For a long time in the twentieth century it was the most popular storytelling idiom in American movies, but of all the Hollywood genres, the western is now the least fashionable, the least respected. The reasons are both obvious and complex: the foundation myth encapsulated in the phrase “Manifest Destiny” doesn’t inspire North Americans anymore; it shames us.
There is a scene about 20 minutes into John Ford’s troubling masterpiece when Ethan Edwards /John Wayne comes across the corpse of one of the Comanche who massacred his family and kidnapped his niece. He pulls out his pistol and shoots out both his eyes – according to Comanche lore (according to the film), he will be condemned to purgatory. It’s an act of pure hatred, all the more so for the matter-of-fact manner Wayne plays it.
Ethan is a defeated and disgusted Confederate soldier hunting down the rogue Indian chief Scar (Henry Brandon) who murdered his brother’s family and kidnapped his niece. This is one of the Wayne’s most complex roles. As always he’s authoritative, self-assured, accomplished in the ways of being himself. But our perspective is mediated through the figure of his companion on this search, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), who is half-brother to Debbie and thus Ethan’s nephew, though he refuses to acknowledge this because Martin is “one-eighth Comanche”. There is a devastating moment when we realise that if Ethan “rescues” Debbie he means to kill her. The Searchers explicitly confronts the latent racist pathology and historical suppressions which agitate the figure of John Wayne and the mythology of the western. At the same time, this film about a racist avenger is itself unwittingly racist, especially in its lazy scenes of comic relief.
Stunningly shot in VistaVision, it is both John Ford’s most terrible and his most beautiful work… framed, as so often, against, the majestic backdrop of Monument Valley, no matter that in reality this was Navajo territory (see Alexandre O. Philippe’s brilliant essay film, The Taking, also playing at VIFF Centre this week). The Searchers still ranked #15 in the Sight & Sound poll of the Greatest Films Ever Made in December 2022. It’s a seminal work, an indelible influence on the films of Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, Wim Wenders and many others; a problematic film that is too important to ignore.
The Searchers is perhaps the greatest Hollywood film that few people have seen.
Like all great works of art, it’s uncomfortable. The core of the movie is deeply painful. Every time I watch it — and I’ve seen it many, many times since its first run in 1956 — it haunts and troubles me. The character of Ethan Edwards is one of the most unsettling in American cinema. For me, it’s a touchstone. I go back to The Searchers all the time.
John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, Henry Brandon
Indigenous & Community Access
Merian C. Cooper
Winton C. Hoch