A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Saturday, August 6, 2016

The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)

Every time I watch The Searchers I find myself asking, is this really a great movie? It took seventh place on the 2012 Sight and Sound poll that ranks the best movies of all time. For my part, I think Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948) a richer, more satisfying film -- and, incidentally, the one that taught John Ford that John Wayne could act. And among Ford films, I prefer Fort Apache (1948) and even Stagecoach (1939). The Searchers is riddled with too many stereotypes, from John Qualen's "by Yiminy" Swede to the "señorita" who clatters her castanets while Martin Pawley (Jeffery Hunter) is trying to eat his frijoles, but most egregiously the "squaw" (Beulah Archuletta) whom Martin accidentally buys as a wife. (Notably, the two most prominent Native American roles in the film are played by Archuletta, whose 31 IMDb credits are mostly as "Indian squaw," and Henry Brandon, who was born in Germany, as Scar.) There is too much not very funny horseplay in the film, a lot of it having to do with the humiliation of Martin by Ethan Edwards (Wayne). Martin also takes a drubbing from the woman who loves him, Laurie Jorgenson (Vera Miles). It's almost as if, dare I suggest, the 62-year-old Ford took a sadistic delight in beating up on handsome young men, since he does it again in the film with Patrick Wayne's callow young Lt. Greenhill. (Do I really need to explain the significance of the way Ward Bond's Reverend keeps belittling the lieutenant's sword as a "knife"?) And although Monument Valley, especially as photographed by Winton C. Hoch, is a spectacular setting, by the time of The Searchers Ford had used it so often as a stand-in for the entire American West that he has reduced it to the status of a prop. Yet by the time Ethan Edwards stands framed in the doorway, one of the great concluding images of American films, I'm resigned to the fact of the film's greatness. It consists in what the auteur critics most admired in directors: It is a very personal film, imbued in every frame with Ford's sensibility, rough-edged and wrong-headed as it may be. And Wayne's enigmatic Ethan Edwards is one of the great characters of American movies -- not to mention one of the great performances. We never find out what motivates his obsessive search for Debbie (Natalie Wood), leading some to speculate unnecessarily that she's really his daughter by Martha Edwards (Dorothy Jordan), his brother's wife. And his radical about-face when he finally lifts Debbie, a reprise of what he did with the child Debbie (Lana Wood) at the start of the film, and takes her home, after threatening to kill her throughout the film, is as enigmatic as the rest of his behavior. But it's a human enigma, and that's what matters. Ford's strength as a director always lay in his heart, not his head. In the end, The Searchers really tells us as much about John Ford as it does Ethan Edwards.