The Searchers is important. It’s considered the best of legendary director John Ford’s Westerns, and often touted as the best and nuanced performance of John Wayne’s long and iconic career. The American Film Institute named it the best Western of all time, and placed it at number 12 on its list of the 100 greatest American films of all time.
It’s also a deeply polarising film, often accused of gross racism against Native Americans and apologism for genocide. Defenders claim it actually deconstructs the racism and the assumptions of the Western as it existed at the time… as it does, but not particularly convincingly. Mostly, defenders are simply in love with the sheer beauty of the film, which has profoundly influenced filmmakers like Spielberg, Scorcese and Tarantino.
Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a hard-souled Confederate cavalryman returning to his family three years after the war. Ethan is unreconstructed and bitter about the Confederate defeat, and the three lost years are left as an ominous open question, implying that he may have joined with those bushwhackers who refused to accept the end of the war, or as later events suggest, been involved in even grubbier campaigns against the native tribes.
The early scenes deliver a rush of exposition. Ethan is staying with his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) and his family. He dotes on his neices Debbie and Lucy, but treats his brother’s adopted son Martin Pawley (who Ethan rescued as an orphan) with dismissive contempt because of his Cherokee blood.
When the local reverend turns up to raise a posse and pursue Comanche raiders, Ethan and Martin go, leaving brother Aaron and the women at the homestead. However, a day’s ride away, they realise the cattle-killing raids have been a diversion to allow the Comanche to raid homesteads, and that they are too far away to do anything about it. The next day they arrive to find the homestead burnt, Aaron and his wife killed, and the two daughters kidnapped.
Ethan and Martin spend the next five years tracking the Comanche, first for both Debbie and Lucy, then just for Debbie after Ethan finds Lucy murdered. As the journey continues, however, and it becomes clearer that Debbie is living as a Comanche, the nature of their search becomes more confused, and Martin begins to suspect that Ethan’s genocidal loathing for the Comanche and horror of miscegenation mean he intends to kill Debbie rather than rescue her.
The Searchers has some basis in historical fact, in that it was inspired by the 1836 kidnapping of Cynthia Ann Parker during the Fort Parker massacre. Parker was recovered after 25 years, but had come to think of herself as Comanche, and spent the rest of her miserable life being kept prisoner by family members while she tried to escape and return to her tribe. However, for all its relative nuance for the period, The Searchers’ lingering over the rapes and massacres of the Comanche does little to portray them as a people or culture more complex than their antagonism with the settlers.
The Searchers is certainly a beautiful film, and a landmark in Westerns and American film history. Shot in Monument Valley, the spectacular area of Arizona and Utah that Ford so favoured, many of the shots could easily pass as oil paintings, with the characters vanishing into the gorgeous scenery. Ethan is an unusually nuanced character for Wayne – the character’s past informs his present, and he has a genuine arc. He is even used as a potentially unreliable narrator, as several key plot elements – the atrocities carried out on both Lucy and her mother – take place only in his eyes, in offscreen space, making us wonder just exactly what he saw, and whether his characterisation of the events can really be trusted.
However, it is at best a flawed masterpiece. Much of the scoring is excessively dramatic and some of the musical cues are on-the-nose, and there are other artefacts of the time, such as characters being visible standing stock-still on their marks for a moment in transitions before the action starts. The pacing is messy, rushing through the opening scenes too quickly, giving an inadequate feeling of the time that passes in the five year search, then wasting long minutes on a very unnecessary vaudevillian comedic detour when the searchers interrupt a wedding. There’s also the egregious sin of Ken Curtis’ Charlie McCorry, an awful, one-note character that sucks away suspension of disbelief in every scene in which he shows his face. It would be entirely too generous to say the film is entirely innocent of the racism and racial caricatures endemic to the times.
Nitpicking is unfair – Ford directed his first film in 1917, so to be making major advances in his craft forty years later is an incredible feat – and to some extent, The Searchers needs to be judged by what came before as much as what came after. Its iconic final scene, shooting out to the Monument Valley landscape through a homestead door, echoes throughout the decades of cinema history since its release. To say it is the greatest Western of all time, however, is drawing a very long bow indeed.