2012 Poll Rank: #7
As the 1950s rolled around, the Western genre had exploded across the cultural landscape. Radio serials such as Gunsmoke made their way onto television, which, as a young medium, held a lot of potential for visually telling these serialized stories. Director John Ford was - and still is - best known for his contributions to the genre (trivia note: despite this, none of his four directing Oscar wins were for Westerns), particularly 1939's Stagecoach and 1950's Rio Grande. John Wayne was at the height of his popularity, and by now he had cemented himself as not just as America's favorite cowboy, but also as America's only cowboy. Wayne and Ford had collaborated on 21 films over the span of their respective careers, but 1956's The Searchers is frequently as their greatest.
The Searchers was Ford's attempt at what would later be called the "revisionist Western." Ford was interesting in creating a Western that addressed the racial issues between white settlers and Native Americans. The Searchers, adapted from a novel of the same name by Alan Le May, would feature a bigoted former Confederate soldier, Ethan Edwards (Wayne), looking for the Comanches who took his daughter alongside is part-Native American adopted nephew Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter). The two would stand in contrast of one another, depicting the racism of old giving way to newer, more accepting attitudes.
Did he succeed? Somewhat, with very marginal results.
In the context of the 21st century, there are enormous racial problems (which I'll discuss further down). However, for a Western in 1956, The Searchers is remarkably forward-thinking. Ethan is first seen framed inside a doorway, a man who's been left behind by the times (he still carries his Confederate saber, even though the war is long over) and his own seething hatred. As the film progresses, Ethan is shown becoming increasingly more brutal until, in the final climactic showdown with the Comanche chief Scar (Henry Brandon), he scalps the chief, thus performing an act commonly associated with the "savage" Native Americans. The film's final shot frames Ethan leaving the rescued family, again framed in the doorway, removed from their comfort and returning to wilderness. At this point, he can no longer function in society.
There's no denying that Ethan is a remarkably complex character, reflecting moral quandaries that most Westerns were more than happy to gloss over in favor of cowboys-vs.-Indians (or, rather, "us vs. them") narratives. But The Searchers doesn't exactly condemn him, nor his way of thinking. One moment, he's more than willing to kill his captured niece (played by Natalie Wood) because she declares herself "one of them," but the next he's cradling her in his arms, and she's glad to have been rescued by him. Everyone around Ethan knows that he's taking things too far, but no one ever stands in his way. A major facet of this problem is that Ethan is played by Wayne; as a major box-office draw, Wayne - and the studio - couldn't afford to let Ethan come across as completely unlikable (though Wayne himself would later have some very negative things to say about race). Though he does teeter on the edge at several points, Ethan ultimately comes across ambiguously, allowing the audience to either cheer him as a hero (as AFI did for their "100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains" list) or view him as a man consumed by hate.
The biggest issue is in the film's representation of Native Americans. The only two Native American characters in the film with speaking parts - Scar and Martin - are played by white actors. Every other Native American character onscreen is silent and without personality. The most appalling example is Look, a Comanche woman that Martin accidentally marries. Look attempts to snuggle up next to Martin at night, only to be kicked by Martin, rolling down the hill to Ethan's boisterous laughter. Within ten minutes of her first appearance, Look is dead, and though the film tries to play this sympathetically, the rampart misogyny demonstrated to her before makes this gesture ring false.
It's impossible to discuss the issue of race without analyzing one of the film's most famous scenes. Ethan and Martin reach a military outpost where a number of women that had been captured by the Comanche are being held. The women are crazed and feral; they are incapable of speaking, instead only capable of making guttural noises. When one of the soldiers remarks how unbelievable it is that these women are white, Ethan responds:
"They ain't white. Not anymore. They're Comanch."The implication here is that, because of their captivity and (presumed) rape at the hands of the Comanche, they've become "savages" themselves. Ethan glares at these women with a look of disdain; in his eyes, not only are they no longer white, they're no longer human. However, later in the film, when they discover the missing niece in Scar's camp, she's still "white," capable of speaking and behaving "civilly." One could presume that this means that perhaps her captivity has been different, but there's no denying that there's an odd range of tones that the film takes to race (for more on this, I highly recommend this essay from Brenton Priestley).
Of course, Ford was facing an uphill battle in wanting to create a Western that takes a more nuanced approach to race. The very core idea of the Western - the white settler as hero fighting the villainous Native American for the right to the "empty" American West - is inherently racist. But though it doesn't entirely succeed in it's intention, The Searchers did make an effort to address these issues, creating a Western rooting in a tangled morality with no easy solutions.
On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday:" Metropolis (1927)