Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Searchers

Year: 1956
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 12
Writer: Frank S. Nugent
Director: John Ford
Star: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles

“The Searchers” is a deeply flawed film that reaches emotional highs rarely felt in any movie, emotions that have only deepened as the decades have passed. John Wayne creates a fully realized central character in Ethan who might have been a villain in many other, lesser films, and the passages focusing on him and his quest are some of the best in all of film. It’s too bad about that light comic subplot that threatens to de-rail the movie whenever it shoves its way onscreen.

When the focus is on Ethan and his in-name-only nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), it is aces. Ethan is an unapologetic racist when it comes to his opinion of Native Americans, and as the movie opens we see him still carrying the saber he wore when fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War, boasting to his brother and sister-in-law that he never surrendered it. Ethan has returned home to Texas three years after the war has concluded and we have many questions about him, questions that the movie wisely does not answer. How did he get all that new money he has, and what’s with all the subtextual stares he’s giving his sister-in-law? Ethan found Martin in a village after a tribe of Native Americans had massacred it, and brought him to his brother to care for. Ethan openly dislikes Martin, and their relationship remains one of antagonism throughout the film. Why? Martin says he is one-eighth Native American, and that appears to be one-eighth too much for Ethan, who remarks that he looks like a “half-breed.” But it can’t be that simple, can it?

The family is massacred by a group of Comanche. Martin and Ethan survive because they were away at the time, and a group forms to track down the kidnapped young girls of the family. The group soon calls off the search, but Martin and Ethan continue. They find one of the sisters dead, but continue the search for the younger sister, named Debbie. Five years later, they still have not found her, despite several close calls.

This storyarc, with the men searching for ghosts and shadows, it powerful stuff, and it’s shocking to think how much the meaning of this tale has changed since the film was first released. I’m guessing that most viewers waved off, or didn’t even think about, Ethan’s proud racism and saw his search and, ultimately, rescue of Debbie (played as a teenager by Natalie Wood) as a triumph. I don’t think that was what Nugent, Ford and Wayne were intending for the character, but they were smart enough to dress the film up as a classic-style Western to get their point across.

Today, Ethan’s arc is one of tragedy, and the final shot of the film that once gave viewers elation now seems ominous. Wayne goes a long way in trying to make Ethan unlikable despite being one of the most likable leading actors of all time, and here his mannerisms and line delivery are more malicious, more sinister, than any other performance of his career. He walks away from his own family’s funeral in order to get vengeance, and doesn’t even let the token old woman get through her speech to not embrace violence before riding off. As the hunt for Debbie becomes more desperate, it becomes apparent that Ethan is chasing a ghost. His trek becomes less of a search and more of a way for him to embrace and flaunt his hatred. In one sequence, Ethan continues to shoot buffalo he doesn’t need to, his excuse being that there are now less for the Comanche tribe. In the most powerful moment of the film, Ethan shoots the corpse of a Comanche in his eyes so that his spirit will not be able to cross over.

Even after five years, Ethan finds excuses and stubbornly continues his hunt. When he finally finds Debbie, who has become part of the Comanche tribe that abducted her, it is clear that he wants to kill her. Before the film’s climax, he ignores that Debbie might be killed during an about-to-happen battle and only wants the blood of the Native Americans on his hand. When Martin protests, Ethan tells Martin that one of the scalps Martin saw earlier was that of Martin’s mother in a desperate attempt to get Martin on his side. Is this a desperate lie? Of course. Until he finally embraces Debbie, we are certain that he is chasing her down to kill her.

And after he slaughters the tribe Debbie came to call family and returns Debbie to the remainder of her real “family,” Ethan has nothing left. All the other characters embrace and enter a house hand-in-hand, but Ethan hesitates, staying outside. He has no place there and never had one, only using Debbie’s kidnapping as an excuse for a purpose. We realize that this story is a tragedy, and Ethan is just as isolated as he ever was, and something inside us knows that this is the last time he will ever set eyes on them.

I really doubt this is what the original audience of “The Searchers” took from it in 1956, and how odd it is to realize that time and our collective consciousness can alter our perception of an unaltered presentation. The movie has gone from being a triumph of one man’s persistence and hope to a tragedy of a man unable to cope with his own demons and racist tendencies.

As the other half of the title searchers, Hunter’s performance is a revelation. I’m not familiar with his other work, but he does a great job of letting Wayne take control of most scenes but still developing a character of enough power to stand up to Wayne when necessary. Martin could easily come off as comic relief, but Hunter gives him an extra dimension. Alas, he’s also saddled with the unfortunate subplot that almost sinks the film.

It’s something to do with his love for Vera Miles and how she is her own woman and doesn’t want to keep waiting for him so she almost marries some boring guy and blahblahblah. The storyline is well-acted and nothing about it is horribly done, and yet it is just so unnecessary and throws the film into a tailspin whenever it is touched upon. The “hilarity” of Martin’s inability to write a love letter or the slow “Aww…shucks!” gravelly voice of Miles’ other suitor have no place in the movie. The whole thing comes to its climax with a comical fistfight in front of the entire cast that is strangely reminiscent (and inferior to) a fight in Ford’s earlier film “The Quiet Man.”

But when the movie is good, it’s great. There are indelible moments in cinema sprinkled throughout, as when the group of avengers is surrounded by two lines of Comanche riders. Or the moment I mentioned earlier where Wayne shoots out the eyes of a corpse. “The Searchers” is the best looking Western ever filmed, though the competition is mainly other movies Ford directed. The Technicolor skies and brown vistas are breathtaking.

At its heart, “The Searchers” is a brave motion picture that is still brave and shocking today. But it’s a movie that shies away from the darkness in moments when it should embrace it, and that prevents it from being the movie it could have been.

My Score (out of 5): ****

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