John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) has an almost unparalleled reputation, hailed as the greatest Western of all time and receiving Sight and Sound accolades. Personally, I simultaneously like the film, but also struggle to see why it enjoys such enduring acclaim.
The first shot of the film is an iconic and fantastic one. Initially showing a woman’s silhouette in a doorway, then moving out to show one of the arid vistas that John Ford’s Western’s were so associated with. The plot sees Ethan, played by John Wayne, returning to his extended family after a long time away at war. Soon after, the dreaded Comanche launch a ‘murder raid’ on the family farm, after luring Ethan and some of the other men away from the homestead. Ethan and the others realise that two of the young women have been spared and captured by the Comanche. So they ride out after them. I think the narrative is why the film does not work 100% for me. For starters, I do not entirely feel that Ethan and his comrades are that enthused by the chase. They seem to just be going through the motions. Aside from Ethan’s racism, it is hard to see why they persist in hunting for the Comanche year after year (Ethan does not seem to express that much affection for the girls who have been taken). I guess I just do not see the emotional connection to the girl that they are so intent on reclaiming. The other issue I have is that the film struggles to convey the passage of time through the film. The hunt takes place over the best part of a decade, but it does not feel anywhere near that long.
I do quite like this film. It is one of John Wayne’s better performances and a number of the peripheral characters undertake really quite interesting journeys throughout. But unfortunately it is somewhat inevitable that a review of an all time classic that I just do not quite get to the same degree as the consensus will slant a little negative. So apologies for that. I just do not enjoy it as much as a number of other Westerns – Shane (1953), Stagecoach (1939) and One Eyed Jacks (1961) all spring to mind. I think that whilst the real core of those films is made quite plain by the filmmakers, with The Searchers, you really have to dig for it. I think that the most interesting aspect of the film is the character of Ethan. His return from war, then his almost immediate leaving to go out on another ‘war’ of sorts, suggests that he is damaged goods. A man that cannot live without the thrill and focus that a war to fight brings. He needs violence and the ability to inflict violence to get by. This is not just evidenced by his endless pursuit of the Comanche, but also in his interactions with his peers.
The film is quite dark, pulling no punches in setting up the story. Indeed this dark vein never really leaves the film (nor is it really lightened by comedic relief at all, despite some pretty poor comedic relief characters trying their best) – see the moment that Ethan shoots out the eyes of a slain Comanche so that, according to Comanche belief, he will wander purgatory for all of eternity. I have heard differing views concerning the depiction of Native Americans in the film. Personally, I did not think it was at all forward thinking. For much of it, they are two dimensional, wicked villains, with no examination of the motivations of their actions. The Comanche are portrayed as simple minded and backward and overall I just found it all a little degrading. I think the film does improve in the second half. Rather than overplaying the grizzled old man persona to excess, here Wayne seems to loosen up a little and some of that delightfully typical John Wayne humour starts to shine through. And there are some highpoints to the narrative throughout this second half as well, both in terms of emotion and action.
The bottom line is that you should definitely try and see The Searchers, because many a wiser film student than I considers it an all time classic. And I really enjoy it, albeit to a level that does not match its considerable reputation. But if you are willing to dig into the nuance and depth of John Wayne’s character, there is a bit to be found here.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
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