50 years, 50 films Vol II: The Searchers (1956)
Our series slips into 1956 and revels in John Ford’s most acclaimed western
It’s hard to write about the western (about good westerns, anyway) without invoking the notion of “myth”. Consideration of John Ford’s The Searchers illustrates the point forcefully. It’s not just that the most peculiar and poetic of the great man’s frontier stories scares up all kinds of Greek and Roman predecessors. The film has, itself, become a myth that informs much of the American cinema that followed in its wake.
You will see pastiches of that great final shot everywhere: John Wayne steps away from the homestead and allows the door to close behind him. He is the great American individualist who refuses to be tamed by the civilising influences of the frontier project. Paul Schrader has allowed that, when writing Taxi Driver, he had The Searchers in mind as a model. You can see what he was getting at. Based on a story by Alan Le May, the western concerns Ethan Edwards, a troubled, unstoppably racist Civil War veteran, who spends many years searching for a niece who has been captured by the Comanches. As the story progresses, we get the sense that Ethan may be planning to kill the girl. A charismatic brave named Scar has, it seems, taken her for his own and Ethan doesn’t much like the notion of all the carnal mingling between races.
There is, on reflection, less ambiguity to Taxi Driver. Travis Bickle is, by any meaningful definition, clinically insane. His opinions may reflect those of wider society (remember the letter at the end), but they manifest themselves in a derangement that sets the cabbie apart from all ordinary men. The Vietnam war was awful. New York is screwed. We know what created Travis, but he never feel any sympathy for him.
Edwards is much closer to being the hero of the story. After all, he is played by John Wayne: a man who acts as his own Mount Rushmore. Watch the film after a few drinks while flicking backwards and forwards from the football (as if you would!) and you could take him for a decent man seeking to do what decent men do in westerns. This was, after all, a few years before Hollywood began teaching itself to love the Native American. The Comanche really are a force of malign destruction in The Searchers. Not only are they brutal but — consider the diversion at the beginning — they are also devious. All that noted, Edwards’s apparent believe that intimate contact with the first Americans will contaminate a white woman establishes him as only slightly less terrifying than Travis. Come to think of it, Bickle is always open to the notion of saving Iris. Ethan needs to be persuaded that such rescue is possible.
Of all John Ford’s pictures, The Searchers remains the least tied to the genre’s conventions. We are not in a fort facing encirclement. The bad guy has not arrived in town. Ethan and his posse are cast adrift and that allows the myth to impose itself on their wanderings. The freedom also permits Ford and his team — cameraman Winton C Hoch most notably — full scope to stretch and innovate. We see more of the nation in The Searchers than we have any right to expect. Critics are always jabbering about the Great American Novel. This strange beast does have some claims to being The Great American Movie. We travel from the snow-covered mountains on to baking Mexican borderlands. Max Steiner (born in Vienna) offers soaring chords that sound as American as anything by Russian Jew Aaron Copland. At the end of it all we come to a conclusion that has greeted so many stories from the immigrant continent: the men who created civilisation can’t really live in it.
Now untouchable in the pantheon, The Searchers came in at number seven in the most recent Sight and Sound poll. Tara Brady, of these pages, identified it as her favourite film in that list. Fair enough. No wonder it bullied its way into this series. Also in competition from 1956 were Forbidden Planet, Written on the Wind, All that Heaven Allows, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Bigger than Life and The Killing.