18 November 2005

100 films: The Searchers

starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, and Ward Bond
written by: Frank S. Nugent, from the novel by Alan Le May
directed by: John Ford
NR, 119 min, 1956, USA

When a Comanche war party murders a frontier family and takes the two young daughters captive, it's up to their uncle Ethan (John Wayne) and adopted brother Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) to track the Indians, rescue the girls, and exact their revenge. The oldest girl is killed early in the hunt, but when they find the youngest five years later, will it be too late? Will she be too much a Comanche or does she remember who she really is?

The Searchers, a great film about a quest, is actually about two quests. Martin's intent is to track the tribe and rescue his sister Debbie (Natalie Wood). After the first flush of the chase is over, John Wayne, on the other hand, wants to put a bullet in her head. His hatred for the Comanche way of life is so deep, so ingrained, that for her to live that long with them means she isn't even a human being anymore. She's become a savage, and killing her would then become the humane thing for him to do. No kin of his[1] is going through life as a savage, not if he can help it. There's a certain enigma about Wayne's character. He seems to know more than anyone else in the film about the Comanche, which would lead you to think he's your typical Western hero who occasionally lives amoung them, but he would do anything in his power to kill every one of them, if given the opportunity. When he and Martin hunt buffalo, he massacres several under the assumption that it'll give the Comanche a few less to hunt. This is not a good man John Ford has given us as our hero[2], yet we are forced to admire him, despite what we may think of his politics. So what does it say about us that we so adore this cutthroat, racist bastard? Honestly, I'm not sure. It's hard not to be on the side of John Wayne. But I do know that the final scenes, when he chases Debbie over a hill and instead of killing her, scoops her up in his arms and carries her home, gave me a great sense of redemption. In the end, he really is a compassionate soul.

A lot of the credit for crafting this character that subverts the persona of John Wayne has to go to director John Ford. Wayne isn't really a very good actor, but he is a great movie star. He's the type of guy you can build a film around, knowing that at the center will be John Wayne playing, well, John Wayne. There isn't a lot of range to the John Wayne character, but Ford is able to create a different dimension for this character by the choices he makes around him. The range here exists in the circumstances surrounding the performance. The choice of angles, lenses, and composition does a lot of the acting for him. That isn't to say he's a rock, or that the performance is bad, per se. On the contrary, it's probably one of his best performances. It's just that Ford makes it even better.

John Ford was one of our great directors. Working in a genre that wasn't well-respected, he managed to win four Oscars for direction[3], and another two for his WWII documentary work. He's probably best known for his magnificent uses of landscape, which can bring to mind long, static shots of mountains where very little happens for a long time, but Ford's visual style was much more vibrant and alive than I think we sometimes remember. He composes beautiful landscape shots, but he also knows when to cut to the closeup of John Wayne, and where to put the camera to achieve maximum effect. There perhaps isn't a wasted shot in this film, and for a movie where two guys track Indians for five years, that's an accomplishment.

[1] The film leaves a couple of hints that perhaps John Wayne slept with his brother's wife and fathered two children. So she's either his niece or his daughter, depending on who you believe.

[2] He is the prototype for Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.

[3] This, somehow, wasn't one of them. He won for The Quiet Man (1952), How Green Was My Valley (1941), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and The Informer (1935).


johanna said...


i normally avoid john wayne westerns, but i think this'll be alright