I feel like I've watched The Searchers at least once a year, which is sort of funny because some director or another I liked once said that he does the same. I haven't meant to watch it so much - I just always saw it for classes in college, or later, worked it into my essays that I was writing (even a poetry essay!) I don't feel tired of it, though. To me, it always stands apart from other westerns, and I always enjoy watching it.
The movie is about Ethan, a man with a dubious background who is on a search for his niece Debbie. She was captured by Indians years ago, and now, he must find her. Not to bring her home, though - but to kill her, because she has become tainted by her captors, and he feels that death is better than bringing her back as a ruined person. Martin, his nephew who is 1/8 Comanche comes along with him, and tries to stop his uncle from carrying out his plan of killing Debbie. But she doesn't want go home - it's the only place she knows.
I like that this film actually questions the actions of the hero. Most films don't even get near that territory - the main character is heroic, and that's it. But here, Ethan's motivation is questionable. Why is he still looking for her? Because he hates the Indians so much? He obviously doesn't want to help her. I never saw John Wayne in a role like this, and he really gives a great performance. Ebert mentions in his essay that the film is clearly against racism and Ethan's actions, but that message might have been lost on people in 1956. Maybe - I can't say, but it is interesting to think about. I only know how I feel when I watch it, and for me, it's clear that Ford was against the stereotypical portrayal of Indians in movies, and wanted to point out what was wrong with that.
As much as Ethan hates Scar, the Comanche chief who has Debbie, they are very similar. They are both men of war. They both believe in rituals for the dead (Ethan goes so far as to mutilate bodies he comes across to stop them from going to the afterlife). They both are motivated by revenge. They both are familiar with each other's culture (Ethan can actually speak their language and understands them). There are other things, as well, but it does spoil some huge parts of the movie to talk about them, so as much as I want to write yet another huge essay on this film, I won't. There is, though, a lot of stuff like this - fascinating parallels and comparisons that make the film so much more deep and fascinating. To me, the fact that Ethan and Scar are foils means so much. Ethan is not that different from his enemy - it highlights how misplaced Ethan's hatred is. It makes it seem almost psychotic to hate someone who is so similar. Does Ethan really hate himself, perhaps? This only gets better the more you think about it.
One of the reasons I always hated American westerns was their awful view of women and other races. Indians were just the enemy, and that was that. I love that Ford was brave enough to point out how awful this attitude is, even if it did, in reality, take people years to understand that it was his message. I love that he questions not only the standard western genre plot, he questions how the men relate to women. Debbie, at one point in the film, makes it clear that she does not want to go home. Do they men ever listen to her? No. Instead of siding with their choice, Ford points out how unfair this is. There is a lot of weird comic relief in the movie, and Ebert points out that it is probably there to try to soften the impact of the message. I believe that, and it just makes the movie even more interesting to me. He knew how to play to both sides, and made a film that somehow far outlasted it's genre. It lived when the genre was still popular, because it played well for people who might have sided with Ethan, but after the genre was out of fashion, it still thrived, as people were able to see it's critical message and appreciate it for that.
I feel like I don't have many new feelings left about this movie - I wrote so much about it in college that it's hard to remember what I actually was blown away by when I first saw it. Obviously the visuals - anyone who has seen this movie will never forget that scene where Ethan is framed perfectly in the doorway. I was impressed at how the film was so critical of Ethan's racism, and how it felt like the nastiest John Wayne character I had ever seen. I never was able to look at him as a hero, and I felt so excited and relieved to find a film that didn't, either. I never knew there could be a western that I could like, when I first saw this movie - let alone an American western from the 1950's. Yet, at the same time, whenever I watch this movie I seem to always find something new about it. I want to write about it and talk about it all over again - it just leaves such a huge impression on me!
If you haven't seen this movie, I personally love it and recommend it. I seem to always want to talk about it, because it left a really huge impression on me when I first saw it. It clearly inspired many of my favorite directors, and even influenced films like Taxi Driver (in both movies, the man is not interested in if the girl wants to be saved or not). If you have seen it, I obviously feel like you should watch it again, because I always see something new in it. It's just a great movie - great plot, great acting, great visuals. It works for me. :)
Have any thoughts on The Searchers? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Ebert's Great Movie Essay on The Searchers
Buy or rent it on Amazon
(this trailer is cut really interestingly, it definitely shows the duality of the movie)