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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
The war chief blowing his horn signals the film’s most important event, which we are not allowed to witness.
In a shot famously copied by George Lucas in Star Wars —Jeffrey Hunter staring in horror at the smoky ruins—we intrude on the aftermath. All are dead except for the two young girls; we move abruptly to the funeral, which is cut short angrily by Ethan: “Put an amen to it. There’s no more time for praying. Amen!” In this atmosphere of indecent haste, Ford is able to rapidly introduce another indispensable group of characters, the neighboring Jorgensens, whose farm becomes the film’s image of home, now that the primal home has been burned. Ethan and Martin, initially with a party of others, then on their own, set out to find the girls. The elder is found raped and killed; the younger, Debbie, becomes the sole object of their quest. Seasons pass; years pass. A secondary plot line emerges: Ethan doesn’t want to rescue Debbie; he wants to kill her because by now she will have been married off to a Comanche and “ain’t white anymore.” In a sense it is the most linear of films, although its flashbacks, time lapses, and frequent changes of scene make it feel uncannily protracted and complex. They search; they find; Ethan has a sudden change of heart and doesn’t kill Debbie when he gets the chance; Debbie comes home; Ethan goes away by himself.
Much has been made of Ethan’s abrupt turnaround, encapsulated in a single image of Wayne lifting the rescued Debbie (Natalie Wood) into his arms, but moving though it is, it is also the most Hollywoodish moment in the film. In LeMay’s novel, Ethan has no such change of heart and is conveniently killed before he can carry out his murderous intentions. In order for Wayne to play the part, things had to come out differently, but Ford and his screenwriter, Frank S. Nugent, wisely resisted the impulse to offer any explanation for Ethan’s sudden conversion. At the same time, one can’t make too much of it; it’s a sudden reversal of everything else we know about the character, perhaps even a momentary weakening of purpose he might come to regret. This is, after all, the same person who shoots out the eyes of a dead Comanche because “by what that Comanch believes, ain’t got no eyes he can’t enter the spirit land, has to wander forever between the winds.” Ethan stands with James Stewart’s Scotty Ferguson in Vertigo as one of the great inscrutable obsessives of American film. Just as we don’t know where Ethan has been before the movie began, so we have no real sense of what kind of person he will become. The only certainty is that he will be alone.
Ethan’s change of heart, although it neatly resolves the situation, is no more the point of the movie than any of the other things that happen in The Searchers . It is a movie in which things change irrevocably between the beginning and the end, in which a world is created only to be wrecked. After the first few scenes the worst has already happened, and the only remaining dramatic action can be an attempt to retrieve a remnant. Finding Debbie will not restore the family that has been destroyed or erase the memory of devastation.
The Searchers ’ primary power derives from the vast stretches of space and time that it strings together on a single thread. I don’t mean the mere bigness that money can buy, the splendid scenery, sweeping music, and sheer duration of, say, William Wyler’s otherwise empty The Big Country . The Searchers , magnificently shot by Winton C. Hoch, is an object of incomparable beauty, a fact never more evident than when New York’s Papp Public Theater a few years ago unveiled an immaculate print and projected it under optimum conditions on a properly vast screen. If I returned to The Searchers repeatedly, it was beyond anything else in order to see certain images again: Ethan and Martin crossing an icy plain at night, or riding downhill through deep snow, or silhouetted against a red sky as they travel along a ridge; the 7th Cavalry, fresh from slaughtering a Comanche encampment, crossing a newly thawed stream, the camera moving down a narrow crevasse, the whole Vista Vision image given over to a singular moment of rocky abstraction. Not one shot felt like an interpolation or interlude; the visual life of the film was a continuous balancing of immensity and intimacy. Movement through space, whether of a hand in close-up of or of an army in long shot, was always in the center of the drama.
The operatic dimension of the movie exists not so much in the dialogue, or in Ford’s masterly deployment of onscreen singing (the hymn “Shall We Gather at the River” is heard twice, at a funeral and a wedding), as it does in that succession of vast light-paintings. The film’s center and culmination is the famous shot in which, while Ethan and Martin converse in the foreground, the newly found Debbie emerges as a tiny speck at the ridge of a sand dune, running downhill toward the two men, Ethan oblivious, Martin suddenly aware of her presence and standing frozen in astonishment just as she reaches the edge of the creek by which they are standing. The coordination of movement and framing within this composition is a species of music that can be attended to an infinite number of times.