The Searchers

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

26 May

John Wayne born, 1907

On this day in 1907, Marion Robert Morrison was born, in Winterset, Iowa, USA. He was named after the Civil War veteran Marion Mitchell Morrison, and the young Marion’s middle name would be switched in favour of Mitchell when his parents decided to name their next son Robert. In any event Marion preferred the nickname Duke, which he picked up from his Airedale terrier pet, Duke – young Marion was initially Little Duke. Morrison went to the University of Southern California to study pre-law on a football scholarship, but a broken collarbone picked up while bodysurfing put paid to any hopes of playing football, and his university career too. Instead he started working at local film studio, in the props department before going on to pick up a few bit parts.

He became friendly with director John Ford, who gave him work, but got his first starring role from Raoul Walsh, in 1930’s The Big Trail, though on Ford’s recommendation. Walsh also suggested the name change to John Wayne. The Big Trail, a big budget widescreeen epic, was a big bomb but it got Wayne noticed in the industry and he worked solidly in “poverty row” westerns for the next nine years until his breakthrough with John Ford and Stagecoach, in 1939. It made Wayne a star and he would remain one until he died 40 years later.

Wayne did not serve during the Second World War, a fact he would later deeply regret, and which could always be used to call into question his increasingly strident patriotism – Wayne would turn down films if he thought them “unpatriotic”. The 1940s and 1950s was Wayne’s heyday, though he carried on playing “men’s men” right to the end – a cowboy, a pilot, a military man, a boxer, a detective, a sportsman, a vigilante, a gunman, a quencher of wildcat oil fires and Genghis Khan (not entirely successfully). In the Top Ten Money Makers Polls printed annually in the International Motion Picture Almanac – the truest real reflection of a star’s box office power – Wayne is still the actor with the most appearance, featuring on the list for 25 years.

The Searchers (1956, dir: John Ford)

John Ford’s The Searchers is a film that critics return to again and again. Not only because it features one of John Wayne’s best performances, and John Ford’s most iconic depiction of Monument Valley, but because the character at its centre is such an asshole. At a time when westerns were becoming increasingly revisionist, showing that the Indian or Native American was as much sinned against as sinning, The Searchers seemed to attempt to push this more enlightened view back into its box.

The story is about Wayne’s Ethan Edwards searching for his niece (Natalie Wood), who has been kidnapped by the Comanches. He’s not out to rescue her though, he’s out to kill her, because she has become contaminated through exposure to Comanche ways. She’s become a redskin’s squaw – “The leavings of a Comanche buck” as Edwards puts it. What critics want to know is – what sort of a film are we watching? Is it a revenge thriller with sheer nastiness at its core? Or is it the journey of a bitter bigot towards redemption?

Some people will always conflate the depiction of something with an endorsement of that thing, and in the case of The Searchers, about a racist killer hunting down a defenceless young woman who has been kidnapped, the suggestion regularly seems to be that the film is an endorsement of racism and the killing of the blameless. It isn’t, though in the shape of Ethan Edwards we are certainly being shown a man who doesn’t like Injuns. Is Edwards a psychopath, as Edwards’s travelling companion, the part-Comanche Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) increasingly comes to believe? It’s possible, though Ford and Wayne set up Edwards’s character so tenderly – he’s in love with his wife’s brother but only his eyes betray his emotion – that it takes us a while to realise that Edwards is not a representation of civilised society, in the way western heroes often are. Instead he’s an outsider, an obsessive whose side lost in the Civil War and is now busy consumed by another battle, and again he’s on the wrong side.

For his part Wayne does what a man’s gotta do, and gives the lie to those who insist he can’t act – he’s as monumental as anything in Monumental Valley here, but with Wayne it’s all about the narrowing of the eyes. On a big screen easily read from the back in the dark, what more needs to be done? Wayne perfected the style of acting that Clint Eastwood would later borrow, and in The Searchers we also see the development of a style that Sergio Leone would appropriate – big, operatic, unafraid to take it slow, visually driven, iconic. The Searchers is a screen-grab sort of movie, in other words, and as it builds towards its climax, and Edwards closes in on his quarry after seven years of searching (two hours of screen time), the film itself becomes monumental. It’s no surprise that Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese referenced it relentlessly in their Taxi Driver.

Why Watch?

  • The definitive John Ford film
  • The definitive John Wayne movie
  • Winton C Hoch’s cinematography
  • Its continuing influence

The Searchers – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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