#160 The Searchers
(1956, John Ford)
“We’ll find ‘em in the end, I promise you, just as sure as the turning of the Earth”
I feel that it’s about time we looked at a Western, one genre that’s largely gone unnoticed on the blog so far, bar a remake (True Grit) and a Korean action western (The Good, The Bad, The Weird). But what about the old classic Westerns? The John Waynes and the Clint Eastwoods? Well, here’s the first: The Searchers, a movie generally held up to be one of the best Westerns ever made.
Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) has returned home from the Civil War after a three year absence. Despite welcoming smiles from his family, it’s clear that Ethan has experienced a lot in his time away and is a much more aggressive man. When a pack of natives attack his home, kill several of his loved ones and kidnap his young niece, he vows vengeance on the Comanche tribe. He sets off in search of his niece with the help of his nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), and as their journey progresses, it becomes clear how much Ethan irrationally hates the natives and how much of a danger he is to himself and others.
OK, I’m gonna be honest here. I’ve never been particularly interested in Westerns and, in my opinion, if The Searchers is the best the genre has produced, then it’s clear why I’ve never been particularly impressed. This movie, despite all its accolades, did not win me over.
So where did it go so wrong? Well, first of all, the movie centres around the emotional turmoil of Ethan having his family murdered (by a race of people he’s not particularly fond of at the best of times), but I never felt that connected to his family or got a strong sense of how much he cared for them. There are a lot of scenes early on designed to set up this relationship, but they feel so busy and cluttered with characters that everyone just blends into one another. No one ever gets a particularly strong introduction and as a result I never really sympathise with anyone.
One scene in particular springs to mind; Ethan has returned home and is about to have dinner with his family. Rather than an intimate, honest display of family interaction, the scene feels distant due to a distracting and unnecessary score running throughout, which occasionally threatens to drown out the dialogue. On top of this, everyone is played fairly blandly, including Ethan himself, who tends to not look particularly pleased to be with his family in the first place. Never a good start.
Beyond this, there were a few other issues here. The introduction of Martin’s love interest about halfway through the story changes the way the story is told, and it feels awkward. The movie starts out seemingly from Ethan’s point of view, but at this halfway point it shifts uncomfortably towards Martin’s, reverting to being told as if it’s a flashback relayed through a letter to this love interest. The perspective leaps around so much that it just widens the emotional distance from the audience.
There were also moments when the movie shifted tone without warning. Naturally, with a revenge plot, you’d expect the movie to be a little dark, but there were far too many out-of-place jovial moments. For example, one portion of the movie sees Ethan frowned upon for murdering a man…except we see him murder him, and at that point, it’s played like it was awesome and even gets a joke tacked on the end, completely confusing the tone of the movie overall. An extended sequence where Martin gets accidentally married to a native woman also feels awkward and out of place.
There is also the fact that Ethan is such a tremendously unlikeable character. Wayne plays him in an almost expressionless manner, but on top of that, he remains moody and borderline racist as a character. Even before they attack his family, Ethan shows an irrational disdain for the natives, and quite often feels like he’d wander into their camps and murder everyone in an instant if he could. Sure, it’s a sensible characterisation, but he’s given next to no likeable characteristics we can offset this with. The huge focus on him (even when the perspective switches to Martin, we’re more viewing Ethan through his eyes rather than giving Martin the spotlight) makes the movie somewhat unlikeable too.
What’s more, the movie itself seems to have a negative attitude towards the natives too. While attacks on settlers’ homesteads would certainly have occurred in the Old West, the natives are presented in such one-dimensional terms that it just feels like a clichéd “them durn Indians are no good” plot more than anything else.
It’s hard to see why The Searchers is so highly praised. I found it to be a plodding, confused mess and, while it looked pretty, it didn’t have much else going for it.
Starring John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond & Natalie Wood
Written by Alan Le May (novel) and Frank S. Nugent
Produced by Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography by Winton C. Hoch
Edited by Jack Murray
Favourite Scene: Honestly can’t think of one, I’m afraid
Scene That Bugged Me: The family dinner scene had really bad sound editing, dumping an unnecessary score over all the dialogue and making it hard to hear anything.
Watch it if: You’re a John Wayne fan, I guess
Avoid it if: You want more than just “yeah let’s kill them Injuns”