I’ve always been a little dubious of John Ford’s reputation as one of the great film-makers. I’ve rarely dislike a movie as much as I disliked his The Grapes of Wrath. If any movie was going to overcome this scepticism I thought perhaps it might be The Searchers. It’s probably his most admired film and it is after all a western, the genre with which he’s most closely associated.
A classic western starts with a mysterious stranger riding into town. In this case there’s no town, just an isolated homestead, and Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) isn’t quite a stranger. He’s the brother of the homesteader, Aaron Edwards. He is however very much an outsider, and there’s plenty of mystery to him. He’d gone off to fight for the Confederacy in the Civil War, but the war has been over for three years. He doesn’t say where he’s been since then, or explain why he still has his sabre (which should have been given up at the surrender). There’s a suggestion that there’s a cloud over him, that there may be something dishonourable or questionable in his past.
Not long after his arrival he sets off with the Texas Rangers to find some cattle rustlers but the cattle thefts were a ruse, and he returns to find that a Comanche war party has slaughtered his brother’s family and a neighbouring family as well. All except two girls who are carried off as prisoners. Ethan Edwards and Martin Pawley, a part-Cherokee orphan who had been adopted by the Edwards family, set out to find the two girls. One of the girls, Lucy, is soon found, raped and killed by the Comanches. But Ethan and Martin are determined to find Ethan’s niece Debbie, who would now be fifteen.
It’s an epic search. Five years later they finally come across a good lead and believe they may be close to finding her. But the nature of their search has changed, or at least it has changed for Ethan. They have reason to think that Debbie has been married off to a Comanche brave. Martin still wants to bring her home, but Ethan’s objective is now to kill her. His motives are mixed - partly a horror of the girl’s being tainted by marriage to a Comanche, partly a belief that Debbie would be better off dead than living with the Comanches. It seem likely that when they do find her one of them will have to kill the other.
The movie has some definite flaws. There’s some cringe-inducing comic relief and a length and apparently irrelevant romantic sub-plot involving Martin Pawley and the daughter of a Swedish homesteader.
These flaws pale into insignificance compared to the film’s strengths.
First of all it’s visually magnificent, and this is not merely spectacle for spectacle’s sake but serves to emphasise the epic scale of the quest, and the epic scale of Ethan’s obsession.
It’s a morally and psychologically complex film. There are atrocities committed by both sides, and when Ethan tracks down the Comanche chief who kidnapped Debbie he finds a man who is a mirror image of himself, consumed by an obsessive desire for revenge and warped by fear and hatred. Ethan hates the Comanches but he knows a good deal about their culture and speaks their language fluently. He has clearly had a good deal to do with the Comanches in the past.
Modern audiences brought up in an atmosphere of political correctness may be inclined to see Ethan as a villain but that would be a misunderstanding of his character. While his intention to kill Debbie may be shocking and deeply misguided he genuinely believes it’s his duty to do so, that it’s a necessary act of compassion. And his quest for revenge can hardly be said to be unprovoked violence on his part, given that he’s seen almost his entire family butchered.
Ethan is a tragic figure, a man who is alone and seems destined to remain forever an outsider. And this makes the apparently irrelevant comic relief and romantic sub-plots suddenly make sense. There’s a world in which life goes on, people continue to have fun, fall in love and raise families, and Ethan is forever shut out of this world of light, condemned to live as an outsider and pursued by his personal demons.
The movie’s biggest single strength is John Wayne’s performance. It’s a subtle and moving performance. He personally regarded it as his greatest role.
It’s a disturbing movie, and whatever your feelings about the issues involved, wherever you may happen to be on the political spectrum, you’ll still find it disturbing. There are no easy simplistic answers offered here. It truly is a great movie.
And the final shot in the movie is surely one of the greatest endings in movie history.