The Searchers

Here is a 1990 piece written for a film series program note, complete with contemporary references to Dances with Wolves. (Remember that? It won a lot of Oscars.) I revive it in anticipation of tomorrow’s posting: the ten best movies of 1956.

The Searchers

by Robert Horton

“You fit a lot of descriptions,” says Captain Reverend Samuel Johnson Clayton to Ethan Edwards. That’s about the size of it. Ethan Edwards, the towering main character of The Searchers – one is unsure whether to call him the hero, except in the most mythic sense – is one of the fugitive figures in American films. We do not know precisely where he comes from when he arrives at the beginning of the film, except that he had served on the losing side in the Civil War. And he does not explain why it has taken him three years to return to his family, though we may infer it has something to do with certain vague criminal charges, a never-forsworn allegiance to the Confederacy, and, most pointedly, the fact that he appears to be in love with his brother’s wife, and she with him.

Film AFI Top 100We also do not know exactly why he embarks on the five-year search for his kidnapped niece; or, allowing for familial duty and outrage, why that search is so ruthless, so obsessive, so determined to cross landscapes, seasons, time – especially when his avowed purpose is to kill the girl to save her the supposed barbarism of living as a Comanche bride. Ethan Edwards is like a buffalo, standing in the face of a blizzard, the better to ride it out. His reasons are his own. Perhaps he undertakes the search because it gives him a reason to live for five years, an excuse not to settle down and become part of a community. At the end of the film, he will have to find some other reason, some other war.

A few days ago I saw a new film called Dances with Wolves, directed by and starring Kevin Costner. (It appears the only way to get a Western made these days – and a three-hour opus featuring Native American dialect, at that – is to be a matinee idol.) Dances with Wolves has its problems, but it shares a few things with The Searchers, including a white girl taken in by Indians, and a lone man who flees the Civil War horror for the nothingness of the West. The character Costner plays removes himself utterly from the world, requesting an assignment at a godforsaken outpost; like Ethan Edwards, he seems to have deliberately buffered himself against all human contact. Costner isn’t actor or icon enough to suggest the darkness and the complexity of such a figure, and that failure makes the film’s hero less an intriguing mystery than a black hole.

The Searchers, on the other hand, has John Wayne. There are those who do not consider Wayne an actor at all, but to believe that is to miss something profound about the nature of screen acting, in which presence and personality and physical grace have enormously to do with the creation of a character. There is also history; the man who rides up at the beginning of The Searchers is ineluctably John Wayne, the man who hit the street shooting in Stagecoach, who drew his brand with his fingers upon the land in Red River. And, as John Ford uses Wayne, he is in an almost religious harmony with the Western land itself (if not with the civilization that makes outposts there), particularly among the cathedral-like buttes of Ford’s beloved Monument Valley. Wayne carries the West, and seems to embody the white man’s ambiguous place in it; he is a killer, he is a hero, he extends the frontiers where people (the people of his tribe, anyway) can safely live, and then he is shut out of the new world.

Ford is supremely attuned to place and history in The Searchers. The Edwards homestead is pitched in Monument Valley (not named as such, but passing for Texas), near no other human presence, in a landscape that seems both inhospitable and sacred. Elsewhere in the film, Mrs. Jorgensen describes the way the earth in Texas needs to be seeded with human blood to justify living there: “Maybe it needs our bones buried here first” (recall the scene in Ford’s film of The Grapes of Wrath where similar words are used by sharecroppers kicked off their farms). This speech is delivered by Olive Carey, the widow of Harry Carey, one of the great Western stars and an actor who worked with Ford often in the director’s early career. John Wayne gives his own tribute to Harry Carey by imitating the actor’s habit of grasping one forearm with the other hand, in the final moments of the movie. On many levels, The Searchers is about consecration; of land, of character, of memory.

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