Even if you don’t like Westerns, there are at least four or five that must be seen by any civilized person, and since John Ford indisputably made the finest of them all in that most profoundly American genre, one of his would have to be at the top. Which to choose of the 20-odd Western features surviving from the approximately 60 he made between 1917 and 1964, when he directed his last of them? My Darling Clementine (1946)? Fort Apache (1947)? Rio Grande (1950)? The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)? Well, certainly high among the contenders for the crown would be Mr. Ford’s deeply ambiguous, disturbing post-Civil War domestic tragedy set in Texas during the Indian Wars of the late 1860’s, filmed in Technicolor and VistaVision less than a hundred years later, in 1956, starring America’s most enduringly popular Western star, John Wayne, and based on Alan LeMay’s excellent novel, THE SEARCHERS (available on DVD).
The irony is that in its own day—-now over half a century ago—-The Searchers, while a successful box-office attraction, was nowhere considered among the premier in its field. Here it was mainly taken for granted, as usual with our most traditional aspects; just another quite good John Wayne-John Ford Western, at a period when Wayne’s right-wing Republican politics were beginning wrongly to color certain people’s view of liberal Democrat Jack Ford’s movies. Nevertheless, seen from the truer perspective of time, The Searchers stands not only among the very best, but also among the final Western masterworks of the movies’ golden age. Reinforcing my point, on the commemorative postage stamp the U.S. is soon issuing as a tribute to Ford is an image drawn from this film.
The picture begins with the classiest Western opening of all, a black screen becoming a door that opens from within a home to the red desert outside this settlers’ house as the whole family—-father, mother, three children (two daughters, one son) and a dog—-walk onto the porch while a lone horseman rides up from the gigantic red buttes in the far distance. The rider is the father’s long-absent brother, Ethan Edwards (Wayne), returned for the first time since the end of the Civil War, three years previous, during which Ethan was on the side of the Confederacy, a loner who has spent the bitter years since then fighting as a hired gun in Mexico. What is conveyed in a few small private moments is that Ethan is chastely in love with his brother’s wife, and she with him, though neither would think of showing it in any overt way.
There is the alarm of a Comanche uprising, and Ethan rides off with the sheriff’s posse to check on a nearby ranch. While he and the others are gone, Comanches attack Ethan’s brother’s house, brutally murdering the man and his young son, raping and killing the beloved wife and teenage daughter, abducting the eight-year-old little girl, burning down the house from which we have emerged so recently to begin this story of Ethan’s subsequent ten-year search. He and an adopted “quarter-breed” (Jeffrey Hunter) become the searchers not only to find the kidnapped young niece but also to avenge the terrible deaths by executing the destroyer, a proud and virile Comanche chief, who will become the child’s husband. The search is both love-and-vengeance ridden and racial.
The saga that ensues is remarkably vivid, filled with incident, superbly composed, emotionally complicated, often darkly funny, deeply moving. That Ethan’s obsessive fury and hatred in some way turns against the young victim as well is among the most troubling aspects of the story, resolved by Ford (at odds with the novel) in one of the most profoundly touching moments in picture history. The ironic theme of the work, spoken by settler Olive Carey, is that all the sufferings these “Texicans” (read Americans) must endure will make it possible for future generations to live in harmony and peace. Although Ethan succeeds in his quest, at the end another settler’s door closes on him walking away toward horse and desert as alone as ever; thus concluding John Ford’s penultimate poetic landmark of the West that has shaped us, that haunts us still as both history and myth.