The Searchers (1956)

Dir. John Ford. Starring John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Henry Brandon

The diagetic portions of this movie begin with a surprisingly striking image: a woman stands in a doorway, black in the way Pierre-Auguste Renoir said a painting should never use black, her silhouette blocking the majestic view of the ostensibly Texan skyline. (It’s Monument Valley, in Utah. Thank goodness they didn’t shoot that part in Texas.) The image is repeated throughout the film, especially in front of caverns; for that reason, it screams “birth” to me, the light at the end of a tunnel. (Maybe the movie should have been called Birth of a Miscegenation.) Or maybe, because this is the American West and it’s less than ten years after the publication of A Sand County Almanac, it says something about what people do to The Land; we block it, circumvent it, are our own obstacles to understanding and appreciating it. Or maybe it’s a statement about a different set of white American ethics, that we have to come out of the darkness and into the light in our thinking about topics like “how the West was won.”

When I talked about Sweet Smell of Success a little more than a week ago, I spent a lot of time mentioning that it’s the kind of film that people who look for movies via a canon have to search a little harder for. The Searchers is not that film. Even though, for a Johns Ford and Wayne picture, it went fairly unnoticed during its own time, it has become the Western, even more so than The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly or Stagecoach or Red River. It is shot beautifully; this was the first time I watched a John Ford movie with any semblance of knowledge about direction, and I was awed.

You watch Django Unchained and it’s called a “Southern” and it’s a clear riff on Westerns, but how can a movie decide to riff off a genre and then miss the most important feature? For Django Unchained, for as much as I love that movie, takes place inside. What self-respecting Western limits itself to speeding dialogue and the indoors? What The Searchers does right is what David Lean does right in Lawrence of Arabia less than a decade later: use the vast scope of The Land to show the smallness – and the intimacy – of the characters. Django uses The Land in montages as a backdrop slightly more real than greenscreen; The Searchers makes the crags obstacles for horses in a search party, directs rivers to become a natural line of defense against a Comanche charge, turns a herd of bison into a wild shooting frenzy to make sure the Comanches can’t eat some of them and maybe they’ll starve. The plot turns on The Land, and the gap between The Land and what the humans make is vital to the film.

At any rate, I mention the critical background of The Searchers because it means for someone writing an obscure blog in the Utah of the Internet, there’s not much left to talk about. Unless I feel like sitting here and talking about Ward Bond’s Texas Ranger who, amusingly, is equal parts parson and cavalry captain, and maybe discussing Ward Bond’s niche as the guy in the back end of the credits of massive acclaimed American movies, there probably isn’t much new ground to cover. (That would not necessarily be a bad post.)

The old ground, for its own part, is fascinating. You can talk gender roles all day in this movie; Laurie (Vera Miles) is like Laurey in Oklahoma!: self-possessed, sexy, confident, and, mercifully for American manhood, never very far from the house. The rest of the women are practically crones, even if they do have brains. Marty’s accidental Indian wife, “Look,” may as well have come out of Peter Pan for all the nuance she gets. All the old tropes about Native Americans are brought out in this movie, incidentally: roving, dangerous people who exist to bedevil the whitefolks. Many of the Native Americans are played by Native Americans, which I was not prepared for. But the most important Native American, the creatively named “Scar,” in the movie is played by a guy who was born in Germany as Heinrich von Kleinbach. But for all of those flaws, and I believe in giving credit to people from the past who are smarter than their accidental time of birth, Scar gets a voice. He is sarcastic – he gets an epic mic drop at one point in the movie, at the expense of John Wayne – but also human. He has kids, too, or had them: two of his sons were killed by white men. I’m not an expert on Westerns, but often as not Native Americans seem deprived even of language, much less empathetic expression.

And, most famously, this is the movie about miscegenation. This is the movie where Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) looks on as his sidekick tries to decide if one of the girls that the U.S. Cavalry has reclaimed from the Native Americans might be the one they’re looking for. When the women cannot even speak English, but only smile vacantly or cry until they hear bells:

Officer: It’s hard to believe they’re white.

Ethan: They ain’t white. Not anymore.

It’s the movie about the express fear that the whites and the non-whites will have sex and you won’t be able to tell who’s with you and who’s Other, and maybe they’ll even have children which clutter up the land with their in-betweenness. Jeffrey Hunter’s character, Marty Pawley, is one-eighth Cherokee; for Americans who think like Jem Finch, that “once you have a drop of Negro blood, that makes you all black,” might that make Marty the first Native American protagonist in a Western? What makes that laudable is that Marty is sympathetic: idealistic, forgiving, brave, aw-shucksing his way through his relationships with men and women alike. Of course, maybe part of the reason he’s sympathetic is because Marty is blue-eyed like fellow John Wayne sidekick Jimmy Stewart. Part of the reason he’s sympathetic is because he’s on a rescue mission to reclaim a white woman (maybe) from those rapin’ and scalpin’ redmen infesting the plains where white men try to scratch out a livin’.

Or maybe part of the reason he’s sympathetic is because he’s not Ethan Edwards. Ethan Edwards rides out of the Texan desert in 1868, still wearing his Confederate uniform and his saber that he never surrendered. He is distant. He and his brother obviously don’t get along, but he and his sister-in-law certainly do. He seems to like children okay; the kids are mostly annoying in the way kids are – and the kids are weird ’50s transplants just as much as Kiernan Shipka and the twenty-five actors playing Bobby Draper are weird 2010s transplants – but he indulges them, even giving his nephew the sword he didn’t give up to the Yankees. He picks up Debbie and holds her high above him; Debbie is the youngest of the bunch, and he is clearly pleased with her brightness. It could not be more obvious at the beginning of the movie that she is his daughter, but it might be more obvious near the movie’s end. And it could not be made more obvious that, as is perhaps fitting for a Confederate veteran, there’s no small amount of racism floating around ol’ Ethan’s mind. He freezes the table when he meets Marty for the second time; when Marty’s parents were killed by Native Americans, he was only a baby, and Ethan deposited him with his brother. Something in Marty’s face now catches Ethan’s attention. He makes a comment about “half-breeds.” Marty, with admirable aplomb, makes a response in which he makes it clear he’s an eighth-breed; seven-eighths are “Welsh ‘n English,” but the other one is Cherokee.

Of course, the plot is about searching for Debbie. The men are drawn off, almost giddily, on a wild ride to track some cattle the Comanche stole from a landowner named Jorgensen (John Qualen). When they find the cattle lanced, Ethan sees it all clearly, maybe the first proof of his usefulness on the frontier within his community: it was a ruse. It’s a Comanch’ lance. It’s a “murder raid.” And sure enough, Ethan finds his lover and his brother and his nephew, little more than a child, dead in the flames. The girls are missing. Lucy is quickly accounted for: dead, in some nameless canyon. There’s a marvelous subtlety in this movie when Lucy’s beau,  can’t get the question out: “Did they…? Was she…?” I had assumed that he wanted to know if she was raped. There’s some evidence, based on a later scene, if he wanted to know if she had been scalped. Ethan gets angry. He doesn’t want to “spell it out,” and he forbids that man to ask him “as long as you live.” (It’s not much longer. He may as well have been wearing a red shirt. And like Lucy, like Aaron and Dorothy and Ben, his death occurs offscreen; we never do see the bodies.)

Ethan is the quintessence of dust. When his family is killed, the town all but assumes that Debbie and Lucy are dead as well; one woman goes as far to say that as much as she loved those girls, he oughtn’t to sacrifice more lives just to exert revenge. But Ethan spends five years of his life tracking down Debbie; his will is inexorable, his endurance inexhaustible. He is shown in the snow more than once (which I guess they must have in the Southwest? Maybe?), and he is shown wearing a hat for all seasons, going full sombrero when he goes to New Mexico. He does everything but go ’round the Norway Maelstrom looking for his daughter whom he barely knows. Or is this remarkable show of desire, of pursuit without rest, a statement about how far he’ll go to realize his revenge? Either way, it certainly isn’t about justice.

Marty recognizes that. He leaves Laurie over and over again (and defying Ethan’s attempt to set him up with Laurie and the Jorgensens for a comfortable and profitable life) because he’s afraid that when Ethan finds Debbie, Ethan will kill her. No doubt she’ll have been raped by the savages; no doubt that she will speak their language; she may not even be white anymore. He is concerned that Ethan will try to execute an honor killing. (You know, that thing that only those heathen Muslims do now. Which makes white people with national audiences get on the television and say, “They don’t value human life the way we do” while the Ferguson intifada goes on in the background. I don’t know if Einstein actually said that human stupidity was infinite, but the irony which arises from stupidity sure has a chance at infinity.)

It comes down to exactly that. Ethan and Marty track Scar to New Mexico, sitting in his tent, looking at some of the scalps he’s collected, “agreeing” to meet tomorrow when both Ethan and Scar recognize that it’s really a plan to kill the former. Debbie is there, fourteen years old, dressed as the Comanche women dress. She leaves the tent, searches for her father and her adopted brother, tries to tell them that Scar will be along soon with his men to kill them. Marty goes to her, tries to convince her to run off with them. And then Ethan pulls out his revolver. Even after ninety-plus minutes of plot in which Ethan’s madness is exposed, it’s a shock when Marty has to stand in front of Debbie (Natalie Wood, because girls born of Russian parents can be Native American and Hispanic), completely blocking her. The shot is framed beautifully, because you can’t even see Natalie Wood behind Jeffrey Hunter, and you know that if Ethan thought there were even a small window to shoot through, he would do it. To ensure that his daughter stays white – to ensure that she isn’t part of any sex, even if it might be consensual – to ensure that she is not Other – he is willing to shoot her down after spending five years of his life looking for her. This is the consummation devoutly to be wish’d.

Of course, it doesn’t happen: Scar shows up with his men, Ethan is shot with an arrow, and he and Marty retreat to a cave that bears a really strong resemblance to that opening shot in the doorway. It looks like it’s going to be The Wild Bunch sans machine gun, but it doesn’t turn out that way, because John Ford was many things, but he was not Sam Peckinpah. And, in the end, after a surprise attack on the Comanche village in which Scar is killed and there is a chase where it looks like Ethan will run down and kill Debbie – maybe even scalp her, like he did Scar – and it’s all seen from yet another cave that frames the image and reminds us how the picture started – it doesn’t happen. He holds her high in the air like he did five years before in his brother’s home, and then he holds her like a baby and says the inexplicable words, “Let’s go home.”

It’s not long between Ethan’s interrupted murder attempt and “Let’s go home,” certainly not within the context of the time he spent tracking her. Is the moral of the story that even racists have feelings? Or that even racists can change? I hope not. Ethan is not a redeemable man. Toughness is not a substitute for decency, nor is gruffness a substitute for affection; single-mindedness and wisdom rarely meet. There is a lot of bad in Ethan Edwards, and his “rescue” of a young woman who seems to have been okay with her station – especially when that rescue comes at the expense of many lives over five years, both among the whites and the Comanche – does not make up for the evil that thrives within him. The film doesn’t have an easy answer to this question, largely because I’m not sure the film knows the answer. Is it possible to be John Wayne or John Ford, with decades of Westerns under your belt and a public image to maintain, with years of schooling in separate-but-equal schools which created a dominant discourse of Columbus the hero and the Lost Cause, with no conception of what the Other is really like but only a conception of what white people have made the Other out as, and have an answer to that question? It’s the same kind of question that we may well ask ourselves today about the assassination of Clementa Pinckney and his eight friends by a terrorist, or the war on the rights to women’s bodies, or about the reactions on the day when love won which wondered if that day was an American tragedy.

The Searchers, I think, is a story about salvation by works. The problem is, if you’d ask Ethan Edwards (or his real-life, modern-day descendants), they’d tell you that there is only justification by faith.

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