, with Wayne framed by a doorway as he heads off alone into the prairie. Like his character he seems destined to be a part of the western landscape until it swallows him.