John Ford’s 1956 film is praised for elements that aren’t there.
The greatest Western of all time . . . isn’t. Though The Searchers is regularly hailed as the finest exemplar of its genre, and one of the best movies of any kind (seventh best of all time, according to the decennial Sight & Sound poll), John Ford’s 1956 film is mediocre for most of its run time. Nearly all of the praise heaped on it stems from two elements: its closing minutes (notably its ambiguous but beautiful final shot, one of the most enduring in cinema history) and the uncharacteristic brutishness of John Wayne’s portrayal of the film’s hero Ethan Edwards. The acclaim comes from obsessives who have seen the movie so many times that they see things that simply aren’t there, often motivated by a leftist loathing of American mythology that, to put it mildly, Ford and Wayne did not share. A conventional mid-century Western somehow became the Left’s favorite cowboys-and-Indians allegory, a metaphor for Vietnam, McCarthyism, and the Civil Rights era.
Decide for yourself (The Searchers is running on the Watch TCM app and related on-demand service until April 19), but then compare it to my favorite traditionalist Western, Wayne’s vastly superior 1948 epic Red River (streaming on Amazon Prime).
Apart from its stunning Monument Valley photography, The Searchers is mostly hokey and thinly written. (Spoilers follow.) Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, a returning Confederate soldier, stops at his brother’s frontier house in West Texas in 1868 and takes an immediate dislike to the brother’s adopted son Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) because the youth has slightly darker skin indicating some Indian ancestry. In a Comanche raid, everyone but Martin and Ethan is either killed or taken captive, and the two men spend five years tracking the chief, Scar (Henry Brandon), to find Ethan’s missing niece, Debbie (Natalie Wood). By the time they find her, she is fully assimilated into the Comanche and doesn’t want to return to the whites. Ethan decides that she’s been polluted by miscegenation and tries to kill her, stopped by Martin. The closing minutes of the film contain two sudden, unexplained changes of heart: Debbie resolves to return to the whites and Ethan decides to rescue her instead of murder her, seemingly on the spur of the moment.
Ford was primarily a painter of tableaus, and like many of his films, this one suffers from dialogue that is almost entirely flat and functional. Max Steiner’s score is typically overbearing and melodramatic. The acting (especially by Hunter) is mostly terrible. A scene in which the searchers meet two women who have been rendered hysterical after capture by the Indians is so broadly played it’s practically camp. The romance between Martin and his frontier sweetheart Laurie is leaden. The slapstick humor (such as when Ethan kicks an Indian woman down a hill or when Martin falls over the same bench twice) is excruciating. Unlike in Howard Hawks’ Red River, Wayne’s character doesn’t have a well-crafted arc, just a sudden lurch from fury to kindness, and there is no comparing the depth of the Ethan-Martin bond with the one between Thomas (Wayne) and Matt (Montgomery Clift) in the earlier film. Red River is Shakespearean. The Searchers is merely pretty.
The Searchers was largely dismissed upon its release, famously earning zero Oscar nominations. The original New York Times review by Bosley Crowther approaches it entirely in genre terms, calling it a “slambang Western,” and noting, “for all the suspicions aroused by excessive language in its ads, [it] is really a rip-snorting Western, as brashly entertaining as they come . . . a wealth of Western action that has the toughness of leather and the sting of a whip.” Of Ethan, Crowther says his “passion for revenge is magnificently uncontaminated by caution or sentiment.” So: the opposite of complicated.
We’ll allow that Bosley Crowther was a bit of a ninny. But who in 1956 would have had a much different take? The film began its upward reappraisal in 1959, when the influential critic turned filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard began singing hosannas to it, calling it the fourth-best American film of the sound era in 1963 and comparing it to The Odyssey. In the post-Vietnam era, critics began to be tickled by Ethan’s racial animus. He not only despises the Comanche, he obsessively learns their ways and imitates them. Minutes before the film ends, he scalps Scar. There is a rough moral equivalence to each side’s bloodlust, which was unusual for the era’s films.
Yet Ford doesn’t explore the agony of an endless cycle of vengeance, as in Unforgiven. Nor does he take an ironic view that American heroes can be psychotic, as The Searchers’ superfan Martin Scorsese does in Taxi Driver, essentially a Times Square take on Ford’s film. Far from being the Captain Ahab of the frontier, Ethan Edwards is not, in context, insane. His hatred and virulence toward Comanches constitute repayment in kind for their brutality, and that’s exactly how moviegoers of the 1950s would have seen the movie. (That Wayne named one of his sons after Ethan is a giveaway that he didn’t think the character was unjustly cruel.) If Ethan is racist, the film doesn’t punish him for it, nor indicate that he has changed his outlook. At the end of the film, he has simply changed his mind about the wisdom of summarily executing a defenseless teen girl. That’s an exceedingly low standard for redemption, and there is no indication that he’s learned anything more.
Ah, but what about that final shot? Do the last 30 seconds constitute a refutation and reversal of everything we’ve seen in the preceding hour and 59 minutes? I don’t think so. Ford didn’t disguise his themes. As Ethan delivers Debbie “home” (not really; all he has done is brought her to the nearest white people), he remains outside the doorway, pauses, then turns and walks away alone. The door closes on him, seemingly by itself. You could read into this scene an indication that Ethan grasps the soul-stain of his unreasoning hatred, understands that he is unfit for civilized company. Left-wing critics swoon at the thought: the ultimate American movie hero, and the ultimate conservative, stands revealed as a horrible racist! “The Searchers” is steeped in pathology — not just the director’s, but ours,” writes the leftist critic J. Hoberman. “No American movie has ever so directly addressed the psychosexual underpinnings of racism or advanced a protagonist so consumed by race hatred . . . . Ethan takes America’s sins — racism, cruelty, violence, intolerance — onto himself.”
That isn’t what Ford intended. Ethan has been a loner for the whole movie; at the outset, he refuses to take an oath to join the Texas Rangers. The mythopoetic figure of a solitary avenger on the plain strikes deep American chords, but if there is a plaintive element to that, the film doesn’t indict Ethan for who he is. Ethan Edwards is not what critics see in him — the personification of genocide, racism or derangement about sexual purity. As Ford and Wayne see it, he has simply done what had to be done to restore order in a barbaric time. It’s a lonely calling. He doesn’t enter the household because he’s no longer needed there, not because he feels shame. His next step will be another adventure, not atonement.