London: BFI, 2000.
ISBN 0 85170 820 X
Uploaded 25 July 2002
A tricky film, The Searchers (1956). The audience is drawn into identifying with Ethan, played by that icon of Westerns, John Wayne, only to learn to its growing discomfort that our hero is not only a racist, but a hate-filled, sexually frustrated, murderous one. And yet – those who praise the film often pass over this – Ethan’s hatred is earned, it is understandable. Commanches have attacked his brother’s homestead, killed his brother, raped, killed, and probably mutilated his brother’s wife, killed their son, and kidnapped their two daughters. And there are hints of a backstory equally horrendous. Adding to our moral confusion is that his foe, as we learn later, has equally understandable reasons to hate white people. We may be unsure whether we should consider Ethan as bad as Scar or Scar as heroic as Ethan, but to experience the film fully we must see them as both. They are heroic and they are evil, locked into an eternal chain of atrocity and reprisal, where the reprisal becomes a new atrocity which has to be avenged.
Critics love the film, ranking it high on all-time lists, and it has influenced numerous directors. But when one sees it referenced or recalled in films like Star Wars (US 1977), Ulzana’s Raid (US 1972), Mean Streets (US 1973), Hardcore (US 1979), or Dances with Wolves (US 1990), one wonders what has been learned, just as one is almost always disappointed by the diminished suspense and sense of humanity in films called Hitchcockian. The Searchers is a difficult film, one that has needed a close reading for some time.
Edward Buscombe supplies a close reading, and a learned one, in this edition of the British Film Institute’s series of monographs on individual classic films. He wrote an earlier series monograph on Stagecoach, and he is editor of The BFI Companion to the Western. His knowledge of Westerns is vast, but he wears it lightly, using it as context or adornment for his descriptions of individual shots, scenes, characters, settings, or plot points, always quickly returning to the film.
Buscombe describes and interprets the famous opening scene of Ethan’s arrival at his brother’s house, but rather than just point to its emotional impact and its mirroring at the end of the film, he explores something most viewers might not have noticed. Shots from inside a shelter looking out on the wilderness occur a full nine times in the film. When Buscombe explores the difficulty of pinpointing the precise length of the search for Debbie, he notes that Ford’s liberal use of dissolves enhances our sense of an epic search. And he offers further that the physical environment, Monument Valley filmed with more cinematic reverence than ever before, suggests another level of time, a vast geological one. In The Searchers, Buscombe helps us see the wilderness which diminishes human endeavors is awesome in four dimensions. When he mentions the close-up of Ethan’s shadowed face as Ethan imagines the impending slaughter of his brother’s family, Buscombe suggests that this and other close-ups of such a “monumentally self-sufficient figure” help us feel pity and sympathy for him despite ourselves.
Buscombe’s embellishments include information about family relationships among the cast and crew, changes from novel to script to film, the influence of western literature and paintings on the film, allusion to Manifest Destiny, Freudian interpretations, and the origin of the Texas Rangers. The endnotes add further enrichments, from summaries of other interpretations of shots or scenes to the full lyrics of the film’s two main theme songs.
Buscombe’s concluding tribute to the film is that The Searchers makes claims not only on our eyes or feelings but also on our minds. He writes that Ford had set out to make a film on the perennial American problem of race. The film’s moral conscience is the brave but reasonable and psychologically healthy Marty, who is of mixed race and is a better man than Ethan. But the greatness of the film, Buscombe writes, lies in the contradictions in Ethan, a brutal racist whom we pity.
This almost nails it, but not quite, for our own moral quandary is not fully acknowledged in Buscombe’s tribute. In terms of the film, we not only pity Ethan, we need him – a most disconcerting thought which Buscombe avoids probing or even mentioning. The film does not permit us an honest distancing from what Ethan represents. It compels us to accept our complicity in it or to lie to ourselves. This is at the heart of the film’s greatness. But if Buscombe pulls up short at the end, he has nevertheless produced a loving and careful study, well-written and concise, the best piece on The Searchers yet.