Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Searchers (1956)

The Searchers (1956)

Classics are really hit and miss with me. While I can usually appreciate why a film gets heaped with praise, I don't often go gaga over them. To me, 'To Kill a Mockingbird' is eminently re-watchable. 'Citizen Kane', not so much. Western 'The Wild Bunch' is a landmark action film, but I wasn't really blown away by it. Which is why I approached 'The Searchers', also a Western, with a little trepidation. I'm happy to say that John Ford and John Wayne's much lauded classic falls into the 'classics I truly enjoyed' category.

The story takes place after the American Civil War - Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), who was on the losing Confederate side, returns to his brother's ranch to settle down. He doesn't get to rest for long however, because a group of Comanche Indians raids the farm and kidnaps his niece, killing everyone else. He sets out on a quest to get her back, a quest that involves tracking the Comanche tribe led by the dangerous Chief Scar (Henry Brandon) for half a decade. Ethan is joined in his travels by Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), a young man raised by the slaughtered family who is part Indian whom Ethan rescued when he was still a baby. Martin leaves behind his sweetheart Laurie (Vera Miles) during his quest, and she wrestles with the notion of waiting for him to get back or marrying someone else instead.

Sounds straightforward enough; only, the catch is that the hero of the piece, Ethan Edwards, is a fairly violent, morally reprehensible, and completely racist individual. So much so that he detests his 1/8th Indian companion, and worries about the possible assimilation of his niece into the Comanche tribe. It becomes evident that one of Martin's main concern besides saving Debbie is ensuring that Ethan's goal is also to rescue her and bring her back, and not anything more sinister. Like killing her.

There's an ambiguity and complexity to Ethan Edwards that grabs your attention from the get go. He's iconic, embodying all of the classic traits of the cowboy hero - stoic, terse, fearless, and resolute. He's also detestable, yet sympathetic at the same time. We know that there's a reason for his hatred, and throughout the course of their long pursuit we are shown flashes of humanity in him. He gains a grudging respect for and is influenced by the more progressive Martin, and their relationship - which is often quite humourous - brings to the fore their disparate ideals and also serves as a lifeline for Ethan to gain, if not redemption, some measure of tolerance. John Wayne is superb in the role, and his performance has been described by many as his best (I wouldn't know, but I'll definitely be checking out some of his other celebrated films). Embodying a Western hero was probably second nature to him, but embodying one that is subtle, conflicted, and repugnant while making him likable is probably not.

Jeffrey Hunter forms the other half of the duo, and his Martin character is in many ways the opposite to Ethan. Less of a masculine man's man, he talks a lot and is a voice of reason and tolerance. Hunter is excellent in the role, starting the film full of youthful bluster and gaining a measure of maturity by the end while still bearing an air of resentment and indignation towards Ethan throughout. Both characters are driven by individual motivations in their quest, but despite their differences both of their opposing personalities are essential towards driving the film to its conclusion and iconic final scene.

While ostensibly an adventure film and character study, it is also seemingly far more complex, being an examination of the change of America from a wild frontier country to a more stable society (also an aspect of the terrific HBO series Deadwood). It's a society born through struggle, in which Ethan and Martin represent the old and the new respectively, together moving through a volatile transition; a transition that requires the likes of Martin but ultimately has no place for him. He's a necessary evil of sorts, one whose set in stone beliefs are counter to the required compromise needed to move society forward.

Race and racism is a theme prevalent in 'The Searchers', and racism is something the film itself has been accused of for its portrayal of the Indians (i.e. Native Americans to the overly PC). While there is undoubtedly an element of stereotyping on display, the film is less an exploration of both sides and more an introspective look at one side - the whites - with the Indians depicted from their point of view. At the same time there are plenty of signs that the film is about acceptance of diversity. Ethan's racism is hardly depicted as a positive attribute; Martin is part Indian and a voice of restraint; Scar's actions while cruel and violent are put within the context of the cycle of violence in which virtually everyone is inextricably entangled; most tellingly, there's a scene in which Ethan and Martin come upon an Indian camp that has been massacred, where Martin questions what they (or one person in particular) ever did to deserve such a fate.

Despite being only two hours long, the film feels suitably epic and conveys the extent of the protagonists' journey while never slowing down or dragging. Part of this passage of time is depicted via scenes taking place at Laurie's home with her family, where she pines for Martin while hearing from him very intermittently (we're talking years here, which puts the concept of today's 'long distance relationship' to shame). These scenes are probably the weakest bits of the film, but are effective in adding to the social milieu that the film represents. Another occasional weak point is the humour, some of which is a bit too broad and seems almost forced.

John Ford's film is a contemplative one, quietly observant of society and individuals, and there's always a lot going on within a given scene. Characters, even minor ones, have an aura of depth and off screen life. The films visuals are a major facet, incorporating some stunning vistas and compositions. While there are only a few big set pieces, the action scenes are incredible, and you know there's not a hint of CGI on the screen when you see them. Genuinely deep and subtle, while also exciting and entertaining, 'The Searchers' is a masterpiece and easily sits alongside 'Unforgiven' as one of the few Westerns that I feel compelled to re-watch.

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