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The Movie Of The Century
It looks both backward to everything Hollywood had learned about Westerns and forward to things films hadn’t dared do
November 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 7
When the film came out, in 1956,1 was a little too young to be exposed to its elements of rape and massacre, but by reputation it extended a whiff of the forbidden. This was a movie, the word went, with a profound violation at its core and implacable rage stemming from that violation. It took me a few years to catch up with it; this was before the era when directors like Martin Scorsese and Wim Wenders helped elevate The Searchers to the canonical status it currently enjoys. Only in Times Square—at the eponymous Times Square theater, devoted exclusively to old Westerns—did it surface periodically.
What was most immediately striking about The Searchers was what it didn’t have in common with other Westerns, those on which fifties kids became experts by dint of being exposed to them Saturday after Saturday. It wasn’t about the deed to the mine, or the coming of the railroad, or the first great cattle drive, or a hotheaded young gunslinger out to make a name for himself; the standardissue one-street cowboy-picture town didn’t come into it at all. No recourse was had to the comforting rituals of the genre, those depredations and confrontations that recur with a lulling predictability made all the more cozy by the assortment of wonderfully familiar character actors who recirculate endlessly as sheriffs, bankers, outlaws, barmaids, schoolmarms, and ranch hands.
For all its seven-year time span and sprawling geographic range, The Searchers works like a suspense movie.
In the course of the fifties the Western became increasingly preoccupied with Indians, a trend that gave the genre fresh energy and fresh complications. Some Indian Westerns were notably liberal in their stance, determined to expose past injustices; some were rooted in implacable hostility. Here again The Searchers managed to avoid stock situations; there were to be none of the tiresome conflicts between sympathetic “friendlies” and fanatical “hostiles,” no scenes of besieged cavalrymen sweating it out in the stockade while waiting for a dawn attack.
Nor was there any of the usual dialogue about learning to live in peace together, or the earnest speeches decrying broken treaties. Curiously, considering that its story revolved entirely around Indians, the film didn’t seem to have anything particular to say about them. It pursued a course of omission and elision, as if to admit that there were places it was not capable of entering. There were no attempts at realistic vignettes of Comanche life; everything was overtly filtered through white perception and white imagination, the viewpoint of isolated settlers “out on a limb somewhere, maybe this year, maybe next,” enraged at their own vulnerability. The issue was not civilization versus savagery but how to protect life and property under makeshift circumstances and how to react after it’s too late for protection.
The long opening scene manages, without a superfluous touch, to introduce seven characters (four of whom do not have long to live), to sketch in the history of the Edwards family, including their adoption of young Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), himself part Cherokee, after his parents were killed in an Indian raid, and to begin elaborating the characterization of John Wayne as the embittered Confederate veteran Ethan Edwards, a performance all the more vivid for its intractable contradictions. The plot, as far as we can grasp it at the outset, has to do with Ethan’s return to his brother’s Texas homestead after years of mysterious postwar driftings during which he acquired, by whatever means, a sackful of fresh-minted Yankee dollars. Some scattered remarks and furtive glances suffice to establish that Ethan’s arrival is a source of unease. There is mistrust between the brothers; Ethan and his sister-in-law love each other, may even have been lovers. (This possibility is never put into words, resting entirely on a couple of reaction shots, but it subtly informs Wayne’s whole portrayal.) The scene accomplishes a necessary job of misleading the audience into thinking that the movie is going to be about the individuals it has just met. On repeated viewings, nothing is more powerful than Ford’s grouping of the unwittingly doomed Edwards family in a single splendid composition, as if to frame them for all time before they vanish.
The next morning, before any suggestion of daily routine is allowed, we are off with Ethan, Martin, and a posse of neighbors on a chase after stolen cattle. This breathless interruption is the first in a long chain; we are to have an interrupted funeral, an interrupted meal, an interrupted wedding, countless interrupted conversations. It becomes apparent that the cattle theft was a ruse to give a band of Comanches the opportunity to massacre those left behind; we spend the moments before the massacre with its victims. The close-up of the Comanche war chief Scar blowing his buffalo horn signals the film’s most important event, which we are not allowed to witness. That the massacre must remain unseen is essential to Ford’s sense of decorum. It goes without saying that this off-screen event is far more powerful than any overt depiction could be. Any contemporary remake would be likely to revel in the details, with the help of half a century of prosthetic technology; how could the temptation be resisted?