John Wayne and John Ford made numerous movies together, many of them Westerns. And yes, a couple do appear on the AFI list.
The first one I’m covering is the 1956 film The Searchers.
I mentioned during the Unforgiven write up that I personally prefer a Clint Eastwood Western to a John Wayne Western. That said, my dad was the John Wayne fan, and yes, we watched The Searchers together. I don’t think he’s ever said one way or the other, but I think this one might have been his favorite. If so, it’s a good choice. Just about everything that makes a Western from the two Johns, Wayne and Ford, is seen as a prime example in The Searchers.
As with many Westerns, the ultimate theme is often bringing “civilization” to a wild and untamed land, and how some men don’t fit into this world. These men–and they are always men–won’t fit in as the world changes around them, and there is no way that Wayne’s Ethan Edwards can fit into that civilization anymore. The year is 1868, the place is Texas, and Ethan is only now coming home to his brother’s homestead. The Civil War may be over, and Ethan fought for the Confederacy, and even if the side he fought for surrendered didn’t mean he did.
That’s the key to Ethan’s character. He doesn’t surrender.
His homecoming seems to be going well. His brother Aaron and sister-in-law Martha are pleased to see him, as are their three children in the form of daughters Lucy and Debbie and son Ben. Heck, the boy they more or less adopted, an orphan Ethan himself brought home after Indians killed his parents, one Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), is glad to see him. The problem is, Ethan doesn’t seem to be all that pleased to see Martin. Martin’s a bit darker, and Ethan figures him to be part-Indian. He’s not wrong. Martin is, by his own estimation, about one-eighth Cherokee. Ethan doesn’t care much for the Natives, and he doesn’t shy away from showing it.
But when Comanches raid and draw most of the men in the area away, Ethan’s family is attacked. Aaron, Martha and Ben are all killed, and Debbie and Lucy are taken. Ethan and Martin, having gone with the search party, are the only free survivors, and the warchief responsible is known only as Scar. And then it comes down to Ethan essentially following the Comanches for five years. Lucy is killed off-screen (and rather badly from the sounds of things), but still Ethan and Martin are tracking Scar’s warband. Initially, it would seem to be to rescue Debbie. The problem is the Comanches will raise Debbie as one of their own given her age. The final conflict comes in for Martin. While Ethan speaks a good bit of Spanish and even a bit of various Native dialects, knows the Comanche’s culture, and is good in a fight, by the time the pair find Scar and Debbie, it’s uncertain if Ethan wants to rescue the now-adult Debbie (Natalie Wood) or kill her.
Martin stays if for no other reason than to ensure Ethan doesn’t kill his niece.
And that’s the big mystery. Ethan has nothing but hatred in his heart for the Comanche and even questions whether or not a white girl raised as a Comanche deserves to be thought of as white and if they might be better off dead.
Now, in the end, yes, Ethan rescues Debbie because John Wayne isn’t going to end the movie as a villain.
But he also ends the movie alone. Famously, the movie begins and ends with a shot through the door of a house looking out on the landscape. At the beginning, Ethan is seen riding in. At the end, after Ethan has delivered Debbie to safety with a friendly family, all the present characters enter the house except for Ethan. He stands outside, turns to walk away, and the door closes behind him. He’s not a man for civilization. The audience should know that after seeing the actions of the previous two hours. Just because he set aside his hatred for the Comanche to save Debbie doesn’t mean he really fits in with the others. He never really considered Martin as “kin”. And let’s face it: if his family mattered to him more than his wars, he would have come home much sooner.
Now, Ford had his themes on the spread of civilization, but his setting was just as famous as anything or anyone else he worked with frequently. Despite ostensibly being set in Texas, the film was shot in Ford’s preferred location of Monument Valley out in Utah and Arizona. The full color of the rocks and outcroppings, to say nothing of the emptiness, highlights the natural wonder and isolation that Martin and Ethan experience as they attempt to track down Scar.
It probably wouldn’t be worth talking about the movie without mentioning the portrayal of the Comanches. It’s almost certainly not perfect, but for 1956, it’s pretty damn good. The Comanche aren’t just murderous savages. Scar has reasons for what he does, as he holds himself with some degree of dignity and bluntly says his reasons for killing white men is the fact that his own sons were themselves killed by whites. There’s a fear of miscegenation, that the worst thing that could happen to Debbie would not be for her to brutally killed but married to a Comanche. Ethan may be the hero of the movie, but he’s not an enlightened man or even one who may find much redemption. He doesn’t get to kill Scar at the end of the movie, but he had no problem scalping the dead man afterwards.
As such, the movie is probably more morally complex than might be expected for 1956. Regardless, it’s still a good adventure with some beautiful scenery.
NEXT UP: We’re skipping up to 1994 to see something I saw at midnight on opening night: Pulp Fiction.