The Searchers (1956)
Director: John Ford
John Wayne always played John Wayne. That’s the criticism leveled against him by most film historians. In the Searchers however, he is not the cozy patriarchal hero he portrayed most of his career, but a racist, obsessed, hate filled force of nature. It is the most self aware John Wayne role that Marion Morrison (the Duke’s real name) ever portrayed. The inspiration for this casting came when John Ford saw Wayne’s performance in Howard Hawk’s “Red River” in which Wayne played a similarly obsessed character who becomes the defacto villain of the movie with his single minded obsession of driving a herd to its destination regardless of the human cost of the endeavor. As legend has it, upon seeing the movie Ford called up Hawks and said in effect “I never knew the big son of a bitch could act…”
The plot of the movie revolves around a kidnapping which occurs early on, where the niece of the Wayne character, Ethan Edwards is taken in an Indian raid. This movie deals a lot of with the horrific racism of both the western movie genre, and white American in general. John Ford, to his credit, does not glorify this racism, but uses his biggest movie star to show how ugly and chilling it can be. Edwards, a returned confederate soldier, and Martin (half Indian himself) go out in search of young Debbie, a search that takes them through several years, which stretches the movies timeline out to an epic length. There are scenes with their withered faces tracking through the snow, but the entire time each man has fire in his eyes. The most memorable scene in the movie is the confrontation between Edwards and Martin where they argue over what should happen when they finally do find Debbie. The Wayne character argues that they will have to kill her, since she has been corrupted and brainwashed by the savage race of the Indians. Ford again, is brutally honest in his depiction of the racism at this time that saw this entire race of people, as something other than people, but animals in need of eradication.
Jeffrey Hunter, who plays Martin, has a very challenging job not getting blown off the screen by Wayne’s presence and his outstanding performance, but he more than lives up to the task and is very sympathetic as the humanist tipping point of the film, and the fulcrum upon which the viewers hope for some kind of a happy ending rest. The cinematography is gorgeous, the landscapes are stunning, the story is gripping, and the acting is mesmerizing. When it comes to ranking Westerns in my opinion, The Searchers belongs on a separate list than everything else in the genre. A special film for both technical and social reasons