Monday, July 17, 2017

The Searchers

When a viewer approaches a film that has long had an impossibly grandiose reputation, it's tempting to blame yourself when you reach the end of it and feel somewhat disappointed. Were the taste makers incorrect? Were you born too late? Are you cognitively deficient in some way?  I was concerned that this would occur with Johns Ford's 1956 classic THE SEARCHERS, so I put off seeing it for some time.  Critics and filmmakers have sung its praises since its original release.  David Lean, Martin Scorsese, and even Jean-Luc Godard were inspired.  So was Buddy Holly, who named a song after an oft repeated line.  But by the time John Wayne was seen as a silhouette in a doorway near the end, an image as iconic as it gets, my fears were proven entirely unfounded.  Long before, in fact.

Wayne and Ford worked together so many times I imagine some unspoken symbiosis existed between (even with reports of Ford's taunting of his star).  As Ethan Edwards, Wayne has perhaps his most complex role as a Confederate soldier who irritates the Texas Rangers by refusing to join them, among other grievances.  In his wanderings, Ethan fought with the Mexicans in their revolutionary war.   Edwards also possesses a cache of gold coins that may have been obtained under shady means.  

When Ethan's brother's family is attacked (some of them killed) by Comanche Indians, the wanderer joins forces with Ranger Captain Sam Clayton (Ward Bond) and his posse in pursuit.  Soon after, they are ambushed (more than once) by the Comanche and the searchers are down to Ethan and his adoptive nephew Martin (Jeffery Hunter).  Their campaign to locate Martin's missing sister Debbie (played by Lana and Natalie Wood at different ages) will stretch into several years, much to the dismay of a young lady named Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles), whose family housed the men for a time on their journey.

Eventually the men will learn that a brutal Comanche chief called Scar (Henry Brandon) has abducted Debbie and made her one of his wives.  In a plot point that apparently mirrors many true life stories, the now adolescent girl has adopted the ways of her clan.   Ethan's hatred of the Comanche will lead to a decisive moment between him and Martin, as the latter attempts to protect Debbie from both the Indians and his uncle.

THE SEARCHERS quite artfully explores the racism that seethed between the Indians and their quarry.  Both sides justifying their hate and vengefulness by atrocities committed upon them.  Both perhaps are justified. Each believes the other is unworthy of life. Ethan is tainted by character flaws and inconsistencies and is single minded in his belief that Debbie is better off dead than as an Indian.  Does Ford portray the Comanche unfairly or inaccurately? Is the tribe only taking back what was taken from them before?

Frank S. Nugent's screenplay (based on the novel of the same name by Alan Le May) also allows much implication: of the physical defilement of young woman absorbed into an Indian tribe, of how some relationships among the Edwards clan may not be what they at first seem, leading to more implications of the motivations of the main characters.

Much food for thought.  Maybe overly familiar to young viewers weaned on later movies that pay homage to this undisputed classic.  Some films lose a bit of their punch when admirers/filmmakers lift scenes and dialogue for their own classics.  Maybe I was born too late to get the full effect of Ford's film, though I still found it powerful and unforgettable.  Winton C. Hoch's cinematography is among the best of its era and is as much a reason for THE SEARCHER's status as anything else.

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