Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Searchers (1956) - John Ford

Confederate veteran Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) arrives unannounced at his brother Aaron's Texas homestead just when Captain Clayton (Ward Bond) of the Texas Rangers comes looking for men to chase some Indians who have stolen cattle from a nearby ranch. Ethan goes along, leaving Aaron behind with his wife, Martha, and two daughters. It's a trick; the Indians have drawn them away from the ranches to raid those left behind. By the time the men return it is too late—Aaron and Martha are dead and the two girls captured. Ethan (and his nephew, Martin Pawley) begins a five-year search to rescue the girls and extract revenge against Chief Scar. But as the search lingers his motivation changes as he realizes the one surviving child, Debbie, has been assimilated into the Indian way of life.

John Wayne, always a better actor than given credit for, gives a towering performance as Ethan Edwards and The Searchers is John Ford's most majestic Western. Set against the beautiful stark sandstone mesas and buttes of Monument Valley and the snowy Rocky Mountains, it shows Ford's extraordinary eye for visuals. One particularly beautiful shot occurs with the two men on horseback in a growth of willows with flakes of snow swirling. Marty wonders if they'll ever find Debbie. Edwards, a relentless pursuer, utters a famous line: "We'll find 'em. Just as sure as the turnin' of the earth." A lesser director might have rejected the scene since it only serves to deepen your understanding of the character, rather than move the action forward. 

John Wayne as Ethan Edwards.
Edwards is a tragic hero. Complicated, flawed, and mysterious, he doesn't say where he's been since the war ended three years ago, only that he didn't surrender. He may have drifted, perhaps he is wanted. In any case, he is driven by an intense hatred of Indians, sparked by the death of his mother by Comanches sixteen years earlier. (When little Debbie hides in the cemetery near the start of the film, this information appears on face of one of the headstones). Dark, moody, and violent, he shoots the eyes out of a dead Comanche so the corpse can't enter the spirit world, and he indiscriminately kills buffalo so the Indians won't have enough food.

The character of Martin, 1/8 Indian, serves as a counterpoint to his uncle. In a twist of sterotypes, Ford presents the half-breed as a Christian, and the white man as a savage. Their relationship at times is strained. His could not have been an easy role to play, but Wayne is convincing as a man undergoing a deep personal struggle. The character is tragic, because though he largely succeeds in conquering his inner demons and ultimately changes for the better, he finds himself no closer to contentment.   

Ford rarely employs close-ups, but two show Wayne at moments of great emotion: the first when the posse realizes they will never get back to the ranch in time, and the second when Edwards inspects a group of recaptured white girls. Both shots effectively so Wayne deeply immersed in the role. Age 49 at the time of filming and still a vigorous man, he fills the character with intensity and credibility, and the screen with his presence.

Ford infused the film with his usual moments of comedy, here sometimes over-the-top when involving the character of Charlie McCorry, Martin's competition as a suitor for young Laurie (Vera Miles). Intended to give the audience relief from moments of intense action, the comedy detracts from an otherwise wonderful film.

The best action sequence involves a mad dash to the river by the ranger squad with Indians hot on their trail. Once across the men dig in. Using fallen mesquite trees for scant cover they exchange gunfire with the enemy, who makes a failed charge across the water, whooping and banishing their weapons. 

Max Steiner did the score, which includes rousing songs and a lovely, memorable theme (Ethan Returns). Steiner was a 24-time Oscar nominee, though not for this.
As sure as the turning of the earth.
Chief Scar
What Makes The  Searchers  Special

Little moments transform the film from a good Western to a sublime one. Ford was never big on dialog. One of the best scenes takes place as the posse hurries to leave. Clayton gulps down a cup of coffee and eats a donut; behind his back, Martha presents Ethan his blanket, newly washed and pressed. They embrace and kiss, and by the look on Clayton's face, you can tell he suspects more than innocent affection between in-laws. This knowledge makes Edwards' later close-up that much more affecting. Some critics interpret the scene as proof that Martha and Ethan were once lovers. If so, it is conceivable that Debbie is their daughter, which makes Ethan's ensuing pursuit of the girl and desire to kill her that much more sordid.

The last shot is another terrific moment. Ethan has finally returned from his long quest. Debbie (Natalie Wood) is safe and Martin is reunited with Laurie. They enter the cabin, happy and relieved, while Ethan remains outside, framed in the doorway, still an outcast from society.  

Besides Bond, plenty of Ford's stock company of actors make an appearance: John Qualen, Harry Carey Jr., Ken Curtis, Hank Worden.    

Winton Hoch's cinematography is stunningly gorgeous. He also collaborated with Ford and Wayne on 1949's She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.     

Inside Story

The famous last shot is a tribute by Wayne to Harry Carey, whom he called the greatest Western actor. Carey started in films in the silent era and with Wayne several times, including 1941's Sheppard of the Hills, 1947's Angel and the Badman, and 1948's Red River. You recognize Carey as the President of the Senate in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. His son, Harry Carey Jr., and his wife, who plays Laurie's mother, Mrs. Jorgenson, are in The Searchers.

Wayne and John Ford were one of the most successful partnerships in the history of Hollywood. They made 14 films together. Of those, Ford won the Best Director Oscar for 1953's The Quiet Man and was nominated for 1939's Stagecoach

Though the film was critically acclaimed, it received no Oscar consideration. Various major newspapers called it "distinguished," "remarkable," a "Homeric odyssey," an "astonishing wealth of minute detail and honest, strikingly natural charasterizations," "a rip-shorting Western, as brashly entertaining as they come," and said Wayne was "uncommonly commanding." Maybe the Academy thought it has honored the director enough.

Perhaps the film appeared a decade too early. It could easily fit alongside The Wild Bunch as a revisionist Western of the highest order.

Major Awards:

   Nominated for Best Director by the Director's
Guild of America

   National Film Registry 1989         

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