the searchers (1956)
In a short list of films that can be called perfect, John Ford's The Searchers stands tall near the top. A picture of such unabashed poetry that it could only be crafted by someone who'd spit at the word 'poet'. The Searchers balances its twin worlds with ease. When our characters are out in the wild sands and snows of the American frontier, they carry with them the warm glow of home, the family unit. When inside the home, they carry with them the world-weary and weathered faces of life in untamed country. The savage brutality of frontier life isn't really ever depicted in any tangible way, rather we see it in the characters' faces, we see it in each hard look, each grizzled glance. We see and recognize these people are no strangers to death. This is the most phenomenal aspect of Ford's direction here, his revelations. Each major beat is communicated to us by reaction. Early in the picture when the homestead, which has since been our only world in the film, is surrounded, attack is imminent, Ford does not reveal the attackers, but Lucy's scream as the camera dollies forward says it all. Ethan verbalizes the approach when asked about the state of Lucy's body upon discovery, he angrily growls "what do you want me to do, draw you a picture? Spell it out?". Men hungry for vengeance have had too many savage experiences, men like Ethan have seen too much, been dehumanized. Ford posits, men hungry for the gory details of depravity simply have seen too little of it. Ford, a veteran of the second world war, naturally makes noble the hard men who roam and plays up the essential naïveté of the men who stay home. He does not cast this judgement lightly, nor even cast much judgement at all at the end of the day, though it is present. The subtlety by which Ford conveys Ethan's contradictions is admirable in its simplicity. Early in the film, Comanche are referenced as savages (by one such naive young character) in several offhand remarks, namely that they killed the cattle "not for food" as well as their penchant for taking scalps, making trophies of white women. By the finale, Ethan has engaged in both, senselessly killing buffalo in a rage, and later emerging from Scar's tent clutching the scalp of a chief who, in fact, Ethan only found dead at the hands of another man.
Ethan as enigmatic figure, a character of contradiction, commands much of Ford's attention. Time ages us, can make us bitter and angry depending on what we've spent time doing and what it's done to us. When the south lost the war, Ethan keeps his oath "to the confederate states of America", doesn't show face at the surrender because he doesn't believe in them. When Debbie and Lucy go missing it is impossible to discern whether Ethan deeply cares or simply feels fulfilled at the prospect of another cause to get behind, another reason to fight, another enemy. When presented initially with "half-breed", Marty, Ethan makes it clear he doesn't see the boy as kin, but when the two ride together as men for 5 years, Ethan finds himself divorcing from the idea that the now tainted Debbie is kin and sees Martin as surrogate son, even bequeathing all of his worldly possessions to him. Loyalties, whether they be to cause or kin or lover or tribe or cavalry, all are given their time in The Searchers; all are tested. Another of the great strengths that Ford imbues here is the confirmation that within men there exists multiple uniforms of loyalty. Ward Bond's Sam must constantly clarify whether he is speaking as Reverend Clayton or Captain Clayton. Perhaps it's this very notion of things vested that The Searchers deconstructs best. Each of our characters seems endlessly caught up in the series of groups, each at odds with the other. Ethan can speak freely of his deeds to Reverend Clayton, but plays hard ball when speaking to Captain Clayton. Life is simple for the characters who do not roam, because they lead only one life and never need to question it. For those who leave bed and board, they find only life's endless complexities of belief systems, uniforms and labels, hatred towards the 'others' and a questioning of their own foundational belief systems. Ethan has been demoralized, no longer seeing the difference between right and wrong by any measure of creed or law, seeing all in accordance with custom. Ford's camera tells us all that we would ever need to know that isn't written on our performers' faces. For the first act, it barely leaves the home, instead showing us the outside world through doorways, even when characters like Marty enter from outside, or Brad and Lucy are caught kissing out back, the camera is still indoors. Ford later recurs this any time there is safety or home invoked. Structurally, Ford continues to diverge the two worlds, as the film reaches its poetic and dramatic apex it is instantly followed by its most comedic with the wedding sequence. Here, all dramatic and brutal tensions of the preceding scenes are broken as the home becomes once again illuminated as a place of dancing, comradery and shaking hands after a fist fight with no bitin' or gougin'. The Searchers displays such mastery of genre as to simultaneously become the epitome of the western as well as consistently step out of the genre without any break in narrative and thematic flow. The pieces of the puzzle to converge at the wedding sequence have been just as carefully laid as the pieces that converge for the film's true climax. In fact, The Searchers final act seems to be a series of climactic moments, each strong enough to carry a picture on their own, but here given to us in rapid succession.
The Searchers stands as the great, oft imitated and never surpassed, Hollywood western. It has all of the intoxicating appeal of Ford's earlier work in the genre but holds within itself a deep existential yearning for answers to the questions of its history. This is the defining element that separates it from the rest and places it in the pantheon of great American films. With The Searchers, Ford pieces together the imagery and touchstones of a national identity, usually so ingrained in the gloss that they go unnoticed, and brings them to the forefront. The Searchers does not have heroes and villains, The Searchers has human beings caught in a world they did not create and are struggling to make their way in. Perhaps the real face of the film is Debbie. Beginning as a young settler girl in a blue dress, ending as a Comanche woman in pink, her face painted, her hair tied off. The image we are left with is Ethan, still roaming, still inhibited, unable to enter the home of a new family that he doesn't consider himself kin to, walking off toward the horizon in search of another cause, forced to wander forever between the winds. All true, but the true statement by Ford as The Searches closes may actually be found in Debbie. As one who has lived two lives already in her short life, she now crosses the threshold of a third. In some ways she is coming home, in others she has lost her home. How truthful was she being when she told Martin "these are my people"? How hesitant she looks before stepping inside. She, like Ethan, now roams.