Continuing my education in the westerns of John Wayne (for those of you who read my review of Rio Bravo), we come to an even greater western called The Searchers. A beautifully filmed movie that was directed by the great John Ford, it features John Wayne in what may very well have been his greatest onscreen performance ever as Ethan Edwards, a Civil War soldier coming home to a tenuous welcome. When his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) and his family are massacred by Comanche Indians, he sets off on a mission of both revenge and rescue as he soon discovers that one of his nieces may still be alive. Along with him on this journey are the Texas Rangers led by the Reverend Captain Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond) and a step-nephew named Marty (Jeffrey Hunter) whom Ethan wants just about nothing to do with.
Like I said, this is a beautifully filmed western by Ford, and this is the first of his films I have ever watched. I can see why this is one of Steven Spielberg’s all-time favorite films, and I wonder if Ford’s other films are as beautifully shot as this one. We get to see wide shots of barren fields which are soon covered by snowfall. Ford makes the passing of time seem all the more evident as we go from one season to another, and we feel the years passing these characters by as they refuse to give up in their quest. It gets to where we are as desperate as them to find those innocent souls who were kidnapped.
Wayne said that of all the roles he has played, he considered Ethan Edwards from The Searchers to be his best. As a result, he later named a son of his Ethan in a respectful homage to this film. Wayne is simply amazing here as a Confederate soldier who does not feel the need to swear an oath to Texas since his work as a soldier is far more important. Ethan is not an entirely likable person, and neither Wayne nor Ford hides the fact that he is pretty racist. But you cannot help but stay with Ethan on this journey because there’s little doubt that he is justified in his pursuits.
Wayne has many amazing moments in this movie, and the strongest ones are when he doesn’t even say a word. He may appear tough and resolute one moment, but in the next shot his eyes betray the worry and hurt that tear away at Ethan’s soul. Ethan’s life was torn apart when his young after the Comanche Indians attacked his family, and it has filled him with an unapologetically raw hatred towards them. There’s a powerful moment where we see Wayne coming in from someplace he was searching, and he looks like he is about to collapse in horror. We find out later why he was acting the way he did, but what he shows without saying anything leaves a lasting impression that you cannot get out of your head.
The main relationship Wayne’s character has throughout The Searchers is with Marty, and he is played by Jeffrey Hunter who is best remembered as Captain Christopher Pike from the original pilot of Star Trek. Marty sticks with Ethan despite Ethan’s cold dismissal of him throughout because of his biracial heritage. But it becomes clear that Ethan needs Marty to keep him in check. Ethan’s racism is so deeply rooted that it could force him to take actions he may spend the rest of his life regretting. Marty soon comes to understand that Ethan would rather see a family member dead than have them be defiled by a Comanche. All we can do is hope that Ethan will move past his deep prejudices before it is too late.
Watching The Searchers today may seem a bit odd because the movie threatens to seem as racist as Wayne’s character. This movie was made back in the days of cowboys and indians, but the main villains of the piece are only one tribe of indians as well as some double-crossing white men who should have known better. Not every Indian in this movie is presented as a bad guy. In fact, one of the best moments comes when Marty finds he has inadvertently married an Indian woman when he thought he was just buying a sweater. When we later see the fate of that Indian woman later on, we find that Indians end up attacking each other over territory and that their fate is not one anyone deserves.
The movie is filled with incredible vistas that Ford captures in all their glory, and I’m convinced that viewing it today is as exciting as when it first came out. I wonder if any other filmmaker today can accomplish what Ford so long ago. We see the characters grow from the start all the way to the finish, and Ethan comes to see that he has gained a lot of respect for Marty to where he is prepared to give everything he has to Marty if he is killed. They never really become friends, but they find that they rely on each other more than they would ever admit out loud. There is a lot of heart in this movie behind all that bravado which never fully covers up the fierce insecurity of its characters.
The final shot of John Wayne standing in that doorway while the sun and wind bear down on him is one of the greatest moments in cinematic history, and it stays with you long after the movie is over. It says just about everything you need to know about Ethan in that he is a man who is destined to walk this earth alone, but who will always be doing his job as a soldier till the day he drops dead.
I’m not sure what else I can say about The Searchers that has not already been said. It is clear that it is one of the greatest westerns ever made, and nothing will ever take away from that. Although some may find that racist attitudes of Wayne’s character too much to bear, there is still so much to enjoy here. I was never in a hurry to see it, but I’m really glad that I finally did.