John Wayne was one of the most iconic western actors ever. John Ford was one of the best western directors ever. Combined it almost cannot go wrong if you like westerns.
I am okay with westerns. There is enough boy in me to appreciate the adventure of the frontier and I did play cowboys and Indians as a child. A good western can be a great experience partly because it can tap into that dream. But westerns can also be incredibly formulaic and primitive and I am usually prepared to be disappointed. So far the Book has had a lucky hand with the westerns in that even on the simpler stories there has been enough to recommend them.
Then comes “The Searchers”.
This movie gives you a lot of classic western tropes, certainly enough to make you feel right at home, but in a wrapping that takes your breath away. Ford loved to use Monument valley for it scenic attractions and this time Monument Valley is in Texas. I am not sure of the realism of that, but it sure works as eye candy. Blown up in wide screen color this is just magnificent. In fact the technical side of this movie is so good I had to check a second time that this was the movie I was supposed to watch and not a production twenty years younger. Only the obvious studio shots gave it away.
While the visual feast is a solid asset this is really all about John Wayne and his character Ethan Edwards. His returning war veteran is both a straight hard-hitter and a complex man full of secrets and demons. In fact he may be the most interesting character Wayne has ever portrayed.
Ethan is returning to his brothers home in Texas long after the war ended, still wearing his confederate uniform. We are never told what he has been doing, but he has money and a soup of pain and anger boiling inside of him. We can only guess what has caused it but a good guess would involve Indians.
The family of his brother is a happy one. Mum, dad, an older girl with a boyfriend, a young cocky boy and a darling girl. The household includes an adopted son Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), an eights Cherokee, and although it was actually Ethan who brought him to the family the sight of him is enough to set off Ethan’s anger. First hint that he has a serious problem with Indians. Within the first twenty minutes this family is killed in an Indian raid and the two girls abducted. Bum, just like that. The way the family was presented leaves us very exposed to the pain that is Ethan’s and Martin’s when they return to the ruined home.
This sets the stage for the majority of the movie. Ethan and Martin will search high and low, come snow and rain for the youngest girl Debbie (the older girl is raped and killed shortly after the raid). Such a search could easily have become tedious to watch and that was a real concern on my part, but while the search is indeed eventful, it is also an internal journey for Ethan and Martin. Something is happening to them, both personally and in their relation to each other.
The movie starts out with a very clear division into good guys and bad guys. The Texas settlers are the obvious good guys and the Indians are those faceless savages that roam your nightmares. Ethan seems justified in his hatred and no mercy attitude towards then. As the movie progress however the picture gets more detailed and we gain some insights. First of all Ethan obviously knows a lot more about the Indians than a genocidal outsider should. He speaks their language and know their customs to a degree that only an insider would. There even seem to be some respect, but something must have happened in his contact with the Indians to trigger the hatred. Then we the audience start to meet the Indians in a setting different from the raid party and the image presented is anything but warlike (“Look”, the wife Martin accidentally buys). In fact some of the white contacts turn out to be untrustworthy backstabbing bastards (Futterman), who tries to take out Ethan and Martin in the night).
At this point the movie is turning truly interesting, for the quest to save Debbie, the internal transformation and the uncovering of Ethan’s character. Unfortunately “The Searchers” settles for the first plot line and leaves the other two hanging in the air and that is a damn shame. I was dying to find out what Ethan had in fact been doing since the civil war and what his relationship with the Indians were (Was he actually Martins’ father? There are a lot of hints in that direction and my guess is that Ethan was married to a half-blood who was then killed by Indians) and after we have just settled that raiding Indian camps murdering women and children is just savagery no better than the Indian raids, this is exactly how the movie ends. I was more than a little baffled by this and disappointed. The setup here is great and I would have loved it to follow it through rather than settle for the simpler storyline.
We get a sideshow with the Jørgensen family parallel to the quest story. The Jørgensen family is closely connected to the Edwards. Brad Jørgensen was engaged to the older Edwards daughter and Martin and Laurie Jørgensen are betrothed, with or without Martin’s consent. Lars Jørgensen, whose name betrays his Danish ancestry despite his Swedish accent and references, and his family seems however misplaced in this grim tale and the whole wedding interplay seems intended as comic relief and I am not sure this movie needs that. My guess is that Ford and company got afraid of where this movie was going and needed to lift the mood a bit.
All this criticism does in no way mean that this is a bad film. It is in fact excellent. The best I have seen with John Wayne since “The Stagecoach”. The potential was just there for something even better.
As an added bonus we get Nathalie Wood in a small but important part as grown up Debbie Edwards, first unwilling to be saved but then more than willing. Again, nice, but what just happened there?