Film Diary: The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)

Monday, 25 August 2008

The Searchers

It’s so easy to poke fun at John Wayne. He’s such an inviting target; his bone-headed stubbornness, his neanderthal attitudes, his apparently wooden acting. What’s harder is trying to explain how it is he turns up in so many excellent films, and not in minor roles either. Stagecoach and Red River are up there with the greats of any genre, and so is The Searchers.

The history of the Western has been about the America of the European settlers coming to terms with what it has done: what it has destroyed as much as what it has achieved. It’s been a hard lesson to learn, especially as the awful realisation of what was visited on the people who were already there. John Wayne fits into this history perfectly. He’s the embodiment of Manifest Destiny; the pioneer who ain’t gonna let nobody stand in the way of his fortune; the man who takes just what he wants and blasts away anybody who gets in his way. Even his own brother, if his brother has the woman he wants.

And he really hates Injuns. He lost his mother to them. He hates the red man so much that, when he comes back late from the Civil War and finds that his brother’s family have adopted as their own the part-Cherokee boy Marty, the look he gives would freeze whiskey in the full heat of noon in Monument Valley. He hates them so much that he shoots them in the back as they ride away from him. Some Hero of the Old West! He’s even determined to kill the niece he and Marty have been tracking for five years, taken by the Comanche, because she’s become assimilated with them.

Sure, it’s a dreadful thing that the Comanche torch the settlers’ homesteads with the settlers inside and abduct the children. But it’s also pretty bloody awful for the US Cavalry to charge through a tepee village on sight massacring men, women and children alike. And in the end it’s the Comanche who come out of The Searchers smelling sweeter. In 1956 America was waking up to what it had done to its indigenous people, The Searchers still has a touch of moral ambiguity about it, but the Western has come some way from Red River a few years earlier where cutting the throat of an Indian was no obstacle to being family entertainment.

It’s the ambiguity that made the ending, which I won’t give away, such a disappointment for me. It’s undoubtedly a great film, but for now it must yield to Red River the title of My Favourite Western.

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