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Summing Up

The Movie Of The Century

June 2024
12min read

It looks both backward to everything Hollywood had learned about Westerns and forward to things films hadn’t dared do

It is a phrase so high-concept it ought to be the title of a movie, or at least the slogan for a marketing campaign, the ultimate coming attraction. Never mind Intolerance or Citizen Kane , the real Movie of the Century would be a will-o’-the-wisp, always just about to be revealed, a hundred years in the making, cast of millions, coming soon to a theater near you. What drove movies in the past was anticipation of what the future held. In the years when Hollywood was actually producing a fairly steady flow of good-to-great movies, there was scarcely time or inclination for a backward glance.

Or else—for this impossible honor—one might take any representative slice of the old Hollywood’s product, from the twenties or the thirties or the forties according to preference. Profusion was, after all, the point. At the height of the American public’s romance with moviegoing, a night at the Orpheum was as fundamental and recurrent an activity as having dinner or going to bed; a reliable flow of cinematic pleasures was more important than any particular presentation. Tonight a double bill of a pirate adventure and a murder mystery; starting Wednesday, the screen version of a best-selling love story and a college musical. All the movies were somehow interrelated, so that even the humblest Mr. Moto thriller or Gene Autry Western had its part in the mix that likewise encompassed Gone With the Wind . Movies were not meant to live alone any more than people were.

"I figure on gettin' myself un-surrounded," insists Captain Clayton (Ward Bond) to Ethan (John Wayne) as they realize they are caught in a trap and must run for their lives.
"I figure on gettin' myself un-surrounded," insists Captain Clayton (Ward Bond) to Ethan (John Wayne) in The Searchers, as they realize they are caught in a trap and must run for their lives.

Pushed, however, to propose a single movie for such unnatural solitary eminence, I’d have to pick the one I’ve ended up watching oftenest, John Ford’s The Searchers . Released in 1956, it’s a product of just that moment when —with the breakup of its distribution monopolies and the erosion of its audience by television —the studio machine finally began to come apart. It looks both ways in time, embodying all the traditional virtues of storytelling and technical command, yet expanding established limits to suggest a world of possibilities beyond what Hollywood had permitted itself. It’s an extraordinarily generous and exploratory work, made by a director who had just turned sixtyone. The Searchers might be taken as the outermost extension of everything that John Ford—and who else but John Ford could have made the American Movie of the Century?—had learned in the forty years of filmmaking that preceded it, from the time he made what probably was his acting debut by playing a character named Dopey in his brother Francis Ford’s two-reeler The Mysterious Rose, filmed just as World War I was breaking out.

A career like Ford’s was conceivable only in the old Hollywood. Born in 1894, he had already directed more than fifty films when he achieved his first major success at age thirty with the epic Western The Iron Horse . He went on to turn out seventy-two more, not counting a range of shorts and documentaries undertaken for the U.S. government. Laden with honors for such prestige pictures as The Informer , The Grapes of Wrath , and How Green Was My Valley , Ford expended more of his creative energy on quirkier personal projects, Westerns like My Darling Clementine , Fort Apache , and Wagon Master . Outwardly straightforward entertainments, noted for their splendid landscapes and the vigorous presence of Ford’s stock company of character actors, these were films that undermined conventional movie structure in favor of a looser, more genetically mixed form in which slapstick could adjoin tragedy and plot development might be suspended at any moment for a dance or a brawl or a serene stroll.

The Searchers was in many ways an atypical project for Ford. Derived from an excellent novel by Alan LeMay, it had all the earmarks of the newer “adult” Westerns that were Hollywood’s answer to the onslaught of TV gunslingers: a psychologically conflicted hero, adulterous (if repressed) passion, rape, massacre, interracial sex. The dramatic action was far more violent and overt than in Ford’s previous Westerns, and he rose to the challenge by forging a style unique to this film. All the amplitude and laid-back atmospherics of his earlier masterpieces are put under a pressure that takes Ford beyond himself; the garrulous impulse that often led to extended bouts of knockabout comedy and ceremonial pageantry is reined in, although hardly absent. It’s as if two contradictory approaches to filmmaking operated simultaneously. The characteristic Fordian desire to open things up, to slow down the story to allow the margins and backgrounds to be fully felt—his capacity for letting minor characters become momentarily central—works together here with a contradictory impulse toward ruthless concision and relentless forward impetus. For all its seven-year time span and sprawling geographic range, The Searchers works like a suspense movie.

When the film came out, in 1956, I 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?

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.

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.

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