THE SEARCHERS directed by John Ford (USA, 1956)
With his self-centred arrogance masquerading as heroic individualism, John Wayne symbolises all the negative qualities of the white American male.
His distrust of groups and team work make him the embodiment of the Republican party philosophy whereby co-operative values and compassion for minorities are regarded as tell-tale traits of commie sympathisers.
In The Searchers, as in all his movies, he is the archetype macho man with a past he never speaks of, emotions he keeps hidden and serious anger management issues. He hates taking orders, doesn’t feel the need to explain himself and never apologizes.
I suppose he’s not so far removed from the equally taciturn Clint Eastwood as ‘the man with no name’ in Sergio Leone’s masterpieces, but there’s a style and mystique around the spaghetti westerns that you don’t find in John Ford’s so-called ‘classics’.
Another reason to dislike this particular movie is the plethora of outmoded racial stereotypes. Wayne plays Ethan Edwards who has anti-Indian sentiments even before they murder his brother’s family. You see this in his disdain towards Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) who, with quarter Cherokee blood, is therefore regarded as ‘impure’. It’s treated as a given that white Americans are the master race and upholders of decency.
Racism is so imbedded in the Western genre that it is all too easy to take it for granted. When challenged on this point, John Ford argued that he was merely reflecting rather than condoning the racial prejudice that existed in the West. He said that “the Indian didn’t welcome the white man, and he wasn’t diplomatic…..if he has been treated unfairly by whites in films that, unfortunately, was often the case in real life”.
Ironically, in The Searchers, Indian chief Scar is played by a white actor, Henry Brandon, and is clearly a well-educated guy. This doesn’t alter the underlying message is that the Comanche tribe’s aggressive actions were motiveless crimes prompted by a fundamental absence of civilised values.
When Debbie (Natalie Wood) is found years later having been raised by the Indians, Ethan regards her as damaged goods and initially would rather shoot her than liberate her. When presented with the tribe’s other women captives who have been reduced to jabbering wrecks, Ethan drawls dispassionately: “They ain’t white, not any more….they’re Comanch”.
For these reasons I can’t accept the BFI/Sight & Sound verdict that this is the best western ever made. I also tend to agree with Ronald Holloway’s review in Variety in which he describes the movie as “eyefilling and impressive” but “overlong and repetitious”.
Shot in VistaVision, the epic sweep of the landscape is marvellous although in this wilderness, with no fast food joints for miles, it is never explained how people eat to survive.
Other unanswered mysteries are how and why Ethan became fluent in the Comanche Indian language and how he managed to get so wealthy.
I guess questions like these all go to prove that racist cowboys, like corrupt politicians, all have shady pasts beneath the clean-cut and wholesome exteriors.