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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 visual splendors do tend to focus attention unfairly away from Frank Nugent’s script, the most cunning of screenplays, with its telegraphed subplots, reiterated phrases (Wayne’s famous “That’ll be the day"), and recurring actions. The structure suggests a world of cyclical rhythms and irrevocable losses; the return to the point of departure is never a true recurrence, since it always registers a fundamental change. The superbly laconic dialogue —discreetly flecked with archaisms and folksy locutions—is a major component of the film’s feeling of density. There is so much to be covered that there is scarcely time for verbal elaboration, so that relatively brief speeches have the effect of lengthy soliloquies. Ethan’s character is built up out of a few one-liners: “I still got my saber. Didn’t turn it into no plowshare neither.” “You speak pretty good English for a Comanch, somebody teach you?” Nobody has time for speechmaking. The emotional burden of Martin’s final confrontation with Ethan is reduced to four words: “I hope you die.”
The Searchers gives the impression of expending the material for a whole film in a single scene. Ethan and Martin’s trajectory is a passage through various spheres—the world of the Comanches, of the 7th Cavalry, of old Hispanic aristocracy and new European immigrants—lingering just long enough in each to let us know that there is much more that cannot be shown. The restless forward movement permits unresolved mysteries: We are never to be told where Ethan got those fresh-minted Yankee dollars or what was the secret mission of Martin’s accidentally acquired Indian wife. Most of everything gets lost, and the little that is left at the end—the small band of survivors facing who knows what difficulties of communication and readjustment—is swallowed up in blackness by a closing door.
Most of the important events around which the film revolves occur elsewhere: the years of Wayne’s wanderings before the movie begins, the massacre of the Indians on whose aftermath Wayne and Hunter intrude, Debbie’s years of captivity. Of the heroes’ seven years of searching, we see only a few representative moments, vaulting in Shakespearean fashion over intervals of many years at several points. The holes and absences and elisions are put to superb use throughout. Because so much is left blank, the characters retain their mystery. In a fundamental way the movie does not deign to explain itself.
The visual splendors tend to focus attention unfairly away from the script, the most cunning of screenplays.
Mystery here is not a matter of erasing distinctions. Ford was at bottom a profoundly antiromantic filmmaker, and his appeals to old loyalties always involve a precise calculation of the costs and tradeoffs of such allegiances. Some have found the flirtatious byplay between Jeffrey Hunter and Vera Miles (as the long-suffering Laurie Jorgensen) a concession to the Hollywood demand for “love interest,” but essentially it reinforces the film’s disconsolate view of things. Laurie’s anger at Martin is designed to force an acknowledgment that an understanding exists between them; love, or the possibility of love, has something to do with it, but mostly the theme is contractual agreement, just as the crucial flare-up between Ethan and Martin revolves around division of property. If the settlers are inordinately concerned with nailing things down, it is because they live in a territory not wholly theirs, among those already dispossessed (the old Spanish ruling class) or in the process of being dispossessed (the Comanches), and under the monitoring eye of an army serving the interests of a distant national government.
But in the interstices of all that cold-eyed pragmatism and latent rage, sheer human oddity has a way of tilting the balance. Ford’s neatest trick in The Searchers is his enlisting of an apparently insignificant character—the alternately canny and halfwitted drifter Mose Harper- to serve as messenger, chorus, and comic relief. Mose seems like extra flavoring, with his goofy outbursts (hollering, “I’ve been baptized, Reverend, I’ve been baptized,” in the middle of a skirmish with the Comanches) and his yearning for “a roof over old Mose’s head and a rocking chair by the fire"; only in retrospect does he emerge as the engine of the story, the true discoverer, not once but twice, of the lost girl. In Hank Worden’s magical interpretation, Mose becomes the secret hero of the film, the man who can cross all boundaries and who intuits or randomly picks up the information that counts. The others search without finding; he finds without searching.