A lone rider, dust-caked and grizzled, approaches a ranch house in the distant reaches of West Texas. Ethan Edwards – played by John Wayne in perhaps his most powerful role – is a Confederate soldier returning to the home of his brother Aaron three years after the Civil War has ended. Where he has been and what he has done are not clear, but his saddlebags are stuffed with freshly minted Yankee dollars.
His arrival precedes tragic and traumatic events. His brother and beloved sister-in-law and two of their children will be slaughtered in a Comanche raid, and his 9-year-old niece, Debbie, abducted by their killers. Ethan and his adopted nephew, Martin Pauley, will launch a five-year search to get her back.
“The Searchers” is set in the waning days of the 40-year struggle between Texans and Comanches – the longest war fought on American soil – and it depicts the terrible price each side inflicted on the other. But the 1956 movie is anything but a museum piece. It explores themes of gender, race and sexual violence that are stunningly modern.
The taming of the frontier, even as portrayed in the Western, was never as morally straightforward as it seemed. We’re still wrestling with its legacy in the controversies over the Washington Redskins and Johnny Depp’s portrait of Tonto.
Directed by John Ford, “The Searchers” is widely recognized as one of the best Hollywood films of all time. Largely overlooked in its time, it has captivated three generations of filmgoers.
The film’s images – the door of a cabin swinging open to reveal the vast grandeur of Monument Valley in the opening moment, and closing again at the end; Indians stalking a band of Texas Rangers on a horizon; two lone riders set against a blazing evening sunset – are among the most majestic in American cinema and the most copied. The emotions of sadness, grief, lost love, terror and defiance that it captures are among the most resonant.
Ford is responsible for the film’s visual poetry – its skill in moving from the intimacy of family life to the terrible beauty of the sandstone cathedrals and vast obliterating plains of Monument Valley, where it was shot – as well as its deep and unsettling emotions.
But at the heart of “The Searchers” is Wayne’s towering performance as the angry, vengeful Ethan Edwards. From the beginning of his quest, it is clear he is less interested in rescuing Debbie than in wreaking vengeance. And as time goes by, and she grows into a young woman, he resolves to kill her because she has come of an age to become a Comanche wife and has been physically and spiritually polluted.
Because he is played by John Wayne, we identify with Ethan’s quest even as we recoil from his purpose. He draws us in, making us complicit in his terrible vendetta.
“Wayne is plainly Ahab,” wrote critic Greil Marcus. “He is the good American hero driving himself past all known limits and into madness, his commitment to honor and decency burned down to a core of vengeance.”
Ethan represents the macho, war-without-end solution to ethnic conflict and terrorism. His modern heir is Maya, the do-whatever-it-takes heroine of “Zero Dark Thirty” – like Ethan a loner who alienates potential allies and co-workers in a single-minded pursuit of justice and retribution against the enemy. Martin Pauley’s goal, by contrast, is to rescue his adopted sister and reunite the remnants of their shattered family. It’s a classic struggle between love and hate, as relevant to today’s extended savage wars as it was when it was released 57 years ago.
Based on Alan LeMay’s powerful novel (loosely based on a true story), “The Searchers” presents a troubling and racist portrait. In the opening scenes, Ford depicts Comanches as rapacious barbarians. Yet later, we see a smoldering Indian village in which the corpses of men and women are sprawled in the snow, slaughtered by soldiers. And we learn that the evil war chief Scar, who led the raid on the Edwards family, had lost two of his own sons to whites. Scar and Ethan become two sides of the same coin, wounded warriors united by hatred.
What will happen when Ethan Edwards catches up with his niece? Will he wreak his terrible revenge? Film critic David Thomson said that “because of its mystery,” he has been compelled to watch “The Searchers” again and again. “And every time, I find, I’m not sure how it’s going to end. …”
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