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The Searchers has been more or less officially recognized as a great American classic. But I have to admit that I never really know what that kind of recognition amounts to. The film turns up on many 10-greatest-films-of-all-time lists, including my own. At least two moments from the picture — John Wayne lifting up Natalie Wood and then cradling her in his arms and the final shot — are commonly included in clip reels. Film lovers know it by heart. But what about average movie watchers? Is it as well known as It’s a Wonderful Life or Casablanca or Breakfast at Tiffany’s? What place does John Ford’s masterpiece occupy in our national consciousness? As Glenn Frankel puts it in The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, his fascinating new book about the picture and the history behind it, “The Searchers is perhaps the greatest Hollywood film that few people have seen.”
First, apart from being an American epic, The Searchers also is a John Wayne Western; for many, even at this late date in film history, that’s still an excuse to ignore it. Secondly, it doesn’t go down quite as easily as the pictures mentioned above. Like all great works of art, it’s uncomfortable. The core of the movie is deeply painful. Every time I watch it — and I’ve seen it many, many times since its first run in 1956 — it haunts and troubles me. The character of Ethan Edwards is one of the most unsettling in American cinema. In a sense, he’s of a piece with Wayne’s persona and his body of work with Ford and other directors like Howard Hawks and Henry Hathaway. It’s the greatest performance of a great American actor. (Not everyone shares this opinion. For me, Wayne has only become more impressive over time.)
Ethan also is genuinely scary. His obsessiveness, his absolute hatred of Comanches and all Native Americans and his loneliness set him apart from any other characters Wayne played and, really, from most protagonists in American movies. Even his gunfighter in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, his final performance for Ford, doesn’t run as deep. Ethan Edwards as brought to life by Wayne and Ford is a cousin to Melville’s Ahab on one hand and his Bartleby on the other — driven to the point of madness and absolutely alone. And neither director nor actor cuts corners with Ethan’s race hatred. There’s a shocking scene early on, in which Ethan and his search party find a Comanche buried under a rock. He shoots out the dead man’s eyes so that he won’t be allowed to enter the spirit lands and will remain destined to wander forever between the winds. No one in his posse understands the meaning of the gesture: He hates Comanches so much that he actually has bothered to learn their beliefs in order to violate them.
When he finally tracks down his niece, the girl he’s spent the past 10 years searching for, and finds that she’s taken on the ways and language of her captors, he’s suddenly ready to kill her. That’s the craziness of Ethan Edwards and the craziness of race hatred — murderous fixation and disgust are side by side with fascination and attraction. The author does an excellent job of addressing that craziness and how it played out in American history and in the Western genre.
The book amounts to much more than a production history of the movie. Frankel starts with Ford, who was in many ways as complex and, apparently, as lonely as Ethan, but then it takes us much further back to early America and the original events that led to the film. The story of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was abducted at the age of 9 by Comanches after watching the massacre of her family, once held the nation spellbound — it was the classic captivity story. Her uncle James, a fascinating character, spent years searching for her. She was raised by a Comanche couple, married a chief, Peta Nocono, and bore him three children. When she was found by Texas Rangers 24 years later, she looked, spoke and behaved like a Comanche and had forgotten all of her English.
Interestingly, Frankel doesn’t stop there. He takes us through her return to her white family, her inability to readjust and her early death. Then he tells the story of her son Quanah Parker, who had been a fearsome warrior but went on to become a peacemaker with Washington and with the ranchers, a land baron living in a conventional house, a co-founder of the early Native American Church (where peyote was the sacrament) and a living legend. As the relationships between indigenous and nonindigenous peoples and ways of life shift, Frankel recounts the transformation over time from fact to legend, leading to Alan Le May’s novel.
Le May himself had written several screenplays (he worked with Cecil B. DeMille in the ‘40s), including interesting Westerns such as Cheyenne and Along Came Jones, and directed a movie called High Lonesome. Le May apparently had no desire to work with Ford, who hired his usual screenwriter, Frank Nugent, to adapt the novel. And when Ford elected to shoot in his beloved Monument Valley rather than Texas, where the story is set, Le May stayed out of it.
According to Frankel and to Joseph McBride’s excellent biography Searching for John Ford, the director was at his lowest ebb. Ford’s participation in the screen version of Mister Roberts had ended disastrously soon after a violent encounter between the filmmaker and his star Henry Fonda. For Ford, The Searchers was more than just another picture: It was his opportunity to prove that he was still in control. Did he pour more of himself into the movie? Based on his earlier films, it’s doubtful — he was one of the greatest directors right from the start. Frankel makes a great deal of Ford’s practice of replacing large portions of Nugent’s dialogue with wordless action and improvising entirely new scenes, but again, I think he did this in all of his greatest work. It does seem reasonable to assume that Ford recognized something of his own loneliness in Ethan Edwards and that the character sparked something in him. It’s interesting to see how it dovetails with another troubled character from the same period. Like James Stewart’s Scotty in Vertigo, Edwards’ obsessive quest ends in madness.
Ford’s film was more or less respectfully reviewed when it came out — but as a great Western as opposed to a great movie. Other reviews were less generous. And then, over the years, a lone voice was heard here, another one there, and the general sense of The Searchers within the community of film lovers and then beyond started to change. For me and for many other directors of my generation, it was a touchstone. (I’m quoted in Frankel’s book.)
I go back to The Searchers all the time. A few years ago, I watched it with my wife, and I will admit that it gave me pause. Many people have problems with Ford’s Irish humor, which is almost always alcohol-related. For some, the frontier-comedy scenes with Ken Curtis are tough to take, but again, I don’t think they mar the film; these interludes are as much a part of the director’s universe as Shakespeare’s clowns are a part of his. For me, the problem was with the scenes involving a plump Comanche woman (Beulah Archuletta) that the Hunter character inadvertently takes as a wife. There is some low comedy in these scenes: Hunter kicks her down a hill, and Max Steiner’s score amplifies the moment with a comic flourish. Then the tone shifts dramatically, and Wayne and Hunter both become ruthless and bullying, scaring her away. Later, they find her body in a Comanche camp that has been wiped out by American soldiers, and you can feel their sense of loss. All the same, this passage seemed unnecessarily cruel to me. But the last time I saw The Searchers, the picture seemed even greater than ever, and it’s not that the scene had stopped troubling me; in fact, it troubled me on an even deeper level. In truly great films — the ones that people need to make, the ones that start speaking through them, the ones that keep moving into territory that is more and more unfathomable and uncomfortable — nothing’s ever simple or neatly resolved. You’re left with a mystery. In this case, the mystery of a man who spends 10 years of his life searching for someone, realizes his goal, brings her back and then walks away. Only an artist as great as John Ford would dare to end a film on such a note. In its final moment, The Searchers suddenly becomes a ghost story. Ethan’s sense of purpose has been fulfilled, and like the man whose eyes he’s shot out, he’s destined to wander forever between the winds.
This story first appeared in the March 15, 2013 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.
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