The Searchers

Film Criticism, Movies

NOTE: Pather Panchali is the next film on the BFI’s Greatest Films of All Time list, but I have been having difficulty tracking down a copy, which is a shame considering that it is considered such a classic film. I don’t want to hold up my progress with the list while trying to track down a copy, so I skipped ahead to The Searchers.

I have some trouble reconciling The Searchers not only being on the list but also being ranked very high on the list (#7). John Ford’s film is interesting and entertaining but it pales in comparison to other films on the list. There are several features of the film which detract from the viewing experience and date the film in ways that aren’t evident in the other films on the list.

The Searchers tell the story of Confederate veteran Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) who returns to his brother’s house three years after the end of the Civil War. He is belligerent toward the young man that his brother took in years ago. Edwards’ racist attitude is apparent early on as he dismisses the young Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) as a half-breed. His brother’s family is attacked by a group of Comanche and his youngest daughter (Lana Wood as the younger Debbie and Natalie Wood later) is taken captive. Edwards and Martin head out on a years’ long search for the girl, Martin wanting to save her; Edwards wanting to kill her for being sullied by the Native Americans. What starts out as an intense and obsessive search devolves as the film strains to maintain focus.

The outdoor cinematography is amazing and justifiably famous. These scenes are by far some of the best looking shots in any of the films I’ve watched. However, there is some distracting inconsistency when the film switches to scenes that are obviously on a set.

A subplot involving Martin’s long standing relationship with Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles) detracts from the main plot and weakens the film. The sequences involving Laurie, especially the scenes where Edwards and Martin return on her wedding day, feel like padding.

At the heart of any discussion of The Searchers is the depiction of Native Americans. It’s easy to dismiss the troubling race issues of the film as an element of its time, but that’s exactly why it’s difficult to justify its presence on the list. The Searchers is very much of its time and not timeless as many of the other films are.

Ethan’s racism makes his character complex and interesting. He is definitely not the typical Western hero. Edwards is a confederate soldier who finds returning to life after the war difficult, which is a compelling approach for a film made just a decade after the end of World War II. The film is set in 1868 and Edwards’ three post war years are unaccounted for, giving his sudden appearance at his brother’s home an air of mystery. That Edwards fought for the pro-slavery South lends some context for his racism but certainly does not justify it.

The film could certainly have depicted Ethan’s overt racism and the implicit racism of the other characters as a commentary on their perspective. People tend to argue that The Searchers is racist only to the extent that the events are filtered through Edwards’ perspective. That’s a difficult argument to accept considering the way the film portrays Native Americans outside of Edwards’ perspective. The Searchers only reinforces the stereotypes. It does little to contradict his perceptions.

The film provides no motivation on the part of the Native Americans for the attacks and kidnapping that ignite the plot. There is a passing reference later in the film to white settlers having killed Scar’s sons. Revenge could have provided motivation, although “eye for an eye” violence does not necessarily make his actions any less savage.

Regardless any interpretation of his motivations, Scar’s violent leadership is portrayed outside the filter of Edwards’ perception and seems to reinforce Edwards’ assumptions about their savagery. The music also reinforces this idea as it often relies on the trite convention of war drums when Native Americans are on screen. Martin’s Native American wife is clumsily depicted as a buffoon. The women who are rescued act damaged from their experiences with the Native Americans. Certainly, being held captive would be a traumatic experience, but these women are portrayed as drooling idiots, which is insulting both the Native Americans and people with mental health issues.

Besides the politics, the casting of a German born actor to play Scar (Henry Brandon) is jarring. This convention dates the film and pulls the audience out of the flow of the action. This choice is doubly perplexing because all of the other actors are Native Americans, so it is particularly disruptive to be confronted by a European actor in facepaint. Given that Martin is part Comanche and a major theme of the film is the abduction of White people, I was half expecting some backstory of how he was White but raised Indian. But that’s not the case.

Although it is possible to read Edwards’ change of heart at the end of the film as a renunciation of his racism, I don’t think there’s a strong argument for this. His change is evidenced by his bequeathing his property to Martin. It’s surprising given the way he has treated Martin previously but the reason Edwards gives has nothing to do with his opinions about race but because he admits that he has no other family. Similarly, the climactic scene has him sweeping Debbie up in his arms rather than killing her which was his prior intent. Again, this speaks more to his own loneliness and not any last minute redemption. After all, the raid on the Indian village and his scalping of Scar happen between these two events.

To be fair, the film’s relationship to race is complex. It is no champion of Western expansion and Edwards’ is definitely not the typical Western hero. Nonetheless, The Searchers is troubling enough to undermine the better qualities of the film and keep it from being high on my list.

  1. Metropolis (1927)
  2. Ordet (1955)
  3. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
  4. Citizen Kane (1941)
  5. Rashomon (1950)
  6. Tokyo Story (1953)
  7. The Rules of the Game (1939)
  8. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
  9. City Lights (1931)
  10. Seven Samurai (1954)
  11. Bicycle Thieves (1948)
  12. Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)
  13. The General (1926)
  14. Journey to Italy (1954)
  15. The Man with the Movie Camera (1929)
  16. Late Spring (1949)
  17. L’Atalante (1934)
  18. Battleship Potemkin (1925)
  19. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
  20. The Searchers (1956)

Next Up: Vertigo