We are inside a darkened room before a closed door. A female figure approaches and opens it wide, revealing a glorious Technicolor landscape framed by the shadows of the door. The camera tracks forward, following the woman outside into the full cinematic splendour of the American West. As the viewer absorbs the VistaVision colours, the camera pans to the right to find Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) riding into focus.
The opening shot of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) is spectacular. The contrast between the shadows of the interior and bright exterior allows the landscape to burst onto the screen. Similar shots (dark interiors framing bright exteriors) are repeated throughout the film. They emphasise the vastness of the landscape and the futility and insignificance of human settlement in such an immense, rugged, unforgiving landscape. Indeed landscape and nature feature large in this film: the wide frame is used to its full effect in showing vast, empty spaces. The people that survive in this environment are as wild and unforgiving as their surroundings.
In the opening shot, Edwards has just returned home from a long absence. A former soldier, it is implied that following the war, he may have been involved in illicit activities. When the subject is broached, he refuses to discuss it. Edwards is a man of action, not words. When Comanches massacre his family and his nieces are kidnapped, Edwards cannot rest until he has avenged these deaths and retrieved his nieces. His obsessive hunt for revenge lasts for years.
While John Wayne dominates this film and does so with his prerequisite heightened masculinity and hard-man persona, he gives an undeniably subtle and complex performance. Things left unsaid, actions that occur off screen, are often the most interesting. What did Edwards do in the years after the war but before he came home? How did he get those bags of money? How did he acquire his knowledge of Comanche customs, beliefs and language? Is the story of what happened to him in the canyon the truth? Is the love between him and his sister-in-law imagined or real? Is it unrequited? Is his brother aware of it?
Ethan Edwards is a man whose rage barely conceals a crushing pain – he is grief sticken, an emotional wreck whose grief occasionally surfaces only to be suppressed by his anger. Grief fuels his anger, powers his obsession. Ethan Edwards is a man driven by his obsessions, by his prejudices and, above all, by his thirst for revenge. It is these prejudices, however, that prove the film’s major difficulty. There’s no denying that the film has a fiercely racist bite that is more than a little uncomfortable to watch. The most blatant instance of this occurs when Edwards is presented with a group of women recently rescued from the Comanches. They are portrayed as wide-eyed, grinning psychotics – live among the natives for long enough and you lose your mind being the clear implication. As Edwards puts it, they are no longer white. This attitude is, probably, accurate to the period in which the film is set. Arguably, and more worryingly, it could even be accurate for the time in which it was made. As uncomfortable as this is, the temptation to place modern standards of racism on a classic film should be avoided.
Jeffrey Hunter, as Martin, joins Edwards on his journey. The adoptive son of the slain family, he shares the need to rescue his sister. Wayne initially shows resentment towards him and is openly rude to him at a family meal but gradually comes to accept him. They spend years together, travelling from place to place in search of clues. It could be argued that a level of surrogate father-son relationship develops between them, although it is not always clear which man fits into which role. Edwards frequently protects Martin from the more horrible realities of the film – the sight of body of his aunt for example. He also withholds stories of the fates of other characters close to him. On the other hand Martin tries to be a calming influence on Edwards and to tame him when his temper or prejudice clouds his judgement.
The main thrust of the plot is heavy stuff. Necessary comedic value is found in the supporting cast, particularly Hank Worden as Mose whose life revolves around the hospitality of a rocking chair. Martin has a girlfriend (Vera Miles) waiting at home and a sub plot is devoted to her and her parents waiting for Martin’s return and her being wooed by another suitor. I particularly like the father’s habit of putting on his reading glasses every time a letter is read – whether he is reading it himself or not. The comedy highlight of the film, however, is found in an absurdly slapstick fight between Martin and his rival.
Traditionally the pursuit of vengeance would be portrayed positively in this genre. Interestingly, in this film, Wayne’s character is clearly not heroic: he shoots people in the back, has to be prevented from killing his niece, ignores pleas not to lead Martin into a life of the endless pursuit of revenge and even cuts short the funeral service. The resolution of the search lacks satisfaction for Edwards. He accepts his niece into the family again but is apparently unable to rejoin the family himself. Additionally, and again going against genre norms, it is Martin, rather than Edwards, who finally kills Scar, the Comanche chief that destroyed his family.
The last shot of the film shows that, without war, without his search, Edwards is lost. He has brought back his niece and she is taken inside the house, followed by the welcoming party. As they enter, they become silhouettes, enveloped by the shadow of the interior. The camera tracks back with them until the doorway frames the bright exterior. Wayne comes as far as the door but does not enter. For the first time, he seems unsure of what to do with himself and wanders around aimlessly. On the soundtrack a song repeats the lyric ‘ride away’ and we fade to black. This is not a comfortable ending – it lacks resolution. It is, however, fitting. Edwards entered the film from nowhere, crossing an empty landscape and the viewer was not told anything substantial about what happened to the character prior to the start of the film. In some ways it is fitting that it should end this way – Edwards cannot enter because he doesn’t belong. Like the opening shot, the contrast between light and dark emphasises the contrast between wildness and domesticity. The implication is clear, Edwards belongs outside in the wild, he cannot be domesticated.
The Searchers is a western that attempts to subvert some of the ideals of heroism in typical westerns. It does this on a screen that is dominated by some of the most expressive uses of the iconic western landscape ever put on the screen. It is a film that is dominated by a savage anger and fierce obsession; a film of contradictions and prejudices. It is a film that asks many more questions than it answers and, for those questions it does answer, doesn’t always provide comfortable answers. It isn’t the best American Western but it does come close. Ford’s spectacular depiction of landscape would influence David Lean on Lawrence of Arabia and its style and influence would be heavily felt a few years later when Spaghetti Westerns began to emerge.
© Calum Campbell 2012