The Searchers |
directed by John Ford
(Warner Brothers, 1956)
Between Nixon, Nam and revisionist history, many find it difficult to enjoy the traditional western. Leone/Eastwood films, filled with cynicism and ambiguity, seem superior to Ford/Wayne films. Following this line of thought, the western is an exhausted form because its themes have been turned inside out and repudiated.
Despite such pessimism, The Searchers remains moving and relevant, and even finds director John Ford beginning to question the myths (myths he helped establish) of the West.
Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to his brother's home in Texas three years after the end of the Civil War. Nobody knows where he has been during the past three years, and he doesn't say. When Comanches kill the majority of his brother's family, Ethan sets out with Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) to find the hopefully surviving daughter, Debbie (Natalie Wood). Throughout their five-year journey, Ford works out his themes.
Ethan is a "man of action," but his five-year search for Debbie tells us less about his dedication than his inclination toward wanderlust. His search, then, seems more a continuation of his life before arriving in Texas. He is also a man of violence, willing to push the punishment of the guilty Comanches (or any Comanche) beyond the limits of those around him. His hatred so blinds him that he even wishes to destroy his niece who has been corrupted by the Comanches.
A father/son relationship develops between Ethan and Martin during these travels. Ethan's brother had adopted Martin, an orphan of a Comanche massacre. Martin wishes to recover his "sister" and becomes traveling partners with Ethan. Ethan is not an overly sympathetic or kindly father figure, but their relationship grows nonetheless, and there are even humorous moments. Eventually though, Martin will be forced to stand up to Ethan's code of violence.
The last theme works itself out during visits to the Jorgensen farm, where Ford shows us the pull and pleasures of society. The Jorgensen's daughter Laurie (Vera Miles) is hell-bent on marrying Martin -- the sooner the better. Symbols like a rocking chair, a square dance before a wedding and the pleasant disorder around a breakfast table serve as the simple touchstones of civilization. This stability is what law and order protect. Ethan, through his uncivilized anger, serves the purpose of preserving this community from the forces that threaten it.
Ford may approve of Ethan's desire to protect this Texas community, but the film is critical of his hatred and use of extreme violence. This is perhaps the split in the road where Ford chooses to question, as other directors had also begun to question, the idea of the brave, violent "man" who conquers the West. It is this questioning that raises The Searchers above earlier, more traditional westerns. This examination of Ethan also resonates today as a study of a recurring American type who combines wanderlust with a penchant for violence. The bitterness and anger within Ethan seem as potentially destructive to society as the Comanches he pursues.
Although Ethan is able to partially resolve his anger and prejudice in regard to his niece Debbie, he hardly seems a bed of tranquility at the film's end. In fact, little -- as far as Ethan goes -- seems to have been changed by the five-year journey. His character serves as a central paradox of the West itself: the searcher explores and prepares the West for civilization, but has no desire to settle in it. His violent ways are in fact the antitheses of a civilized culture. While the Texas community finds a catharsis by the end of The Searchers, Ethan must move on, traveling to an unknown destiny.